Dropouts from Co-op internships speak out

Concordia students share their experiences with the Co-op program

When Emma Amar was accepted into Concordia University’s software engineering program in April 2020, she was invited to apply to the Co-op program during an orientation session. She hoped to get experience in the field before graduating, alongside an accreditation to her diploma. 

But in January 2022, she called it quits.

“I decided to leave Co-op because I couldn’t stay and take a leave of absence,” she said. In 2020, the Co-op institute required software engineering students to take five classes for their fall, winter and summer semesters. Currently, their sequence requires fewer courses over an academic year.

“If you step out of sequence, then your Co-op gets messed up. So it’s very rigorous every semester. So most of my peers take five [classes] every semester.”

In order to complete the Co-op program, students must dedicate two semesters to learn about the Co-op program and to secure an internship via their institute. Then, they must successfully complete three internships, spread over three semesters.

“I was very excited to work because I’m not a person that enjoys [studying],” she said. “I have anxiety and have a lot of things that make it very difficult for me to be a student and a participant in a class setting.”

Amar’s internship workload felt like she was taking an extra class. “I have to attend all these workshops. I have to be a member of the Co-op institute, but I’m busy juggling five classes,” she said.

Juggling between being a full-time student one semester and working full-time the next, all while dealing with mental health issues made Amar realize she needed a break.

Despite the added stress she encountered with the process, she says she improved her technical skills through the experience. “Two years past that internship, I’m still using all the skills that I got from my job in my classes, in my group projects,” she said. “I’m able to sit down and actually be able to interact with my peers and actually be able to contribute.”

Alex*, who wished to remain anonymous, is another student whose Co-op experience was similar to Amar’s. They decided to apply for Co-op in March 2021; as a journalism student, they were eager to find internship opportunities in their field, but quickly realized that the program only offered opportunities to work in public relations and communications. 

“Sometimes I would have to go to a press conference. Well, I guess you do that in journalism, but this was not me asking questions. This was me networking for the company,” they said.

Alex thought their internship would teach them journalism skills, like following tight schedules, writing and publishing content. Yet they felt like their days were coordinated by random tasks their manager gave them.

Alex expressed feeling burnt out after that summer, having worked 50 hours every week,  including their summer job. 

“The university could do so much more to set us up for success with internships, and yet they don’t,” they said. “I sincerely hope that Concordia, the journalism department and the Co-op department figure out a way to have paid journalism jobs. Right now, it’s all communications, marketing or PR. And to me, that’s completely useless and irrelevant to my field of study,” Alex added.

“I still feel like I’ve never really recovered from that. It made me realize I want to do journalism,” they said. “The thing about Co-op is that you can’t quit halfway through because it looks like you failed on your transcript,” Alex said. “[I] was realizing that the Co-op program in journalism is kind of a scam.” 

After completing their first internship in summer 2022, Alex told their program coordinator they were no longer interested in being part of the Co-op program. 

Amar and Alex will not graduate as Co-op students, but as C.Edge students. 

C.Edge is another internship institute at Concordia for students who are transitioning to the workfield. Only one internship is required to complete the C.Edge program.

“It’s not going to show that I’m a Co-op student, but because I did successfully complete one internship, I’m a C.Edge student,” Amar said. “I have no idea what that entails.”

*a fictive name


Building a community through accessible art

Le Milieu, a co-op art studio and vegan café, is a major part of the Montreal Art Hive network

Le Milieu is nestled on the corner of Robin and Beaudry Streets, in a quiet residential neighbourhood of the Village. It is a small, cozy nook, with a bright blue storefront that immediately sets it apart from other buildings in the area. The co-op art studio and vegan café opened in September 2012, and has already established itself as a community hub.

“We wanted two things; we wanted a space that was not about commercial consumption and that was about community building,” said Rachel Chainey, one of the co-founders of Le Milieu. “We [also] wanted to make art-making more accessible to anyone, regardless of their capacities, regardless of age and all that.” Chainey created the co-op with five other women, after realizing they needed a space to share their passion for art and community building.

