UC co-op students earned a record $66 million

Recent graduates that came to the University of Cincinnati for co-op give it credit for their professional successes

Brianna Karelin has loved bridges for as long as she can remember. Her childhood family vacations often included detours to check out the local spans, and she never really grew out of it. She interned with the Ohio Department of Transportation and a county engineer’s office while she was still in high school. And when she visited job sites, she knew she was looking into her own future.

Karelin, CEAS ’18, already knew how powerful experience-based learning was when she applied to the University of Cincinnati. She knew she wanted to be a part of UC’s co-op program, so much so that she didn’t bother even applying anywhere else.

Cooperative education was born at UC. When then-College of Engineering Dean Herman Schneider introduced the idea to the UC Board of Trustees in 1906, they only gave it the most tepid of endorsements, even going so far as to put on the record that it wasn’t their fault if co-op didn’t work. Flash-forward to 2017: By the end of the academic year, UC co-op students had raked in record-setting earnings, more than $66 million. Having spending money is great, but for many students, it’s only one facet of the value of cooperative education.

Karelin was already aware of Schneider and the history of co-op when she chose UC. “I loved that UC has co-op advisors,” she says. “Their job is to get you a job, essentially. Obviously, they’re not going to do the legwork for you, but that’s what their world revolves around. I loved having that person to be my advocate and help me through the transition into a more official work position from my internships.” Karelin’s co-op opportunities let her learn more about her passion, working on bridges of all sizes during her first three co-op experiences as she pursued her construction management degree — from small, single-span overpasses in Pennsylvania to the billion-dollar Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville, Kentucky.

She spent her final two co-op semesters within spitting distance of the Golden Gate Bridge, but her work in San Francisco instead introduced her to a new industry. Helix Electric, an electrical design firm that installs systems in new constructions with offices throughout the United States, had been wooing her since their first meeting at a job fair during her freshman year. “We can teach you electrical, but we can’t teach you interpersonal skills,” she recalls being told. “We can’t teach you work ethic. You need to come work for us.” Reluctantly, she accepted a co-op with Helix, despite her relationship with electricity — or lack thereof. “Electricity? Yeah, I charge my phone every night,” she says. “That’s about the extent of it.”  

She got off to a frustrating, humbling start learning about her new world of voltage, rough-ins (the running of wiring and such) and Ohm’s law. “I had to work twice as hard as I’ve ever worked — and I’ve always worked hard — because I just didn’t want to be at the bottom. I didn’t want to be at the same knowledge level as a first-time co-op coming in.”

A challenging project gave Karelin the opportunity to show the Helix folks that she was well ahead of the curve, despite her inexperience in electrical work. Her boss instructed her to create a process for putting everything needed for the rough-in for one room in a box, as well as a logistics plan for getting the boxes staged at their destination construction sites that would minimize the amount they’d need to be moved after delivery.

“I told my boss, ‘I can give you something that works in a week or two, or I can give you something amazing in a month,’” Karelin recalls. After getting the go-ahead, she used the extra time to visit Helix’s prefabrication shops and job sites, observing the work and interacting with workers. She learned about the forms used to place orders and the reasons errors occurred. She identified the logjams in Helix’s existing procedures. It was only after she understood the full process that Karelin went about the task of improving it.

She designed an elegant color-coded system that automatically populates purchase order forms and greatly increases the amount of work that can be prefabricated before it arrives at the work site. By plugging in the needs of a given job site, her system can efficiently and without error generate everything needed for a given box. Karelin likens it to creating an a la carte system for gym shoes. “I want the logo this color. I want it to have a non-slip sole. I want it to be leather, as opposed to canvas. I want it to have these shoestrings,” she explains. “I did that with electrical boxes.”

Karelin’s system minimized purchasing errors and maximized the efficiency of electricians installing the rough-in. “Forms and paperwork that used to take weeks — if not months — to complete can now be formalized in a couple of days to a week,” says Eric Serna, a senior project manager with Helix. “The ability for someone to come into the electrical industry with no prior knowledge and, within eight months, completely change how we have been functioning for the past seven years is beyond impressive.”

Her improvements are being rolled out to Helix work sites around the country, saving the company millions. After she finished her second co-op semester with them, the company had no intention of losing her to another employer after she graduated. They kept the courtship going, allowing her to work remotely at her co-op pay rate while she finished her coursework in Cincinnati. They let her write part of her own job description (the draft she received from them was labeled “the Brianna hybrid position”). Now she’s the liaison between job sites and prefabrication shops, constantly searching for ways to improve their processes.

Karelin came to UC because of co-op, and co-op afforded her the opportunity to see different parts of the country while she tackled new challenges. Wherever she was, she made sure to make an impact. That includes at UC. “Her resume is impressive, but I think it is important to finish with what a great human being she is,” says Jill Flood, UC assistant professor of construction management and Karelin’s co-op adviser. “It has been such a pleasure to work with her over the last five years. I have never had a student who has taken advantage of what is offered more fully than Brianna. She has demonstrated a commitment to a very difficult program and has excelled both in and out of the classroom.”

