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Tough Topics and Multi-Faceted Answers

December 8, 2017 6:48 pm Published by Leave your thoughts


Co-op and internship programs give students the unique opportunity to experience their industry while they’re working through an academic program. This core philosophy is why many career services professionals love their jobs; we sit at the intersection of a number of different things, and we get the chance to help students navigate between here and there, finding the unique path that suits them best. That could be delving deeper into their major, and exploring specializations in the workforce or at the graduate level that spark a new drive for learning, or an eye-opening experience that shows a student that the job isn’t what they thought it would be, and maybe they should look at other academic programs that might be better suited to their strengths and values. These developments and discoveries are some of the real joys of our work.

But what happens when these experiences are less than positive? Reframing can be an excellent tool, and helping students see that negative experiences are still learning experiences, crucial to their development as a professional and as an academic, is important. Sometimes, though, our expertise falls short, and the questions students are faced with in the workplace are bigger than us.

The Black Swan case in 2013 brought real questions about unpaid internships and the work that young people are often asked to do in the name of experience, and has had very real impacts on the internship and co-op industry. Federal laws like the FLSA, the ADA, and other non-discrimination laws have become much more common for students to have to understand and grapple with, and for us to do so as well. I, certainly, have noticed many students recently asking deep and probing questions when faced with an unpaid position, in part based on what they’ve seen and heard from these national dialogues.

More recently, though, stories of sexual harassment have exploded in the media. Men and women of all ages, sexual orientations, and professional levels have been bravely coming forward to tell their stories about moments in which they were powerless and taken advantage of. These stories have ranged from more general hostile work environments to very severe criminal behavior, and everything in between; none of it, though, is condoned, and many industries have begun to take accountability on this topic and start to look at the nature of their industry and the culture of the workplace.

I want to start asking more about what we do, and what we can do, for our students who are straddling these worlds. For a number of reasons, higher education has always been particularly aware of gender issues. Title IX offices and counseling resources are widely available on college campuses, and referrals and inter-departmental relationships are critical to the success of students who come forward about egregious situations that they don’t know how to handle both on- and off-campus. That’s a great start, and a very important one.

But what about the students who don’t come forward? What about the culture of “this is just how [insert industry here] is”? What about the students who aren’t even sure about what it is they’re experiencing, or how to assert themselves (to us or to their coworkers)?

What are we, as higher education professionals who help students find these companies and the related opportunities, doing to prepare them for the very real potential issues they may face there?

All I have come up with so far is that the answer isn’t simple. One workshop each semester isn’t sufficient, nor is a resource list on a website. Our response needs to be as broad and as multi-faceted as the situations and victims are. This is clearly a deep and long-standing issue that is much larger than a single person or issue. This is an ongoing conversation of growth and development.

I expect that as we move forward and create our response, that there will be pieces that are student-focused, pieces that focus on employer education or assessment. There should absolutely be collaborations with the vast resources we have at our disposal at Universities, such as the Title IX office or other departments that focus on diversity and inclusion. There will likely need to be staff training, and constant awareness for both the obvious and the less obvious signals that a placement isn’t working out or that a larger problem might be lurking. Collaboration with academic partners and student groups is another great opportunity, as they have much insight into what students are looking for from their school, and faculty who have been in their industry can be invaluable mentors and guides as we untangle the different elements of these issues.

Ultimately, though, our nation has shown over the last few months that these stories can now be told, and told widely, and that they will be heard and respected. We’ve learned more about how pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace is, and how it spans across all ages, genders, and industries. As we strive to provide the best possible service to our students, we need to also be ready to engage in these deep, meaningful, and multi-faceted issues facing workplaces and society today.

AUTHOR: Rachel Callahan is the Senior Co-op Coordinator for Operations & Assessment in the Steinbright Career Development Center at Drexel University. She can be reached at

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