A Blessing and a Curse

It’s a Wednesday night, sometime around when I should go to bed and instead I’m up writing. It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, or written much in general, but I feel like this deserves some time.

Tonight I want to talk about Waterloo co-op (cliché, I know). We always talk about how amazing it is, and it is amazing, but at the same time there is another side to it. A side that we don’t always talk about, but that I think anyone who is thinking of going into a co-op program should think about. This isn’t a rant against co-op, against Waterloo, or even a rant at all, just some of the things I’ve been thinking about over the past year.

I thought about a lot of names for this blog post, but I decided on the eventual title “A Blessing and a Curse”, because I think that sums up the Waterloo co-op experience. We are so lucky here at Waterloo to have access to co-op. I’m currently finishing up my fifth work term, 3rd in the United States, while most people from my high school are working retail jobs to help pay their way through school. Many students in co-op have no debt, pay their own tuition, and actually have disposable income as they go through an engineering degree. This is on top of the fact that a majority of us will graduate with 2 years of work experience. However, as I’ve hinted at, there are downsides to this.

Most schools operate on a simple formula. This involves going to school for 2 consecutive terms (in the states, this can be 3 shorter quarters) in the fall and winter, while having a summer off. You move all your stuff into your apartment/house in September, go home at Christmas, come back in January and move it all out at the end of April.

At Waterloo, things operate a little bit differently. I’m going to use my program, Software Engineering, as a template, but essentially most co-op programs follow a similar mold. In first year you go to school for 8 months, from September to the end of April with Christmas break separating the terms as usual. However, then co-op begins and every 4 months you alternate between doing an internship (or co-op placement, same thing, different name) and going to school. This happens year-round with a small break in-between each term. This break can vary from as small as a few days (a day in some extreme cases), to a couple weeks (Christmas 2014).

So why am I bringing all this up? This is common knowledge to anyone at Waterloo and is fairly normal for any co-op student, but outside of the school it’s almost unheard of. This on-off scheduling is a lot and by a lot I mean it’s a truly a grind.

Since starting at Waterloo, I’ve done all but one of my internships away from Waterloo. This means every 4 months I’ve had to pack up my life, move it back home, re-pack, and then either move it back to Waterloo or to wherever I’m working for the next 4 months. I’ve always had some help from my parents, but it is a lot of work. You don’t realize how much work is involved in moving to a new place, making sure you have everything you need (you will always forget something incredibly important), and getting settled.

Four months may seem like a long time from a distance, but when you are in the middle of it, it will just fly by. By the time you are back at school, you are neck deep in a work-term report, interviews, midterms and then finals seem to just come out of nowhere. It’s stressful, and I mean really stressful. I don’t think I’ve ever felt grounded in my entire time at the university. It’s always felt like fighting the way through a mound of deadlines, whether those are interviews, assignments, etc., but where you can see the end approaching at an alarmingly fast rate.

On co-op, things are generally a lot different. The time that is eaten up by classes is now free for you to do what you want with. But at the same time, there is a good chance you are in a new or foreign city, sometimes with only one or two people you know, and you can get socially disconnected. I’ll say it right now that co-op can be incredibly lonely, especially if you are far away from close friends and family. I’ve experienced this living in the States, and that was in San Francisco and the Seattle area. I can’t imagine how it could be for people working in the middle of nowhere by themselves. I’m sure there is a certain type of personality out there that matches that, but it isn’t for me.

People also like to talk about how co-op is a break. I won’t disagree it is, but at the same time it is the farthest thing from it. You are still working, and in my experience work is actually more exhausting than school. It is a different kind of tired, being significantly less stressful, but most days I get home from work and just want to do nothing (figuratively, not literally). There (usually) is no homework (let’s ignore PD courses as well), but as an intern you don’t usually get paid vacation days like a full-time employee. As a result, I rarely have seen interns take days off, an even then there is sometimes the pressure to make up those extra days.

So, this all goes back to the curse part that I was talking about earlier. As a Waterloo co-op student you never get a break. You are either moving into school, at school, moving into co-op, or working and after 4 years you are exhausted, and are ready to be done. There have been more than a few times that I’ve just wished I could have even an extra week off to catch my breath and spend some real time with friends and family. There is always the option to do another co-op term at home in Toronto, but the amount of missed opportunities to try new things, especially in Software Engineering, is incomparable.

After that the question left open is, is it worth it? I don’t think that is even a question. Co-op is absolutely worth it. Would I ever trade any of this for some extra time off or a little bit more stability? Absolutely not. The breadth and depth of the experiences, both academic and life, that I’ve had on co-op would never have happened if I was in a regular program. At times moving, school, and even work has been absurd (like absolutely moronic), but I’d rather have experienced those now, when I have the opportunity to try new things, rather than have them hit me in the face after I graduate. Without those I would still think California is the only place to be (hint, it isn’t), working at a big tech company is a dream job (it’s fun, but it has downsides too), and moving away from home is easy (it isn’t). Finding things like that out in short 4-month spurts, even if you are miserable, lonely or incredibly stressed out at times, is amazing.

Co-op is a blessing and a curse. I’m sure many of my friends and classmates have different opinions on this and some will probably disagree with me, but it’s off my chest. If you are looking into going into Waterloo co-op, just remember everything has a cost. Co-op won’t solve your problems, but it sure can help you figure your life out in the process.