Students gain ‘real-world’ experience through co-op program

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Kirsten Leskowich, ’16, nervously walked into the company picnic, and before she knew it, she was paired with her supervisor for bonding activities. She had to wrap him in toilet paper for “The Mummy Challenge.”

Using some unique skills and becoming friends in the process, Leskowich and her boss won cheap, comical plastic belts from the local Dollar Tree, or “belts of victory we will cherish forever,” as she puts it.

Leskowich is a chemical engineering major and economics minor who decided to get into the Engineering Cooperative Education, or “co-op,” program at Lehigh. She was ultimately offered a job at ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge.

The co-op program makes it possible for Lehigh engineering majors with a GPA of 3.0 or higher to graduate in four years while also getting eight months of paid work experience. The program begins in students’ sophomore year. Students first interview with companies that offer the co-op experience, and once they are placed with a company, they take summer classes in order to work at the company instead of take classes the following year.

unnamed-2Leskowich had never been out of Pennsylvania longer than a week when she decided to go to a different time zone for a whole semester. With her college classes as distant memories, she has now made new memories from working, citing the team-bonding picnic as her favorite experience from her time there so far.

Although Leskowich originally wanted to stay at Lehigh for her co-op, she doesn’t regret going so far away.

“It’s been an absolute blast,” she said. She expressed gratitude for all the people she has met and the close friends she’s made, but most importantly, all the Cajun seafood she’s eaten.

“I think I have gone out to dinner more here than in (the rest of) my entire life,” she said.

Leskowich said she and the other co-op students do everything together and love going out after work or on weekends. They also take trips to New Orleans to visit the famed Bourbon Street and take in the culture that defines Louisiana.

But the passion for their work that the co-op students have is obvious.

“My dream is to save lives,” said Lindsay Richardson, ’16, who works at a vaccine company. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, and every person I have met at this company has shared this exact passion with me.”

Since she’s been in Baton Rouge, Leskowich said she and her team have been assigned six projects. Most have dealt with safety, for an important part of ExxonMobil’s work is making sure everything the company does is up to safety standards.

Leskowich is on the company’s Cracking and Light ends team, and while she works in the refinery’s main office for the majority of her time there, she has also had the opportunity to actually go into the field wearing her hardhat, steel-toed boots and flame resistant uniform.

Leskowich said she looks at towers, reactors, pumps and modeling structures of the refinery processes. She could not speak about all the work she does, though, saying she would love to share details but that much of her work is confidential. She said she has really enjoyed the refinery and energy chemical engineering she’s been doing and can see herself working there or at a similar company in the future.

Other students share Leskowich’s postitive feelings toward the co-op program.

“I love my co-op,” said Jenny Fichter, ’16. She works at Air Products in Allentown.

Lauren Thompson, ’16, works at Purolite in Philadelphia along with Richardson and Fichter. All agreed that their jobs are much less stressful than taking classes. They said that ending the work day and then keeping work at work is quite different from college. All three said they enjoy that.

“School and working make you use totally different mindsets,” Leskowich said. “Coming back to school, I’ll need to make an adjustment that will be challenging.” 

Since Leskowich started working at ExxonMobil, she said she has felt disconnected from the Lehigh community.

“I often forget I am still in college,” she said, explaining that not taking classes and working make her co-op experience completely different from her life at Lehigh.

Richardson, Fichter and Thompson, who all live at Lehigh and commute, say they are also slightly disconnected because they are away from campus all day. Being on campus at night and on the weekends and not having schoolwork, however, gives them time to be with their friends and participate in extracurriculars. 

Leskowich, however, does not regret being part of the co-op program.

I have fallen in love with the company and the work I have been doing,” she said. 

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