The Undergraduate Experiential Education of an MBA

October 10, 2011 at 10:23 PM

The Undergraduate Experiential Education of an MBA


Corinne Freeman D’Ambrosio NU 02 and Jim Stellar


Corinne was a major in Anthropology with an Education minor who went into business after graduation and just received her MBA degree (congratulations!).  She also was head of the College of Arts and Sciences Student Advisory Council when I was Dean of the College at Northeastern and thus had a serious undergraduate leadership position.  We agreed to write something here about what a deep co-op based experiential education undergraduate education had to do with leadership and business entrepreneurship almost 10 years later.


So, here is my first question.  What do you remember from your co-op/leadership undergraduate experience that best applied to the entrepreneurship you lived in your years in the business world?


Despite the seemingly large divide between my undergraduate co-op positions related to Anthropology and my current occupation in technical sales, there were many valuable lessons taken from those early experiences.  Most important of these lessons was a determination to push through seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to reach goals, both large and small.  I remember changing diapers at East End House in Cambridge as part of my very first co-op at Northeastern.  This was when I was developing an interest in Education and wanted to see how well I did with children.  Not well, it seemed, with 2 year olds!  Part of the co-op experience is learning what you DON’T want to do as much as it is learning what you excel at.  For many graduates of traditional 4 year universities, after diligently completing undergraduate work, upon entering the workforce in the chosen field the new graduate is faced with the shock, “I hate this job!” 


Many people say that on average, each person changes careers 5-7 times over the course of a lifetime.  Not just jobs (which most people will hold 7-10 different ones) but CAREERS!  I would like to think that my co-op experiences at NU helped me to eliminate one or two of those career changes along the way.  While I am no longer changing diapers, I believe the co-op experience helped to give me a stronger sense of self, a sense of self that gave me the confidence to go back to business school ten years later because I KNEW what goal I wanted to reach.  Those early experiences helped to bridge that continental divide between education and application, and served me well during completion of my Master’s program.


Some say that the students that do not do co-op or other serious internships and pursue a classical “ivory tower” academic education simply catch up in the first few years of work. Think about your first few years of work and comment on what if anything is enduring from experiential education?


The work ethic derived from full-time professional experience as an undergraduate is not something a student can “catch up on” if their choice has been to pursue a traditional “ivory tower” rather than co-op based education.  The reasons I have for making this statement is two-fold.  First and foremost, doors will open easier for those who graduate with an existing resume beyond flipping burgers or working in the local ice-cream parlor part-time.  Not only does co-operative education provide the classroom learning needed to perform a particular job, but real proof that a job candidate can apply that learning in the workplace setting.  Not only are the references from past co-op positions invaluable when trying to secure a first job out of college, but the networking gleaned from making and maintaining all of those contacts through the years multiplies a job applicants chances.


Secondly, there is a huge paradigm shift going from student to employee.  After years of full-time co-op positions interspersed with full-time study, the co-op program graduate has less of an adjustment to make, and in my opinion, will be able to hit the ground running more than a candidate graduating from a traditional program.  Sure, both will learn on the job, make contacts, and have to adjust to “real life”, but the co-op graduate has an advantage in all of these arenas. 


Why is this?  From where does this advantage come?


I would like to give two examples of why I feel strongly that my opinions given above are based on fact and not simply prejudicial judgment because of my own choice in education at Northeastern, a school with a longstanding history steeped in cooperative education. A good friend of mine from my graduating class took a co-op job working for the student radio station.  After gaining a following on campus, he was offered the opportunity to work as an intern for local radio station, KROQ.  After proving himself once again, he was offered a paid co-op position at KROQ, which led to his immediate hire after graduation at MTV in New York.  Without the contacts and experience from that first co-op at the school station, none of this would have been possible so early on in his career. 


Another less glamorous example compares my career track to that of a good friend of mine who graduated from a traditional program at UMass.  After working at East End House and discovering I was not cut out to work with toddlers I thought I would try my hand with school-aged kids and teenagers at the Wang YMCA of Chinatown in Boston.  After working as a summer camp counselor for two years, I was hired as camp director the next.  By the time I graduated from Northeastern I was immediately offered a full-time position as Youth & Teen Program Director with the YMCA, which I loved every minute of until I moved to California to pursue other things.  My friend who graduated from UMass was still working her way through the ranks at another YMCA since she had to start from ground zero as a counselor in their before and after school program.  She was hired upon my recommendation to fill my position after I left, and has since gone on to do wonderful things, including attaining her Master’s degree.  I believe that as such a talented and motivated young woman that she would have been years ahead in her career if she had the same opportunities I had through the co-op program. 


Notice above the clear practical advantages that Northeastern and other Cooperative Education schools often tout – a job after because along the way the student built a credible record in the eyes of the employer.  But there is something else we feel that may be more important and that is the development of the student.  Turn those eyes around from looking to the career and look at the student in college, going through the program, growing, finding out what they want to do, developing a passion for it, learning to negotiate a complex world beyond the structure of college, and getting a kind of confidence that matches the enhanced resume we just discussed. 


In a world of charges that Higher Education is not delivering (see “Academically Adrift”) and in a flood of new books that tell us that motivation is most properly intrinsic in a complex modern world (see “Drive”) the most important piece to really getting somewhere is to fire that internal passion to put in the time to develop into something awesome (see “Talent Code” or “Outliers”). In this blog, we even see brain or psychological implications as in the two previous blog posts.


To be simplistic, there is nothing wrong today with higher education that a good dose of paid internship or similar experiential education program would not fix by developing a cadre of passionate, self-confident, powerful student consumers of knowledge –  in college and for the rest of their lives.

ADHD – brain structure and function – a focus on emotions and the amygdala

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