Co-operative Education (“Co-op”): Co-op is a formal university program through which students alternate multiple, full-time, paid work terms with their academic studies, and receive recognition on their university record for each work term. In Canada, most co-op programs will require students to spend the equivalent of 30% of the time spent in academic study doing co-op terms; for most undergraduate degrees, this means co-op students will complete at least 3 work terms. Co-op programs are run by qualified career educators and/or faculty. International students participating in a co-op program can apply for a special category of work visa through Citizenship and Immigration Canada enabling them to work off campus on multiple co-op work terms.
In assessing a co-op program, consider: Do I see a benefit in doing multiple work terms to learn outside the classroom and explore various career options before I graduate? Do I want to earn money to help finance my degree? What types of support would the co-op office give me in applying for jobs and while on work terms? What kinds of experiences are available through co-op that I might not be able to get on my own? What are the fees charged for participation in co-op? Are there differential fees for international students who participate?
Community Service Learning (CSL): CSL refers to a formal university program through which volunteer work is part of a credit-bearing university course. The volunteer work seeks to address the needs of a community organization and includes structured reflection on the experience to link it with course content. CSL experiences are usually overseen by the professor teaching the course and may be supported by professional staff at the university.
In assessing a CSL program, consider: Do I want the opportunity to give back to the community through volunteer work? Do I like the idea of working in a community organization alongside a group of students in the course that I’m taking? Do I learn better by having the opportunity to apply theory to practice? How can I find out which courses offer CSL? What kinds of organizations usually partner with these courses to offer opportunities?
Other forms of WIL, such as practicums, field experience, and clinics are common too, but often in professional programs such as Nursing which require work experience for the purposes of certification or licensing. They are, as a result, likely to be required parts of a university education, not optional ones.
As someone who’s worked in the field of WIL for almost 20 years, here’s my advice. When considering a university, ask about what kinds of WIL they offer. Think about how you might learn best, and what your goals are for your university experience. Choose a university based not just on its position in global university rankings, but also based on the quality and scope of the WIL it offers. Make the most of your undergraduate experience and graduate with more than just a degree.