How to make your summer job work

The true value of co-ops and internships

Making your summer job work for you will get you further than you may expect.

The true value of co-ops and internships

I graduated with an honours BA in philosophy, with distinction. It sounded good when they handed me my degree, but now that I’m living in the world of rent, bills and student loans, it means nothing without one little addition: co-op.

I don’t really remember why I chose to be a journalist — probably some romantic fantasy that had me sussing out corruption or reuniting stolen babies with their parents. Whatever the reason, I picked it. So when it came time to start thinking about my future, I saw myself holding a notepad while scratching down quotes of a fraught-looking politician.

Although I hadn’t actually met any reporters, I knew most of them didn’t stumble into their careers without first having attended a few news briefings. So I looked around for places I could do that, and in the process discovered UVic’s Co-operative Education Program.

My five terms in co-op are what transformed me from a good student to one with applicable skills. Because of the summer jobs the program afforded me, I was able to walk out of my (stereotypically useless) degree and straight into a career — and you can, too.

Most colleges and universities around Victoria offer programs like these. They’re meant to flood participants with so many resources (human and otherwise) it’s nearly impossible for you to start the summer without an amazing job, and probably one you’ll remember forever.

Co-op advisers will deconstruct your cover letters and tell you how you can improve them, give you job search tips and take you through mock interviews, and they’ll also give you access to hundreds of exclusive co-op job postings from employers looking specifically for you. One of the papers I interned at, the Whitehorse Star, had hired only UVic Co-op students every summer for the past 30 years. Talk about your leg up.

Co-op seems like a lot of work at first. Advisers make you go to information sessions and fill out countless forms. But when you consider you’re accessing hundreds of companies looking for people short on experience but long on enthusiasm, it’s nothing compared to the reward. Still, UVic Co-op tells students to expect to apply to as many postings as they can. From that, they can hope for maybe one or two job offers, but those stats vary — some students are snapped up right away by employers, while others may not find a job until they’re well into final exam season.

Students willing to move for their four-month internship will see their odds improve. This strategy worked well for me. Knowing I was the greenest of green reporters (I’d written just a few articles for the UVic’s student paper The Martlet) I rightly guessed my chances of being hired at a local paper were nil. So, I looked up Island for work. After an intimidating interview, Black Press hired me to work at three of its community papers that summer. With a base in the beautiful village of Cumberland, I spent three to four weeks at a time writing for weeklies in Courtenay, Parksville and Port Alberni.

The experience gave me skills I couldn’t have learned in the classroom, and it lent me enough cred to apply for a position at a daily the next summer — this time, in the Yukon.

The editors and reporters at the Whitehorse Star treated me as one of their kind. They had me writing copy and snapping photos from day one, and every morning brought new and interesting stories across my desk. I liked it so much, I went back the following year. The second summer was even more valuable than the first. With their justice reporter on leave, my editor entrusted me with her beat. Every day, I literally ran down the block to the courthouse, where I listened in on hearings that would change the lives of everyone involved.

Without these summer jobs, my degree and all the money I spent on it would have made no sense at all. Studying philosophy prepared me to be a thinker, an essayist and a researcher — not a career woman. But I learned enough from my co-op jobs to start a career in this unstable world of journalism. M

Elizabeth Hames is a journalist based in Vancouver. Although her stories haven’t led to any missing babies being returned, she did once help a senior find his scooter.

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