WIL around the world on a smile – communicating, learning, growing
Michelle Hansford and Jim Stellar
Michelle is the Director at the World Association of Cooperative Education (WACE) and someone with whom I have worked in the past as part of a team to put on workshops in the field of co-op and experiential education. But she is also an English major from Assumption College in Worcester, MA and is currently finishing up her Masters in English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. At Assumption College, she never had the opportunity to do co-op, but she did focus on her writing, communicating, and marketing skills, all of which assisted her in the marketing position she held after completing her undergraduate degree, and certainly continue to assist her today in her role as WACE Director. So, I thought we would begin by asking her to describe what it is like to pull off conferences all around the world, discussing with universities what are and how to improve their programs of Work Integrated Learning (WIL). How was that experience?
As an English major who didn’t really think that I was good at much other than reading, analyzing, and writing about old texts, the position of WACE Director, in which I communicate with people from all around the globe and even travel to some exotic places, was initially quite overwhelming to me. How would I know how to correctly communicate with important university and corporate people from around the world? And would I like travelling abroad and experiencing foreign cultures? It didn’t take me long to realize that communication skills were probably the most important thing I learned in my undergrad and graduate schooling, because people everywhere – no matter their level or background – like to be listened to and treated with respect. I was certainly not a Work Integrated Learning expert when I began with WACE, but learning about WIL was something I could do. It was my communication skills that I found really invaluable, and I continue to improve them with each conference I organize and execute, each foreign country I visit, and each person with whom I work in the global sphere.
This finding of a core skill set (in your case communication skills), that you can develop in a professional environment, is the best way to grow at any time. Like physical growth which makes one taller, this professional growth allows a deeper vision into the area of your work. So, can you comment on what you have learned from these conferences about what is called Work Integrated Learning (WIL) or what we would call either Cooperative Education or full-time paid internships? Is WIL or Co-op really an added value to higher education or can people just get it after college as you and I did?
You know, I think that people can actually acquire these types of valuable skills after graduating from a standard liberal arts college or university. However, I did feel behind in the game when I graduated. I had no related work experience, no contacts, and no foot in the door, so to speak. So when I finally landed the position with WACE that I currently hold, it was three years after I graduated from undergrad. My first job after graduating was with a medical software company – totally not in my field of study, or interest. But it was a job, and after applying to over 80 (!) jobs in the months before graduating, I felt as though I had to take it. Being in the top 3% of my class, I thought that landing my dream job would be no problem. However, I learned – the hard way – that looking good on paper is not the same as the contacts one makes through experience. This notion is even reflected in my current WACE position, as I was actually recommended to my boss by a personal contact. Thus, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to acquire the skill set one needs after college. I’m just saying that it might take longer to be able to actually use it.
Many people agree that Co-op or WIL gives one a head start that people like you and me who did not go to co-op schools might envy even as we try to catch up. But I want to back up a little and focus on the phrase “dream job.” Dreams are aspirational. They also can have a powerful free-flowing emotional logic to them that seems very much to be what we mean when we talk about otherlobe functioning. So, do you think your dream job has changed now that you have experience in the real world? How do you think it would have changed if you had done a 6-month work experience (say your current job) as a junior undergraduate?
Your question just put a big smile on my face! Yes, I absolutely think that my concept of my “dream job” has definitely changed now that I have been out in the “real world” for almost seven years. When I was in undergrad, I knew that I liked to write, so I equated this passion with “becoming a writer,” or perhaps “becoming an editor.” I did not think beyond the very narrow constraints of these positions or that there are, in fact, many jobs in which one gets to write, and edit, and communicate in a variety of ways. My job right now with WACE allows me to communicate all day long via email, letter correspondence, publications, website, etc. with people from all around the world. Before, I would not have equated a Director position with an international work integrated learning nonprofit organization to be a “writing job,” but it really is. With that said, my position with WACE also includes a lot of other things, which is great. I have learned how to coordinate events around the globe – an interest I never knew I had – and I have also learned how to manage a membership organization – another interest I never knew I had. Thus, being out in the real world has allowed me to move beyond the confines of what I assumed my dream job was. There are many expressions of one’s interests, and I think that finding the right balance between doing what you love while also learning new things is a major key to long-term success.
Notice how the emotional laden words keep coming up, such as “passion” and “love.” Perhaps this comes from the nature of the job we are discussing – communicating all over the world interacting with people. Certainly, we both agree that such interaction with people in the service of a good cause is certainly energizing. But students often do not know that. They have heard about it, but unless they experience it on a co-op or WIL or internship, they cannot know the importance of having fun in the job as a key to growth, which is a key to sustained effort and productivity as well as satisfaction. We believe the other lobe of the brain functions best when it is happy so that the emotional logic circuits are free to properly assess a situation, properly integrate with the academic facts and theories, and achieve that positive communication with others. It also helps to communicate across cultures where sometimes one of the best forms of interchange is a genuine smile.