Navigating the Drexel Co-Op Experience Remotely

For many Drexel undergraduate students, the first cooperative education experience is a manifestation of all the dedicated years of hard work toward academics. The matchmaking process between an employer and an employee is stressful, yet exciting.

It can solidify a student’s confidence in their abilities, or it can force them to question all their years working toward their goals for career success. I was beyond excited  to have my first work experience and was hopefully anticipating getting involved in work that could potentially reflect my future career.

Co-op Melanie Kovacs and Kathryn Christopher, her Academy supervisor, during one of their many Zoom chats.

However, this year many students were left to navigate a new work environment from a computer screen or ended up with no job position at all with the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was extremely fortunate, as my position as the Science Outreach and Communication Co-Op at the Academy of Natural Sciences was able to be transitioned remotely.

It wasn’t exactly how I envisioned my first co-op, but surprisingly, my experience over the last six months became an amazing learning opportunity that forced me to tackle unique assignments and develop diversified skills that I wouldn’t have had the chance to work on or gain from an office environment.

My first few weeks had a slow start. My supervisor was navigating institutional changes due to COVID-19 and the potential assignments I could start to take on, as I was the first person in this co-op position. However, I was able to suggest assignments that I was interested in. I began drafting tweets  that highlighted information about aquatic species, and I wrote a blog post about the ways people can enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic.

researchers in waders in water
The author helped build the Academy’s webpage for the new Environmental Planning, Policy and Innovation section.

A few months later, I was involved in drawing sources together for a literature review on the impacts, sources and management of chlorides. My supervisor also had me work on the Environmental Planning, Policy and Innovation page for the Academy website by gathering content and biographies, which was an original project that I was set to work on pre-pandemic.

Due to their limited staff, the Marketing team was in need of some extra help, and I was willing to take on any projects they needed despite the assignments not aligning with my job description. I was not very concerned about working on assignments outside of what I expected, as I saw this co-op experience as a time for taking risks and getting involved wherever possible. I was praised for my hard work and successful research skills by my co-worker/supervisor and nearing the end of my co-op I was able to present this research to the team!

If not for the pandemic, Melanie would have spent much of her co-op term participating in public events at the Academy and elsewhere, engaging with the public about their local ecosystems and science at the Academy.

I was worried that it would be difficult to form connections with my co-workers and supervisors outside of a traditional office environment, but I was very wrong. The computer wasn’t a barrier to developing professional relationships, as I was able to carry on longer and deeper conservations with my co-workers as their free time fluctuated week by week.

Some days we could engage in discussions about work assignments or career experiences and goals, and others we talked about our feelings about the pandemic and where we would travel if possible.

Reflecting back on my co-op now, I was nervous that my time spent at home instead of in a stimulating office environment would limit me as a viable employee to take on a new co-op or full-time position in the future. I was clearly wrong.

This virtual co-op experience challenged me in ways I wouldn’t have the opportunity to tackle in an office environment. The more time I spent in my position, the more I realized that being a strong employee required flexibility, adaptability, patience and independence, which were skills that I quickly had to acquire working remotely.

I will forever be grateful to all the staff at the Academy for providing me the opportunity to work during these challenging times. I know that I will carry on the skills and experience I gained at the Academy in my future career.

By Melanie Kovacs, Science Outreach and Communication Co-Op, Drexel University. Melanie is a junior political science major with an environmental studies minor and history minor at the College of Arts and Sciences. 

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