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Co-op Wisdom Series: Paulette Johnston

In this series, ACE bloggers will be interviewing various practitioners who have served the Co-op profession for many years and asking them to share their wisdom!

Over her career, Paulette Johnston has served as Program Manager for Arts Co-op, and Coordinator for Communication and Business Co-op at SFU. She retired in 2017 after almost 30 years working with Co-op students and employers.

1) When did you begin your career in co-op, and in what capacity?

I started working in co-op kind of by accident in 1986 in Communication at SFU.  The department chair had been looking at the successful co-op program in Computing but did not have the budget to start something similar. I had a split administrative position in Communication with the graduate program and chair's assistant and volunteered to take on co-op as well.

2) What brought you to seek a career in co-op? 

A year later after many students and employers had participated in the new program, a co-op coordinator position was created and I was officially hired after a Canada wide search. I had become a very big fan of co-op.

3) What are your own personal considerations/views about the value of co-op education?

The value I saw was in providing opportunities for students to find out how they could apply their academic interests and passions to their future careers.

4) As a co-op practitioner, what do you consider some of your biggest successes over the years, and why?

As a practitioner, my biggest successes come when I hear comments like these from students returning from a work term:  “I had no idea I could do all the things I did. I had no clue what I wanted to do after graduation but now I do.”  “I was amazed to have professionals ask me for my input and they listened to me.”  “I thought there were only a couple of career paths open to me with my degree but now I can see many ways I can apply my education and skills.”

5) As a co-op practitioner, what have been some of your biggest challenges, and how did you address them?
My biggest challenge as a practitioner has been in educating employers about the ways students can provide expertise and fresh perspectives, and that backgrounds in philosophy, communication, business or women's studies might be just what they need in a rapidly changing world.

6) In reflecting back to the start of your career in co-op, what advice about priorities/goals/activities would you give to those commencing their co-op career?
For anyone starting a career in co-op, I would say that the goal has to be balancing the needs of both students and employers but that those of students need to be number one. They will appreciate you for that as they need advocates. While we have to pay attention to the placement numbers demanded by our institutions, facilitating successful pairings of individual students and employers is the best way to make co-op programs grow. Happy students say good things about their experience and they are our best sales agents. Making it clear that whenever possible you will drop what you are doing to listen to them when they are feeling discouraged by the job application process or an interview that went badly is absolutely key.

7) What on your thoughts as to how co-op has evolved over the years, and where do you think it is headed in the future?
There is an increased focus on satisfying the institution's need for numbers, but that is true for academic programs as well so we need to meet this goal.  Students legitimately look for evidence that their investment of time, money and needs will be met and increasingly look to co-op numbers and diversity of employment positions for that evidence. It is an exciting time to be involved with co-op.