But now that college is behind her and her professional career is getting started, she’s glad to finally put down some roots.

“I’ve moved every four months for three or four years,” she says. “I want to hang some stuff on the walls now.”


Celebrating Co-op Successes

When David Barham graduated from high school in 2012, he had a plan. He knew that his future depended on a college education, but unlike some of his classmates, Barham opted not to go straight from high school to higher education. It was only after a year of working and saving that Barham put his plan into action. Like Karelin, he applied to only one school, the University of Cincinnati. The reason: Co-op.

“Once I became a co-op, I could live off of my co-op earnings,” he says. “It allowed me to pay my way through school all out of pocket with no debt.” Co-op meant more than money to Barham, though. It meant having a full-time job awaiting him when he was done with his degree in information technology. Barham spent all five of his co-op semesters with Mitsubishi Electric, where management saw his potential early on and asked him to continue working. Barham gladly obliged, having worked with people he liked and gaining increased responsibilities each time he returned. Before he graduated in spring 2018, Barham had been hired full-time as a business analyst.

Spending each and every co-op semester with the same employer isn’t typical. Many students make a point of spending each semester with a different employer to figure out their likes and dislikes. That’s what Emily Adams did while she pursued her bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture. Filled with wanderlust, the Cincinnati native had originally wanted to attend college in New Orleans, but her mother applied to UC on her behalf. Adams finally relented when her grandfather asked her why she would leave Cincinnati when “we have one of the best architecture schools in our backyard?”

“I’m so glad I stayed. It’s been great. No complaints,” Adams says. “Really, what got me to decide to stay was co-op. I told myself that I would go to New Orleans for a co-op instead of going there full-time for school, and it gave me the opportunity to actually jump around more than if I’d just gone to a different university.” And jump around she did: Adams spent each of her five co-op semesters with different employers of all sizes in different regions of the country. With each co-op experience, Adams saw her market value increase, going up from about $13 per hour at her first co-op to $30 per hour in her fifth. After graduating in spring 2018, Adams is headed to Los Angeles to work with Walt Disney Imagineering, where she’ll work alongside another UC grad, fellow DAAP alum Michael Brown, on designing an expansion for a Disney theme park in Tokyo. Just as it had been during her co-ops, UC’s reputation had already preceded her.

“Companies hold UC in high regard. There have been times when people have pulled me aside and told me that they prefer to hire UC students because they think we’re just better suited for the position,” says Adams. “I think that’s because of our previous co-ops. We know how to run the plotters. We know how to communicate effectively — the skills that you don’t really learn at school, you pick up throughout co-op. And then kind of vice versa at school, things that I’ve learned at co-op I can use in my classwork. It makes for a richer environment because I have skills other people don’t have, and vice versa. We can work together to make a stronger unit.”

That’s what Kaitlin Burnam found when she went to co-op at L3 Cincinnati Electronics, where she estimates that UC co-op students — and particularly students from the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ ACCEND program — outnumbered co-ops from other institutions by 10 to 1. “We definitely had overwhelming numbers,” she recalls. Burnam, who graduated with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer engineering in spring 2018, knew a full year before she graduated where she’d be working after college. Burnam was offered and accepted a full-time job with L3 after completing three co-op semesters there.

“The return on investment going here is so good,” Burnam says. “You co-op while you’re here, you get a good job when you come out, you’re paying in-state tuition.

“Seeing my friends that didn’t go here and didn’t do co-op trying to get started after graduation, they’ve all definitely not had an easy of a time as I had. I knew exactly what I was doing three weeks after graduation. I’m very grateful for that.”

Morgan Beer didn’t meet her employer through co-op while she pursued her degree in biomedical engineering, but she certainly credits co-op with helping her prepare for life after college. When Beer applied for Johnson & Johnson’s Global Operations Leadership Development program, she was ready — for better or worse.

“It was stressful. I applied as an external candidate. I put my resume and my application into their online system, and I was just sure it was going to get lost among the thousands of people that applied for this position,” she says. But that’s not what happened. Instead, she got a phone call, which led to a Skype conference, which led to a two-day marathon of interviews and networking. In the end, Beer credits her co-op experiences at UC with giving her the edge over the thousands of candidates she beat out for one of 22 positions in the program.

“Going through different interview processes to get all of the co-ops I had definitely helped, especially during my freshman year,” Beer says. “I got rejected a lot trying to get my first co-op, so just getting through that and realizing it’s not the end of the world when you get rejected helped me a lot.”

Experience the Excellence

The University of Cincinnati is the birthplace of cooperative education. Today's UC students participate in co-op to gain valuable experience, earn money they can use to fund their educations, and prepare for life after graduation by forming relationships with potential employers. Click here to learn more about Experience-based Learning and Career Education at UC.

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