WIL around the world on a smile – communicating, learning, growing

March 3, 2010 at 10:08 PM

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.

The Music of Thought and Emotion: clinical interaction in social work

7 Responses to “WIL around the world on a smile – communicating, learning, growing”

  1. Mary Churchill says:

    Jim and Michelle,

    This is a great post – very inspirational! I agree that human interaction can be very energizing and can lead to some of the best creative work. Experiential education – whether it be in our own neighborhood or across the world – is really the key here and I think this is particularly crucial with traditional-aged undergrads but also with older students.

    Mary via University of Venus

  2. Enkelejda Demika says:

    I do agree that participating in a co-op program or internship does give students an edge or “a foot in the door” to form connections, however I don’t believe it will necessarily help them land their “dream job” when they graduate. Being a student myself who participated in a co-op program, although I really enjoyed the experience, I didn’t find it very helpful after graduation landing a job in my interest, as my interests have changed from the time that I went on co-op (which was Sophomore year) until I graduated from college. I as well am in a job that does not relate to my filed or interest and I’m hoping and working toward landing my “dream job”. Thank you Michelle for sharing your experience and insight it really gave me hope of finding a job that I will love and grow.

  3. Mila Alish says:

    You already know how I feel about co-op learning; I wish we had it at Queens College! I’m sure you’ll make that happen :).

    That being said, I was just taking a personality test that is supposed to help me find out what kind of job I would like. The test is full of job descriptions (maintain employee records, teach a high school class) and you’re supposed to indicate whether you think you would like, dislike or uncertain about this job.

    The problem is, I don’t think I have enough experience to tell!
    So, I agree with you. You learn about yourself through experience and co-ops definitely help out with that :).


  4. Michelle Hansford says:

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments. What has struck me as intriguing within them is the word “experience” and how that relates to co-op – – or not. It is certainly a struggle to know where to draw the line with experiential education, i.e., what can and cannot be considered experiential education?? Do not many experiences help a person to grow and to learn what he/she likes/dislikes and help a person to grow?

    Enkelejda’s comment also resonates, as people do change and interests shift. But I guess there are things that we learn in particular jobs that can be universally applied, and perhaps that is what we should highlight on our resumes and during our interviews. For example, I learned how to handle difficult situations during my customer service job at the medical software comany – even though I will most likely never again deal with medicine or software. It was the soft skill of learning how to deal with people under stress that I took away from that position.

  5. Enkelejda Demika says:

    Michelle, you are absolutely correct. I too believe that any job that you hold whether it is of your interest or not you do learn, grow and take away an experience that you didn’t have when you first started that job. It is up to you on how you use that experience and integrate it in the future, and your example was a perfect one as many people can relate to it.

  6. Michelle Hansford says:

    Thanks, Enkelejda, for your response. I think you sum up what I was saying perfectly with “it is up to you on how you use that experience and integrate it into the future.” What I wish I had gained during my undergraduate experience is outside experience, that is, any experience within a corporate structure outside of my college. Although I was a writing tutor and a T.A. during college, I was still within my comfort zone of my own institution, and although these were wonderful experiences, I wish that I had challenged myself a little more either with an outside internship or a study abroad experience. I think that my experience was limited – which therefore limited me in the way I was able to interact with interviewers, and also in my job searching capabilities (i.e., I wasn’t sure what I wanted!). As I said in one of my earlier posts, I do think that I eventually gained the broader view I was perhaps lacking in college; it just took me a little longer to get there.

  7. Jim Stellar says:

    This conversation is really great and I can not resist adding to the story by commenting on the last comment by Michelle. Notice she used the words “comfort zone.” For me this thinking goes back to a blog by Dawn Anderson and me (http://www.otherlobe.com/2009/12/impact-is-the-point-in-study-abroad/) on December 22 where we explored briefly how abroad programs can and should take students out of their comfort zone.

    Getting out of that zone, getting perspective, reestablishing it in a new place, and then adjusting back when you return are all indicators of the growth that Dawn and Michelle and Enkelejda (in her own post on 2/26) wrote about. Check them out. There are others by Ruthie and Ute on the international theme, but when you think about it. Our horse-rider communication blog, ones on mentoring, leadership, even the use of social media to engage could be seen through the lens of getting out of and then establishing new comfort zones.

    Why do I feel like I am on to something with this concept?

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