"Cadillac of Co-op" celebrates 20 years

by Patty Pitts

By the time Dr. Dave Berg graduated from UVic in 1984 with a degree in chemistry, he had already researched better methods for destroying PCBs for B.C. Hydro, monitored plant effluent for Dow Chemical and studied better ways of designing electrodes for Ballard Industries. The combination of academics and co-op work experience sent Berg directly into the PhD program at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Co-op was a great experience," recalls Berg, a faculty member in UVic's chemistry department since 1990 and a Douglas College student when he first heard about co-op. "I was intrigued by the concept so I talked to Dr. Graham Branton over the phone in 1979 and he guaranteed me a job before I started! I did a work term in Vancouver before I even became a UVic student."
The program of alternating study and work experience that Branton directed from 1979 until his sudden death last fall celebrates its 20th anniversary at UVic this year. In two decades it has won-over skeptics, attracted students in ever-increasing numbers and transformed the delivery of a university education.

First introduced to the United States at the University of Cincinnati in 1908, it took over six decades before the University of Waterloo became the first university in Canada to allow students to interrupt their studies for work-related work terms in 1973. When Waterloo's Vice-President of Academic, Dr. Howard Petch, joined the UVic faculty a year later, he brought his enthusiasm for co-op with him to his new campus.

"I started talking about it during my job interview," says the now-retired former UVic president. "I was a great believer in co-op. [Former Chair of Academic Affairs] Dr. John Dewey asked how Waterloo produced more honours chemistry and physics students than the University of Toronto. I said it was all because of co-op."

UVic's chemistry and physics departments were anxious to test that theory and each launched co-op programs in 1976. Fifty-eight students went off to their first work terms the following year. Now chemistry alone places over 100 students annually and Dr. Rick Reeve, UVic's longest-serving co-op co-ordinator, says the program has more than lived up to its promises.
"Dr. Petch came at a time when we had few students majoring in chemistry. The faculty thought co-op would attract and retain higher quality students," he says. "Now that's happening. Our reputation has spread across Canada and most students joining the program have A- averages."
For 16 years, Reeve has maintained 100 per cent placement through a balance of private and public sector work terms. He used to place 60 per cent of his students outside B.C. and while increased industry in the Lower Mainland is tipping the balance, chemistry students still land work terms as far away as New Zealand and England.

Since those first chemistry and physics students went off to work terms, nearly 19,000 others have followed in their footsteps. UVic has the third-largest co-op program in the country, the largest business co-op in Canada and is the only university offering co-op in health information sciences, law and the master's of coaching program in the School of Physical Education. Further expansion (other departments are clamouring to join) hinges on an increase in provincial funding, something that hasn't happened in three years.

In the meantime, co-op continues to prove early skeptics wrong. A 1992 study of 1,000 UVic and UBC students determined co-op students outperform non-co-op students in problem solving, building on previous research that showed co-op students find jobs more quickly upon graduation and have a lower drop-out rate.

Petch maintains students opting for co-op do not diminish, in any way, their academic experience at UVic.
"There's no doubt in my view that co-op students do better academically," he stresses. "Because the students learn the applications of their studies on their work terms, professors can make their presentations even more theoretical."

Like most co-op co-ordinators, Reeve ventures more and more into the previously unfamiliar world of business and government, meeting and greeting, making contacts, spreading the word about co-op and UVic in the hopes of enlisting another employer who will place another student. The co-ordinators' tenacity and loyalty to the program has paid off.

"Someone at Waterloo called us the Cadillac of Co-op and I think he meant that as a compliment," says Reeve, smiling, "but I'd prefer he'd compare us to a BMW, that's the ultimate driving machine!"

Patty Pitts is an information officer in UVic's Public Relations & Information Services department.

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