Karen Reimer, left, and Linda Hart

Thirty years ago, Lynne Mitchell was part of the University of Guelph’s first group of co-op science students. As a city girl studying crop science, she believed some farm experience would be crucial. “It also helped to pay my way through university,” Mitchell adds.

What she didn’t know then was that her co-op work would pave the way to her current position as director of the Centre for International Programs at U of G.

Mitchell loved the variety in her co-op terms: on one, she cured peanuts in tobacco kilns and, on another, worked on the Holland Marsh. The most memorable co-op term involved eight months working in a grain elevator in a tiny town (population 100) in northern Manitoba, where the wind chill made the temperature feel like -57 C and a rat ran up her pant leg. Despite that, she loved working there.

The experience she gained on her work term qualified Mitchell for a Canadian University Service Overseas job as a pest management expert in Thailand. When she returned to Guelph, her time in Thailand qualified her to work in the international programs department. “You never know where something will lead,” she says.

Peter Wedel was another early co-op student who did work terms between his classroom studies in horticulture. He worked in research stations, greenhouses and for a herbicide and pesticide company. “I was doing research plots in farmers’ fields. I’d have to get up very early in the morning to spray before the wind came up,” he recalls.

With that experience, Wedel was hired as an extensionist in horticulture; “I was the asparagus expert for all of Canada,” he says. Then he worked in the Belgian Congo for four years. When he returned to Canada, he used the skills he’d learned through U of G’s co-op services to better understand himself and his work interests. Personality testing helped him recognize that what he liked best about his work was helping people one-to-one. He returned to the University to complete a master’s degree in marriage and family counselling and now works in U of G’s Counselling Services.

Wedel says there are three big reasons for getting involved in a co-op program: it will help you stay out of debt, it will give you good job experience and training related to your field, and it will help you figure out who you are and what kind of work is right for you – even if it’s not what you thought at first.

Mitchell and Wedel are just two examples of the thousands of students who have been involved with the Co-op Education and Career Services (CECS) program at U of G since it was initiated 30 years ago. The first group of co-op students numbered just 38 in the 1981-82 school year; last year more than 1,025 participated in work terms. This year about 2,000 students are enrolled in co-op programs.

Six years ago, Career Services was merged with Co-op Education. “It made sense to offer a one-stop shop for students and for the employers who come on campus,” says director Karen Reimer. “Now companies can recruit students for co-op work terms and part-time jobs as well as graduates for full-time employees, all in one place. And students can access the career planning and job search services.”

This past summer, CECS moved to a new location: Building #54 on Trent Lane, just north of Rozanski Hall. It can now offer more spaces for employer interviews and a lounge where employers can relax between appointments. There is also more space for students to meet with counsellors and peer helpers and attend workshops.  Newly renovated, the building is bright and welcoming. “We have needed more space for quite a while,” says assistant director Linda Hart.

There are virtual services, too: for example, if you are wondering what you can do with your degree after graduation, check out the CECS website at www.recruitguelph.ca. Under the student and alumni heading, you’ll find lists of options for different degrees. Of course, if you need more help, career advisors can meet with you to provide guidance.

Testing can also be arranged to help match your personality with the right career options, and advisors can help you create a professional resume, practise doing interviews, or make decisions about continuing your education. Drop-in appointments are available every day. The website also lists current job openings for students.

The services don’t end once a student graduates, adds Hart. “They continue for a year after you graduate at no cost,” she explains. “After that, alumni are still welcome to come by for more assistance, at a minimal fee.”

Another important part of CECS, says Reimer, is the large group of peer helpers who are trained to provide career planning and job search assistance to fellow students. “Your career starts when you land at a university,” she adds. “This is when you explore career options and start networking. The students who make the effort to meet employers, whether it’s through a co-op work term, employer information sessions, planned informational interviews using the “Connections” program, the regional job fair and career fair, or  a job fair held on campus, are the students more likely to have a job lined up right after graduation.”

“Graduates often tell us CECS helped them with their first step after graduation,” says Reimer.