Expanding Cooperative Education across the Globe

By Connell, Christopher | International Educator, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview
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Expanding Cooperative Education across the Globe


Connell, Christopher, International Educator


Northeastern University students alternate semesters in the classroom with six-month stints in the working world. Those jobs, once confined to Boston, now take them from coast to coast and, increasingly, to London, Paris, Singapore, and beyond.

TWO DOZEN YOUNG SCHOLARS VISITING THE UNITED STATES on Fulbright exchanges were in the middle of an afternoon of workshops at Northeastern University in Boston when President Joseph Aoun dropped by to offer greetings and a short lesson on U.S. higher education. The linguistics scholar called it "the only truly open system in the world." When there is a faculty opening, no one checks where the applicants' passports are from, he said. Instead, "we seek the best brains wherever they are." Public and private universities compete fiercely for faculty, students, and research grants; promotion is based on merit; and professors share in profits from their inventions. The government provides support but does not dictate what or how colleges and universities teach. "We don't believe in one-size-fits-all," Aoun said. India and other countries in Asia and Latin America are looking to adapt this model and open up their systems of higher education, Aoun said. "It's going to happen. Competition is going to intensify at the worldwide level," he predicted, then added with a smile, "That's why you're here. You're making our life more difficult."

The Fulbrighters laughed and applauded, appreciating that their host was a personification of how the U.S. system works. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Aoun was educated there, in Paris, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a PhD in linguistics and philosophy. He was a professor and dean at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles before returning to Boston in 2006 to become the seventh president of Northeastern University.

Northeastern, a private research university in the heart of Boston, is a recognized leader in experiential or cooperative education. The tradition started in 1909, a decade after the university's founding, when four engineering students rode trolleys after class to part-time jobs around the city. Today thousands of Northeastern students alternate semesters in the classroom with six-month stints in the working world. Those jobs, once confined to Boston, now take them from coast to coast and, increasingly, to London, Paris, Singapore, and beyond. Aoun created a Presidential Global Scholars initiative with a $1 million annual budget that awards students grants up to $6,000 to cover the added expense and, in some cases, lost income when they do co-ops abroad. Northeastern students typically earn $15,000 on co-ops in the United States-a far cry from the 10 cents an hour those four engineering students made a century ago. Many do two or three co-ops before graduation.

So far only a small fraction-about 300-of the 6,000 co-ops that Northeastern students go on each year are international. The difficulty of securing visas and work permits means that some placements are unpaid internships or volunteer positions with charities. Aoun wants to double the number of students' choosing international co-ops and "give every student the opportunity to have an international experience."

Aoun expressed delight that at Northeastern he found a university with "a predisposition to embrace the world." He quickly set in motion the drafting of a new strategic plan for "building a global university" and preparing students to become "engaged citizens of the world."

Dialogue of Civilizations Propels Education Abroad

Northeastern's education abroad programs are burgeoning. Nearly 1,700 students studied abroad for credit in 2009-10, a 240 percent increase from barely 700 in 2006-07, and the Office of International Study Programs under new Director William Hyndman III has expanded its staff.

Much of this growth is due to the rapid proliferation in recent years of Dialogue of Civilizations courses in which faculty lead cohorts of students to other countries for intensive courses over several weeks in the summer.

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