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From 28 Plastics Engineers Grow Thousands of Co-op Experiences

Professional Co-op Program Celebrates 10 Years of Career Development Success

Co-ops pose for a group photo at Kronos Photo by Jim Higgins
The Professional Cooperative Education program, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, helped place a group of business, computer science and computer engineering students at Kronos in Lowell earlier this year.

By Ed Brennen

Ten years ago, Diane Hewitt was too busy helping 28 plastics engineering majors craft their résumés, practice their interview skills and find matches with local companies to really consider what the university’s new Professional Cooperative Education program would look like a decade later.

Standing in the middle of the Tsongas Center’s Talon Club on Homecoming Weekend, surrounded by close to 100 alumni who returned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the co-op program, Hewitt got a good look at what she’d helped build.

“I had hoped that it would grow into something like this, but you can’t really envision that far ahead,” says Hewitt, the co-op program’s founding director from 2009-14 who retired from her role as UML’s employer and career development specialist last year. “It’s so exciting to see how much people have done and how their careers are evolving.”

Since that initial cohort of plastics engineering majors in 2009, the program has grown to  provide co-op work experiences at 566 companies around the country to 2,665 students from 16 majors and concentrations.

This year, 450 undergraduate students from the Francis College of Engineering, Manning School of Business and Kennedy College of Sciences are participating in the program. While the bulk of those co-ops are in engineering, there are business majors working at companies such as iRobot, TJX and Fidelity, as well as computer science majors at companies including Kronos, Putnam and Draper. In the spring, the co-op program will expand to all majors in the Kennedy College.
Besides getting their foot in the door at companies and applying what they’ve learned in the classroom, co-op students are also earning money to help pay for their education. Since 2013-14, UML students have earned an estimated $36.7 million from co-op positions. 
Co-op program staff members pose for a group photo Photo by Ed Brennen
Director of Cooperative Education Rae Perry, left, and founding director Diane Hewitt, second from left, were among the staff members past and present to attend the 10th anniversary celebration.

“I’m so proud of this program and how it’s grown,” says Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Joseph Hartman, who recalled his enthusiasm when meeting with Hewitt and her eventual successor, Rae Perry, soon after becoming dean of the College of Engineering in 2013.

“I was excited about the program because I’m all about experiential learning,” Hartman says. “Getting students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it out in the real world makes for a better hire down the road.”

And the data shows that career prospects are bright for students who take advantage of co-op experiences. According to a 2017 survey of graduates by Career Services, 95 percent of former co-op students were employed “upon or soon after” graduation. An additional 4 percent went on to graduate school.  

All around the room at the 10th anniversary celebration were alumni who could vouch for the impact of the program.
Although the university didn’t have a formal co-op program when he arrived on campus in 2007, plastics engineering alum Dan Meunier ’11, ’12 “had an inkling” that one was in the works when former Northeastern University Provost Ahmed Abdelal became UML’s provost in 2008.

“My sister went to NU, so I knew about their co-op program,” says Meunier, who was part of the first cohort at UML. He landed two summer internships at Evonik Cyro in his home state of Connecticut – the first in molding compounds in 2010 and the second in tech service in 2011.
Alumni of the co-op program pose for a group photo Photo by Ed Brennen
Alumni, from left, Mercedes Mello '14, Charlotte Ward '13, Tristan Belanger '14, Greg Pigeon ’12, ’13 and Phil Mooney '14 catch up at the co-op anniversary event.

“With the Plastics Department having such a good array of testing equipment on campus, I was well versed in testing equipment that a lot of people at the company didn’t even know,” says Meunier, who now works as a senior materials engineer at Medtronic in Danvers.

In her role as innovation engineer at New Balance in Lawrence, mechanical engineering alum Marcelle Durrenberger ’16 gets to interview students for co-op positions – including candidates from her alma mater.

“It’s funny being on the phone with them and saying, ‘Hey, I was in your shoes once upon a time,’” says Durrenberger, a Hudson, Mass., native who had a supply chain technical co-op at GE Appliances in Louisville, Ky., and internships at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Pratt & Whitney. “It’s awesome to see the program thriving.”
Greg Pigeon ’12, ’13, a plastics engineering alum from Attleboro, landed a materials engineering position at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (now the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center). Pigeon worked on a team developing packaging systems for military rations and received an Outstanding Co-op Achievement Award in 2012.

“It was really good to use what we were learning in a meaningful way,” says Pigeon, who was recognized for develops engine sensors at Sensata Technologies in Attleboro. 
Provost Joseph Hartman talks to co-op alumni Photo by Ed Brennen
Provost Joseph Hartman welcomes co-op program alumni back to campus.

Plastics engineering alum Charlotte Ward ’13 of Methuen managed to get a process engineering internship at Pfizer in Andover on her own as a freshman – before jumping at the chance to join the new Professional Co-op Program.

“It was excellent,” says Ward, who worked as an engineering co-op at the manufacturing company ITW in Chicago the summer before her senior year. Thanks to that experience, Ward landed an engineering job at Signode, an ITW subsidiary in Chicago, after earning her degree. Ward is now project manager at Instrumentation Laboratory in Bedford.

Hewitt says Plastics Engineering faculty members Bob Malloy, Stephen Driscoll and Stephen Orroth were “driving forces” behind the pilot program.

“We’re so grateful that the university really embraced it,” says Hewitt, who also credits Perry for bringing the program to the next level when she took the reins in 2014. “Rae has been magnificent. She’s had the harder job – to scale it up while maintaining the integrity of the program. The minute you compromise quality, it doesn’t work.”

What will the co-op program look in another decade, when alumni return to celebrate its 20th anniversary?

“They say a co-op program is still a baby for the first 10 years,” Hewitt says. “So we’re out of the baby stage. I’d say we’re in adolescence now. I look forward to seeing it continue to grow.”