Removing barriers to co-op experiences

Posted: July 16, 2021
Kaleb Cantrell (left) and Maria Belicak (right)
Following a co-op with DePuy Synthes, Kaleb Cantrell (left) decided to pursue a career in orthopedics. Maria Belicak’s co-op with Marathon Pipe Line exposed her to a previously unconsidered career path.

A cooperative education experience helped Kaleb Cantrell decide that biomedical engineering was the right fit for his future, while chemical engineering major Maria Belicak’s co-op exposed her to a new career path.

Consisting of two or more semesters of full-time work, co-ops provide valuable experience that can help students land their first professional position after graduation.

Prior to his yearlong co-op with medical device manufacturer DePuy Synthes—focused on knee replacement research—Cantrell was unsure whether to pursue a career in biomedical or environmental engineering.

“It was like a shove in the right direction for me to do this,” he explained. “It really affirmed that I want to work in the biomedical field.”

Now a fifth-year biomedical engineering major who is also pursuing a minor in humanitarian engineering, Cantrell plans to work in the orthopedics field full-time after graduation.

“I would like to come up with a new material that makes replacement surgeries for knees, shoulders and hips more affordable,” he said.

Co-ops can also expose students to previously unconsidered career paths.

Belicak credits her willingness to take on an environmental role with the Marathon Pipe Line Environmental Department with helping her get her foot in the door. She return to the company last fall to work as a tech services co-op at the Detroit refinery.

“I’m definitely interested in the environmental role, but with the new refining role, I’ll be able to compare and contrast and see what I'd like to do more,” she said.

Marathon Petroleum Company found so much value from Belicak’s work that her supervisor nominated her for an Engineering Career Services’ Student Impact Award.

“Her ability to adapt to the fast-paced atmosphere, prioritize projects based on risk, and continuously deliver on time and over expectations was amazing,” Belicak’s supervisor wrote in the nomination.

But for some students, the added expenses that accompany a co-op in another city or state, such as travel, housing and transportation costs, can prevent them from taking advantage of these transformative learning opportunities.

Thanks to generous support from Lisa ’02 and Mike Catauro, last fall five students each received $1,000 scholarships to help cover those expenses. An employer match furthered the impact of their gift.

“We both believe the co-op experience is an important and extremely valuable piece of learning for engineering students. It can play an important part to ensure a strong career start after graduation,” Lisa said. “We want to help break down any barriers that would keep students from gaining that experience.”

The Engineering Co-Op Special Fund has supported more than 100 students since 2015. The Catauros’ gifts enable Engineering Career Services to help meet students’ need for financial assistance with co-op expenses.

“The impact of scholarships like this is immense,” said Engineering Career Services Office Manager Effie Patitsas, who administers the co-op program. “It ensures students don’t have to turn down opportunities because of a lack of funds.”