Written by: Zach Siddiqui, Humour Editor

Over the past few months, the COVID-19 outbreak has caused complications for SFU co-op programs, including cancelled and postponed placements. 

Angelica Baniqued’s lab-based co-op term was at first delayed indefinitely, leaving her in a dilemma of whether or not to enroll in courses for the summer. A BPK student, Baniqued’s problem was compounded further by the question of whether or not she would be able to take out student loans. 

“I was having problems with paying for my tuition, because usually I sign up for loans,” said Baniqued. “But I [couldn’t] do that since they think I’m in a co-op term. [I was thinking,] they’re not going to grant me the funding because they think I’m earning money.” She described investigating her financial options as “really going in a circle”: her advisor, when told of her worries about loans, suggested Baniqued apply for aid through SFU’s Financial Aid Office, while the Financial Aid Office directed her to apply for loans. 

Ultimately, Baniqued contacted her employer and they agreed to postpone her eight-month co-op to a September–April term, an outcome she felt “really happy” about. 

Rashid Barket’s co-op has also undergone changes. Barket, a fourth year mathematics and computing science major, is set to start his term interning at a financial services company, which was shortened from May 11–August 28 to June 15–July 10. He will be working from home with a company-issued laptop, which he lamented could make it “much more difficult to reach out [to peers and mentors at work] when needed.” He also pointed out the difficulty spike in learning on the job.

“Usually, onboarding takes about a week or two to get settled in,” said Barket. “Since my internship is only four weeks, I don’t really get that luxury and am going to have to be really on top of my work to stay caught up.”

Despite these challenges, he praised his employer for their overall handling of the circumstances, describing them as “really receptive to the adapting environment,” such as by keeping up regular communication with Barket and providing ample on-boarding materials. He ultimately advised prospective Fall 2020 co-op students not to give up on doing a work term. 

“We are open for business,” said Muriel Klemetski, Director of Work Integrated Learning at SFU, in a video interview with The Peak. “Co-op is still alive and running. We have many students that are interested in obtaining a co-op work term for the summer, and we still have employers that are recruiting and hiring.”

Numbers are down compared to last summer in terms of how many work placements are running, Klemetski said. Compared to 1,646 work terms from Summer 2019, she confirmed in a follow-up email that 975 work terms have been confirmed for Summer 2020 so far, as of May 28. However, the co-op program expects the latter number to rise as they “are still scheduling interviews for another ~50 work terms.”

Despite this, the director stressed that the co-op program is continuing to secure placements for students, many of which are now being done remotely. In particular, to adapt to current financial strains on employers, the co-op office has introduced “more flexible measures” for employers in terms of how many hours and weeks co-op students would be required to work. 

The typical supplementary content of a co-op — workshops, info sessions, meetings with employers, etc. — have all also been transitioned to digital, and students have responded well to the remote approach, said Klemetski. 

There is “not a lot happening” in terms of international co-ops, Klemetski noted, with the exceptions being, of course, for students who can work remotely. 

“International students have been dramatically impacted,” Klemetski acknowledged, “but we’re doing the best that we can in respect to ensuring that the opportunities are still there, and then ensuring that the students are safe.”

As far as accommodations for students whose co-ops are mandatory for their degrees, the co-op program is aiming for them to be able to postpone their placements to Fall 2020 or Spring 2021, and have also reached out to faculty about the possibility of creating more research roles for students at SFU itself. As a “last resort,” they are considering offering exceptions to the rule against ending one’s degree on a co-op term.

Klemetski noted that the current priority is assisting students who are already close to graduation. Despite this, she stressed that they are “looking at [co-op students] on a case-by-case basis” and encouraged any student with concerns to reach out to their co-op advisor.

“Students should not be penalized because of COVID-19,” she concluded.

Both students interviewed in this piece expressed that they were left to work somewhat independently when applying for and securing a placement. Barket expressed that he originally found his internship “on his own, no co-op support.” Baniqued expressed that negotiating a solution with her employer to the current COVID-19 complications was “fully up to [her],” with the co-op office advising her to contact and work with her employer directly. 

Asked about what sorts of behind-the-scenes work the co-op office does, Klemetski said that the co-op office is heavily involved in the job creation aspect, developing many of the available co-op positions with the employers.

In a follow-up email, Klemetski reported that in the 2019–20 school year, out of 4096 co-op terms worked by SFU students, 94% were terms developed by the co-op office. The other 6% were “self-directed” terms students found and developed for themselves. 

Got a story to tell about your co-op experience? Reach out to news@the-peak.ca.