Rachel Chainey, the co-founder of Le Milieu, is a key player within the Montreal Art Hive network, which is based at Concordia. Photo by Maggie Hope

She was inspired by the work Concordia art therapy professor Janis Timm-Bottos did in New Mexico. Timm-Bottos has spent years developing sustainable, accessible community spaces called Art Hives all across North America. She has worked to develop networks dedicated to fostering relationships and community building through accessible art and creation.

Chainey described Art Hives as “a network of community art studios,” which can be set up in any public space. Concordia has been the base from which the Art Hive initiative in Montreal operates.

Le Milieu’s café and workshop components are not typical features of Art Hives, but they lend themselves well to the community building aspect that is the backbone of the entire initiative. Chainey also explained that sustainability is extremely important to the Art Hive movement. By using second-hand materials, the Hives are not only reducing waste, but are also easier to implement and maintain in a variety of spaces.

Although it has received some assistance through government funding, Le Milieu collects donations and is mostly volunteer-run. Chainey emphasized that, since the beginning, members of the Art Hive network and the community have stepped up to contribute their services. People from all walks of life are drawn to the co-op for a variety of reasons—be it their love of art, cooking or entrepreneurial endeavours.

The co-op art studio and vegan café is stocked with second-hand materials available to everyone on a pay-what-you-can basis. Photo by Maggie Hope

At the moment, Le Milieu has about 35 volunteers and nine board members. Chainey said the co-op has evolved “beyond what [she] had imagined,” which is in part due to the rotating group of volunteers. Members come and go, allowing space for new energy and ideas.

One feature of the co-op that has consistently attracted volunteers and customers alike is its ongoing series of workshops. Everyone is encouraged to partake in the workshops or even host their own. Topics vary based on what the community responds to and what skills the volunteers want to share.

Vivienne Tam, who has volunteered at the co-op since last fall, gave one example of how Le Milieu recently responded to the interest of its community members. A fellow volunteer brought her quilting project to the co-op to work on. More and more, people asked how she quilted, what techniques she used and how they could get started. She eventually decided to host a workshop on it.

A volunteer at Le Milieu and grad student at McGill, Vivienne Tam serves a participant in her kimchi workshop on Jan. 18. Photo by Maggie Hope

Quilting is just one example of the skills people who visit Le Milieu can learn. Chainey pointed out that many creative activities, like vegan cooking and high-quality crafting, are often only accessible to middle-class people. By hosting community-centred, affordable workshops, Le Milieu hopes to share valuable skills and foster self-sufficiency.

Tam, currently a graduate student at McGill, heard about the co-op through a friend. She was looking for a place where she could donate her free time that aligned with her passions for art and environmental sustainability, and Le Milieu was a perfect fit. Tam volunteers once a week and hosts the occasional workshop—the latest of which taught locals how to make vegan kimchi. Even on a chilly Wednesday night, the co-op was packed with an eager crowd.

Tam also works as Le Milieu’s soup chef and baker, and often consults regular customers about what to put on the menu. She expressed that she would like to see the co-op host more workshops directed at low-income citizens. Her goal is to help them learn necessary skills in order to become self-sufficient and, therefore, more confident. Even in the past four months of volunteering, Tam has seen the impact learning a new skill can have on a person’s self-worth. “There’s so much pride and joy,” she said, describing the environment at Le Milieu’s workshops.

Tam will be leading a dumpling-making workshop on Feb. 16, which is the day of Chinese New Year. For more information about Le Milieu and its events, head over to their website. More information about Art Hives and their initiatives can be found at Le Milieu just launched a blog, which can also be found on their website.


Reggies aims for inclusivity

Employees and members gather for an annual general meeting to talk about improvements made in the last year

Concordia’s official solidarity bar, Reggies, held its first annual general meeting on Nov. 16, at Reggies, which is located on the second floor of the Hall building. The meeting went over the changes the bar has undergone over the last year and the positives impacts they have had. Approximately 30 staff and co-op members attended the meeting.  

