Building a Confidence Growth Curve through Work Experiences

January 1, 2010 at 5:55 PM

Building a Confidence Growth Curve through Work Experiences


Alisa Duhaney NU ’08 and Jim Stellar


Sometimes the work experience begins before College. In the case of Alisa, we have that example and can see how that work experience is built upon by a Cooperative Education work experience and finally experience on a regular job.  The field is in the medical area, but the lessons are for all students growing from experience. 

First high school….


In high school in New York, I was in the Medical magnet which had a health awareness program called the Wellness Center. It allowed students to continue the volunteer work/practicum beyond the requirements, get college credit, and CPR/EMS training/certs. We volunteered between classes to visit other schools and elderly homes to consult and teach about nutrition and health (skipping class excused was a big motivator). Although it was voluntary, it was comparative to a real job: we had to comprise a schedule of which students would go to which elementary or event that week, dress professionally under our lab coats, prep our materials and team the day prior, check in with the team Captain, thank the on-site facilitators after the event, even train our peers, etc. We organized travel to the site, set up, and handouts with no teacher supervision most of the time. It didn’t seem intense at the time; it was something we just did. I participated from 9th – 12th grades. My doctor (PhD) was the head of the program, and the main facilitator and mentor. Her office was attached to a classroom and was always open. She trusted our intelligence and judgment. After we returned from an event, we stormed her office and told her about our day (just like coming home from work).  


Participating in the Wellness program throughout my secondary education years was the beginning of my understanding of work ethics, personal motivation, and team work. The foundation of work ethics began by taking what I’ve learned supervised and applying it to when I taught it unsupervised. Personal motivation was always tested, as some events were held on the weekends. It was a choice to wake up early on a Saturday; if the choice was to sleep in, be expected to provide an answer to your team on Monday (especially to the program director during recap).


How did your co-op experiences at Northeastern as an undergraduatecompare to this experience? 


I actually did not begin at Northeastern.  I entered college in 2003 as a biology freshman at St. John’s University in New York. This step was important as I stopped being shy, and through personal motivation stood up (figuratively) and applied as a transfer student.  I went off alone to a new city to Northeastern to learn neuroscience and participate in a co-op that would launch my professional career. I was happy that I made the decision, and thus this was my exciting event, which got the ball rolling.


I was able to do 1 co-op. I worked as a Clinical Research Assistant at a Schizophrenia Research Clinic, looking at effective treatment drugs as possible factors in metabolic disease occurrences in low-income/homeless patients.  Here I learned: self reliance (confidence) and decision making. I worked with another co-op student who was a little strong willed. Let’s just say despite my calm warning and advice, she ended up deleting a large amount of data. As she was figuring out how to retrieve it feverishly on her own, after quick contemplation I felt the best decision was to inform the coordinator (I presented it as an honest mistake as a team and for a plan to figure out the next steps). After the event and a few weeks of fixing, the PI mentioned that I was a good leader, based on my response to the situation. He reminded me to take command and delegate the other co-op student. I’ve never received this type of responsibility before. I was given an array of opportunities and thrived.


During my evaluation by the coordinator (who also served as a great support), I was informed that although I did an excellent job, I must learn to be self-reliant and not feel to need to report my status for every task. If there was an issue, I was expected to work independently and make a wise decision without the coordinator or PI approval. Co-op opened my eyes to my flaws and unveiled my potential.


What happened after graduation?


After graduation, I worked at a neuroscience company doing pre-clinical research.  I soon realized that this was the real world and I didn’t have mentors, I had bosses. I worked with another strong willed co-worker who trained me in my role. There were bets amongst my other co-workers to when I would quit! (Please keep in mind, my co-workers were most supportive nonetheless, but just felt I was in an interesting predicament). I didn’t quit. I won because I was the last to judge, the first to listen – we are friends now – work ethics speak volumes (this opened friendships with the other co-workers as well). It was my first lesson in office politics. I resigned, because I needed something more intellectually. I learned research is my first love in any form. I did both clinical and pre-clinical research, and finally decided clinical was my home. Co-op was a good comparative.


What lessons did you bring to your permanent job from your co-op experiences?


If I didn’t have co-op, I feel there would have been a gap in terms of experience and direction. In thought, I believe, if my first job taught me the fundamentals of office politics, it would be my foundation for every job thereafter. However, my first fulltime job in Boston gave light to the fact that there are employers who want their employees to succeed and will guide them if necessary. In that light, I sought almost instinctively for that good learning experience. If I wasn’t confronted and told that I can be a good leader, I need to work on my decision making, and be more self reliant – would I have handled my second job with stride?


In my current job, not only do I have more opportunities than before, but a supportive boss. It’s like I defaulted to my co-op environment, but with more experience and practice. Many students are able to have up to 3 co-ops; it’s amazing that my 1 co-op was still out of the odds amazing. If 1 co-op yields so much, I’m elated that 3 co-ops would have brought me to my career peak even sooner! My foundation at high school gave me a good running start in a co-op that allowed me to continue the sprint.


One of the lessons here is that the prior experience with work (we both agree) helped make the single Cooperative Education experience at Northeastern enough so that an idea of what it took to be a leader in a technical company could emerge.  Notice the critical role of mentoring in the job environment and how those experiences carry over and cumulate.  Also, we want to make the point that this personal growth has to be married to content knowledge (which we did not discuss) that develops in the classes as well as on the job.  It is that marriage that brings power to career development. When that happens, especially in college, the result is an impact that can last throughout the early part of a career.  This lesson is particularly important in putting a young person on what can be seen as a confidence growth curve that lets them know they are studying the right field and pursuing the right profession.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Building a Confidence Growth Curve through Work Experiences”

  1. Melissa says:

    Great hearing of your experience. The Northeastern Cooperative education program is an essential step in not only pinpointing what you want to focus on upon graduation, but also opens numerous doors to resources you would not normally have when stuck in the classroom!

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