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Cooperative Education Program thrives despite changes due to COVID-19

ISSUED: 15 July 2020
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Shepherd University to cancel in-person classes in March, the Cooperative Education Program had to make some adjustments, but was still able to continue giving students valuable real-life work experiences.

The Cooperative Education Program provides students the opportunity to earn upper-division academic credits that will count toward graduation requirements while working either paid or unpaid with an agency that reflects their academic interest. Because many businesses were forced to close or change the way they operated because of the pandemic, Joseph Jefferson, director of cooperative education, had to look for opportunities that were considered essential and allowed students to work remotely.

“There are some positions such as medical scribes and communications-related work that can be performed from remote locations, and various remote opportunities still exist in those fields,” Jefferson said. “Biology led the way with many students working as lab assistants either on campus or at off-campus sites. Multiple students from the biology department also served as medical scribes in hospitals located in Berkeley County as well as Washington County, Maryland. Many of our communications participants worked with the local and regional newspapers and a few with radio stations.”

Jefferson said co-op jobs that require face-to-face contact had to be modified, minimized, or in some cases eliminated during the beginning of the crisis. He also had to look for ways to minimize in-person contact with students and faculty by creating fillable online forms.

“Students are still in need of experiential education opportunities so that they can clarify career paths or prepare for entering the real world of work,” Jefferson said. “With cooperation and flexibility from faculty, this program benefits our students as well as the university.”

Academic departments that supported co-ops in the spring semester included biology, communications, economics, environmental science, family and consumer sciences, history, psychology, recreation, social work, and sociology. Job opportunities ran the gamut from social media, graphic design, and public relations to work in biology, citizenship and immigration, and refugee resettlement.

“I gained and developed invaluable skills and knowledge that will benefit me and my career for the rest of my life, and at the same time I earned four credits in upper-division courses in my program, which will go a long way toward helping me graduate on time,” said Logan Rothstein, a recent graduate who did a co-op at the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

“My co-op experience benefited me by giving me the freedom to choose the subject of journalism that I am passionate about and write stories in this style,” said David Warner, a recent graduate who did his co-op through Shepherd’s student newspaper, The Picket. “I was able to gain skills in writing for arts and style but was also allowed to write in other fields such as environmentalism. This allowed me to see from two different viewpoints in journalism and diversify my clips for future employers.”

Jefferson was recently named interim director of service learning, a program that is moving from Student Affairs to Academic Affairs and that helps individual students, groups, and academic and social organizations find community service positions.

“Cooperative education and service learning are all components of experiential learning, or the learning that takes place outside the classroom,” said Dr. Scott Beard, provost. “The intersection of education and experience is found in these pre-professional experiences that help train our students. Mr. Jefferson has partnered with academic programs and external partners to create the process for students to be successful in these endeavors. The addition of service learning to his responsibilities marries well with his work in cooperative education.”

Beard and Jefferson recently gave a presentation about Shepherd’s Cooperative Education Program at the annual conference of Council for Public Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities (COPLAC), which was virtual this year. “Re-imagining Cooperative Education in the time of COVID” focused on the changing nature of work and the benefits partnerships provided to students, the institution, and to the cooperating organization.

Kay Dartt, clinical assistant professor of art and director of the FASTEnER Lab, also presented “Artists responding to critical needs during the COVID-19 epidemic,” which focused on how community outreach practices and collaborative strategies made production of personal protective equipment for local first responders in Shepherd’s interdisciplinary fabrication space successful.

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