Returning to school at thirty years old, I found myself somewhat jaded at the prospect of my career after school. I was certainly not excited about the prospect of obtaining a degree so that I could return to a career that I considered to be, at best, a chore. As a result, I initially entered into the co-op program at Henry Ford Community College with the expectation that I would gain very little outside of a grade and another entry on my resume, and the further expectation that it would be more of the same, uninteresting thing that I have been doing for years. Surely, there would be nothing of importance that I would be able to take away from a part-time job that I had not already gained from nearly a decade in corporate Information Technology. I could not have been more wrong. This co-op did not just give me a grade. Instead, I can say with no exaggeration that my time with this work-study program has been a life altering experience.
As a Lab Technician, my official responsibilities could be summarized best as an “equipment babysitter” of sorts; someone to ensure that the lab rules are followed while signing in students and helping students with the equipment. Unofficially, I spent much of my day during the first semester helping the Computer Information Systems (CIS) students understand their coursework. It is in this capacity that I found an exciting, enjoyable niche. I learned that I enjoy teaching college students. Suddenly, a new branch of opportunity sprouted before me, and my future prospects were no longer the bleak, dismal things that I had been dreading.
Now that I have adjusted my collegiate plans to those of an aspiring college instructor, my time as a co-op student has become even more useful. The time I spend at work is now time spent learning how to deal with a variety of different students with varying needs, goals, abilities, learning methods, and skill levels. Just two short semesters has already improved my ability to explain a concept from many different perspectives–trying repeatedly until I can find one that will work. This time spent has also served to teach me new ways to communicate effectively with students. These improvements have been key factors in the considerable expansion of my role as unofficial tutor this semester. I have been invited to sit in on the lab time for two separate CIS125 classes so that I can provide supplemental instruction to the students as they are actively trying to complete their assignments.
The experience, as a whole, has been extremely gratifying. The feeling of working with someone who is having a problem with a concept and being there when they have that “breakthrough moment,” and to know that I was a part of that process, has made the entire process something I strongly wish to remain a part of. I cannot imagine having ever gotten a chance to take part in this type of work without this work-study position. Had this position not been available to me, I would be continuing on my path back into a job field that I have never particularly enjoyed, merely to make money.
A significant percentage of the reason that this program has worked so well for me is that my employers are also educators. As such, they have an understanding of student life, of going back to school, or choosing a career path that suits your strengths, and of finding a path through the educational experience that will end some place meaningful. Certainly, the value of the time I have spent at work would be lessened, had I not been working with a corps of fine educators who have worked hard to help me succeed. The influence that each of these instructors have exerted upon my experience has been a great boon in guiding me down that path.
If I could make any suggestion to potential work-study students, it would be this: Try something new. Do not simply do what you have always done; instead, take this relatively risk-free opportunity to spend a semester doing something different. It might very well open up a completely new avenue of possibility for you that you had no idea existed.
When I was growing up, my father and I used to discuss what I would do when I grew up. I used to say “doctor” or “lawyer” because those were jobs that seemed to make a great deal of money. My father’s response was always the same. He would always reply, “A paycheck is a fringe benefit to doing a job that you enjoy.” To me, that always felt like an unrealistic goal, but today, having the benefit of my co-op position under my belt, I can say with absolute assurance that my paycheck most certainly is a fringe benefit of a job that I enjoy doing. For the first time since I came back to school, I am genuinely excited about finishing school and taking the next step forward, into my new, “grown up” life.