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Cooperative Temptation: A Look at SAIC’s Co-op Program

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By Jill Bugajski

Even though it might be eight months or more before you walk across that brightly lit stage to accept your SAIC diploma, you might have already experienced a bout of the what-am-I-going-to-do-after-graduation jitters. The symptoms can include a fluttery heartbeat, sweaty palms or trouble breathing. Adverse indicators can be triggered in various ways. Most commonly by the phone call from mom or dad sweetly prodding “So… tell us again how you plan on making a living with this art degree?” Or maybe it’s the screaming flash-forward image of yourself suffocated by a funny paper hat, choking down the words “Would you like fries with that?”

No matter what causes the anxiety to strike, your employment future is looming just over the horizon. Finding a good job is strenuous and competitive. This May, hundreds of bright-eyed graduates will enter the job market from the twenty plus local universities and colleges in Chicago. Your SAIC degree will put you on a level playing field, but it’s how you apply, enhance and present your professional experience that will help distinguish you from the throng.

“Do you have a resume and portfolio? What skills are you communicating?” asks Clemenstien Love, a SAIC Academic Advisor, Co-op Faculty Advisor, and Instructor in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects. She sat down with me recently to discuss the trials and tribulations of preparing for life after graduation. Clemenstien had some crucial points to make about bridging the chasm between class and careers. “Do not have just a classroom assignment-based portfolio. Have a portfolio that illustrates where you are developing professionally. Take the projects you do in class and personalize them to what you are investigating in your own work. Document your work continuously. Do not leave your projects unfinished.”

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Clemenstien takes portfolio development seriously. As a Co-op Faculty Advisor, she visits nearly seventy-five Co-op job sites per year and talks with employers about their expectations. She is an emissary from the conceptual to the real world, and vice versa. It is critical, she says, for students to “read between the lines. Conceptual projects need to inform and develop into real projects.” The follow-through on ideas will help link the conceptual to the down-and-dirty practice of the work world, and give you a tangible end product to demonstrate to potential employers.

Nancy Gildart, Assistant Director for Career Development, counsels graduating students and recent alumni on how to prepare for the working world. “The most difficult hurdle for SAIC students entering the job market is students preparing to network, to present themselves, to shake hands, and to have interpersonal communication. And, I always ask, ‘Have you done Co-op yet?'”

How to get started? “Do Co-op early [as a junior],” says Clemenstien, “and use it to better develop your portfolio in your senior year.” The Co-op Program at SAIC is the only arts-related internship program of its kind in the country. Co-op is a class. Students satisfy studio credit for hours on the job. Vicki Engonopoulos, the Director of the Co-op Program, has watched it grow from a mere idea into a department that advises more than two hundred students every semester. It is a journey where students learn experientially. She says, “Co-op is not a job, it’s an experience!”

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There are more than 400 different internships available per semester and now is the time to start planning how to incorporate these possibilities into your spring or summer semester schedules. Co-op staff will make recommendations to students based on skill level, portfolio and career interest. Employers with available spring and summer Co-op positions will be participating in the Second Annual Co-op Job Fair, December 7, 2004, at the SAIC Ballroom.

The Co-op Job Fair can provide the forum to make connections with Chicago employers who offer internships through the Co-op program. It will give SAIC students the opportunity to meet and interview with many professionals, and receive advice on how to improve their resume and portfolio.

Shannon Cleary, Internship Coordinator at the MCA, counsels that the key to qualifying for a competitive internship is your attitude, experience and approach. Utilize and promote the previous work experiences you’ve had. “Students can have a lot of education but need basic office skills and a willingness to work with other people. Don’t shortchange your own job history; your experience in retail or restaurants can demonstrate that you have good people skills or a good work ethic.” Shannon emphasizes, “Determination and enthusiasm, keep an open mind, and do not limit your options. Having experience as an intern speaks worlds to a potential employer, and taking a non-paid internship demonstrates a great interest and commitment. Ten percent of the full time staff at the MCA are former interns, and interns are usually first on supervisor’s minds for new hires.” (The Museum of Contemporary Art will have about fifteen internships available in a variety of departments for this spring semester).

Other employers agree that enthusiasm is the foundation to a successful experience. Laura Miracle, the Build Shop Manager at Redmoon Theater says she feels lucky to be surrounded by dedicated and talented Co-op students. “An internship pays in education and training so students can achieve growth and learning. With a full-time job, staff don’t have that luxury.” She continues, “Our internships are a hybrid of classroom and professional experience. It helps students to see the reality of the professional world and what it takes; responsibility, dedication, to balance work and artistic life.”

Grace Park is a recent SAIC alum who completed four semesters of Co-op internships while finishing her BFA. Grace emphasizes that her Co-op experiences really helped her mentally and physically prepare for the grueling job search after graduation, and that the contacts she made are still with her today. “People in Chicago are very open and want to help.” What wise advice would Grace give to SAIC students preparing to enter the work force? “Once you’re outside the school you have to start from the bottom and then you start learning again, in a whole different atmosphere. Know your own strengths. Be able to deal with clients. Have the character and the patience to talk to people.”

Students must have already attended a Co-op Orientation before participating in the upcoming Co-op Job Fair, Tuesday December 7, 3:00-6:00 p.m. in the 112 S. Michigan Ballroom. To find out more about the job fair, Co-op orientations or past Co-op experiences, contact the Cooperative Education Program in Sharp 707, phone 312.629.9160 or email, Co-op@artic.edu. The annual Co-op Journal Show is on display November 2 through November 24, in the Flaxman Library.

November 2004

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