Reggies officially became a co-op after CUSACorp, the for-profit sector of the Concordia Student Union (CSU) that was previously in charge of the bar, dissolved in May 2016. Being a co-op has allowed students to give their input and be more involved in the future of the bar.

Melanie Desrosiers, Reggies’ general manager, said the transition has been very positive. “Working with students is really exciting. It’s a student bar and they should make the decisions,” she said.

Desrosiers also discussed the work she’s been doing with Gabrielle Bouchard from the Centre for Gender Advocacy to make the bar more welcoming for all students. “I believe Reggies is one of the only bars that has a safe space policy being as thoroughly followed,” she said.

As part of this safe space policy, Reggies employees went through four types trainings, including  consent training, bystander intervention, completing a server intervention program, and a “Trans 101” tutorial given by Bouchard. The tutorial educated staff on the importance of a safe space and how to promote an inclusive environment. Reggies bathrooms are gender-neutral. “Everybody is welcome here,” said Desrosiers.

Reggies’ president, Adrian Longinotti, who is also the finance coordinator for the CSU, discussed the financial status of the bar. “The 2015-16 fiscal year was the first time that Reggies finished with a surplus in the last 15 years,” he read from the annual report. During the meeting, he discussed how the CSU helped Reggies with funding for renovations, which helped the bar to reboot in a positive position. He also told The Concordian the meeting exceeded his expectations, both in terms of the number of people who attended and the fact there was stimulating conversation where everyone exchanged ideas about what they hope to see in Reggies’ future.


Getting a taste of life post-graduation before it happens

An exciting development is in store for students of journalism, anthropology, sociology, and political science. Concordia’s Institute for Co-operative Education is in the process of integrating these departments into their program.

Getting approval for such an extensive program is a complex process. The approval is now in its final stage of review, which entails approval by the senate (the highest governing structure at Concordia University). In order to get to senate, the coordinator had to go through the Curriculum Council, the Curriculum Committee, the Academic Programs Committee and, before that, they needed faculty approval.

Despite this, coordinator Jane Fairhurst who has been developing the new programs said, “We have been incredibly fortunate because the university is very pro experiential learning, so it has only taken us about a year to get this going. From what I’ve heard, this is absolutely unheard of. Usually, these kinds of procedures take a lot longer to get implemented.”

If the co-op program is approved, students will be able to put in their applications in mid-November, immediately after approval by the senate. Students must start applying for jobs all through the winter semester in order for them to have their first job by summer of 2014.

If you’ve not yet exceeded 30 credits (in other words, still a first year student or just starting your second year), you’re eligible to apply for the program. If you have more, you can’t complete the scheduled program because you’re required to do three work terms, with a study term in between, and you have to end on a study term.

Grade requirements vary by program. Applicants in the journalism department for example need a GPA of 2.7 or a CRC of 28.

Applicants will be judged on grades, competence, and enthusiasm. The applications will need to include a letter of intent, cover letter, CV and transcript.

The first year enrollment in the co-op program will be capped at 10, and is strictly considered a trial year to see if it works for employers and if students are interested. If there are a surplus of employers interested in journalism students, then the number of students admitted will slowly increase.

“But it all has to happen slowly, like a bit of a dance,” said Fairhurst. “We can’t increase the number of students without having the employers, we can’t increase the number of employers without having the right number of students.”

Upon completion of the co-op program, students “are miles ahead of their peers graduating from other universities without having gone through co-operative learning.” Students will have three letters of recommendation from employers to put on their CV.

But participation in the co-op program goes further to help students than simply a résumé boost. All students enrolled in the program will attend seminars in cover-letter writing, CV writing, and interview skills. This ensures that graduates of the program “are at a certain caliber when they’re actually interviewing and going out to get jobs.”

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