Co-op education programs alternate semesters or trimesters and full-time paid employment.

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A college diploma, or even a master’s degree, is no guarantee of securing a job in your chosen career, as many grads can attest. Good grades are only part of the equation; the other part is work experience. So, how do you avoid this employment Catch-22 of it takes a job in a given field to launch a career? Cooperative education programs, commonly referred to as co-ops, are an increasingly popular option.

Mark Bonicillo, 37, had a philosophy degree, received an MBA from the University of Washington, and served six years as a captain in the Marine Corps when he enrolled in the Align Master of Science in Computer Science degree program at Northeastern University’s Seattle campus. “I started my career in Seattle’s tech industry by selling software. But I had always been curious about how computers work. I wanted to build software,” says Bonicillo, who spent four months working at Amazon for his first co-op placement. ”Being at Amazon was like learning to drink out of a firehose with so much new information coming at me. I kept thinking, ‘I’ve seen this before in class’ or ‘now what my professor said makes sense.’ I learned way more than I could have learned in the classroom alone.”

The Align Master of Science in Computer Science program is unique to Northeastern. It is designed specifically for non-tech bachelor degree holders, so students like Bonicillo are able to pursue a master’s degree in computer science and dive straight into the tech industry after graduation. For him, co-op was the icing on the cake.

Earn while you learn

Co-op education programs alternate semesters or trimesters and full-time paid employment, making the money you invest in higher education work for you with experiential learning that builds skills as well as a network of contacts. These programs, sometimes referred to as “internships on steroids,” pair students with businesses in their field of interest, helping both parties. Students have the opportunity to try on one or several careers, and employers can give potential employees trial runs with limited job offers.

“Co-ops add much greater value than typical internships for students and employers,” says Paula Boyum, Ph.D., associate dean at Northeastern University’s Seattle campus. “Students spend up to six months at a time applying what they’ve learned in full-time jobs directly related to their career interests. Employers have access to students who have developed a high level of real-world skills, and are confident, critical thinkers.”

Test drive your career

Co-op learning often offers students the opportunity to work at more than one company involved in the program while earning their undergraduate degree. For example, Northeastern University offers two co-op placements, arranged by the school, during a four-year program and three co-op placements during a five-year program.

Northeastern University has an entire team that creates partnerships with companies to offer co-op to students in states nationwide as well as abroad. During the 2017-2018 academic year, more than 10,000 students completed a co-op assignment with more than 2,500 hiring organizations, from Fortune 100 companies to small startups — in states nationwide as well as abroad. During the past five years, students at the Seattle campus have had co-ops and were offered post-graduate jobs at diverse companies including Big Fish Games, Costco, Disney Worldwide Services, Facebook,  Google, Nordstrom, Porch, Starbucks and Zillow.

Car­o­line Bynum and Made­line Drake made higher edu­ca­tion his­tory in early 2017, becoming the first two stu­dents to embark on a co-​​op program in Cuba.

Bynum and Drake, both students at Northeastern University’s undergraduate campus in Boston, spent four months working for the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foun­da­tion, a non-​​governmental orga­ni­za­tion named in honor of the late Cuban archae­ol­o­gist and geo­g­ra­pher.

The full-time job offers students get after graduation are proof of the success of co-op programs. Bonicillo, who is now working at Amazon, is an example of how Northeastern’s experiential approach provides students with real work experience, making them more competitive in the job market. Starting salaries for graduates from Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science have been $100,000 or more.

Learn more about experiential learning and co-op opportunities at