Preparing Students for Success

While McCormick's researchers work to solve today's most pressing problems, McCormick's faculty, administration, student services, and student groups aim to develop the leaders of tomorrow. Through an evolving curriculum, growing personal and professional development initiatives, and motivated groups, McCormick and its students continue to prepare for the future.

When it was created 70 years ago, McCormick's cooperative education program was a revolutionary idea: students could learn both in school and on the job.

Now the McCormick administration is working to transform career development again, expanding options and making sure students are prepared for ever-changing careers. In the 1930s industrialist Walter P. Murphy decided to fulfill his life's ambition of spending his wealth "in the creation of a great institution of human service."

He considered hospitals and universities, but the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to use the money to promote industry through education. His lawyer sent an anonymous letter to several schools, seeking out information on their engineering programs. Northwestern's plan for a new building and educational program impressed him the most. More than $34 million later — an initial donation of $6 million followed by $28 million several years later, after Murphy's death — Northwestern had a new Technological Institute building and a new program, the Walter P. Murphy Cooperative Engineering Education Program.

The program would give students the chance to alternate periods of academic study with periods of full-time paid work experience — an experience Murphy held in high regard.

"This cooperative system appealed strongly to me as truly American," Murphy wrote in a letter to the Northwestern Board of Trustees that was placed in the cornerstone of Tech. The program combines "the highest type of classroom instruction in theory with synchronized and coordinated training in the actual workshops of highest type cooperative industries in the practical application of theory so taught in the classroom," Murphy wrote.

Seventy years later, the program is still going strong. More than 30 percent of McCormick students participate in the program and spend up to six quarters at one of about 200 participating employers. Recently, however, McCormick administrators decided that the co-op program alone wasn't enough for students.

"We wanted to help students be prepared to leave McCormick and be nimble and flexible enough not only to view life as an extension of engineering but to think about how personal development influences career development, and vice versa," says Helen Oloroso, assistant dean and director of the newly named McCormick Office of Career Development.

So a new initiative was born. As part of this effort, McCormick is expanding its career development programs, as well as offering new ways for students to look at how their personal development can grow with their education. These new initiatives, which senior administrators began planning in 2006 and which are now being implemented, aim to both offer new career development courses and internship opportunities and facilitate group discussions that ask the big questions — like, Who am I? and Where am I going?

The first task in transforming career development was to formalize internship availability. Previously students could find internship listings only through University Career Services. Now, McCormick offers students access to a database of internship opportunities that enable them to work in a position related to their major without taking time off school (a requirement in the co-op program).

The next step was to create the course Introduction to Career Development, which is now a requirement for students who want to participate in an internship or in the co-op program. That course, taught by industry professionals with MBAs and backgrounds in engineering or human resources, includes three major components: how to decide on a career, how to develop tangible skills (like creating a résumé and networking), and what to expect from the transition from school to work. More than 240 students have taken the course so far.

"By creating this course, we can assure there will be consistency," Oloroso says. "We want our students to have a knowledge base they can build on. Before this course existed, we held workshops — which people couldn't always attend — or one-on-one sessions, which were too time-consuming."

In these uncertain economic times, career development is more important than ever. Employers have cut back on hiring, and many parents have found that money set aside for school won't cover expenses. While University Career Services will still coordinate senior recruiting, McCormick students now have the opportunity to be better prepared when they reach that point.

"This career development model isn't new. We've always tried to get students to think about these issues," Oloroso says. "We're just keying them into something that gives them more opportunities. By taking advantage of these opportunities, students will have a leg up in the marketplace."

The new initiative doesn't stop with careers. That's where Joe Holtgreive, assistant dean of student development, comes in.

"As we thought about what it means to prepare for a career, we acknowledged that the challenges facing our current graduates are unprecedented in size and scope," he says. "To enable them to face these challenges we need to prepare them to take a wholebrain approach to engineering. We wanted to empower them to grow personally as they grow intellectually."

To that end, McCormick has begun offering a pilot personal development program for a subset of first-year students. As part of the program, five first-year faculty advisers also served as "college coaches" who helped facilitate quarterly group meetings with students. These meetings focused on students' self awareness (through the use of a self-assessment tool) and fostered discussions on issues like cocurricular options and why students chose to study engineering at Northwestern.

"We want our students to develop a strong sense of community and an awareness of the vast opportunities available to them," Holtgreive says. "We also want to provide them an opportunity to reflect on their experiences to learn about themselves and the world around them in the process."

There are plans to present alumni speakers and a new online portfolio tool as the personal development program is expanded to include upperclass students. So far student reaction has been positive.

"It's really nice to talk about how college can mesh with life so easily," says Ryan Sanders (civil engineering '12) "When you are around other people going through the exact same thing and you have time to talk about it, it opens a flow of ideas that each person can use."

For Andrea Morgan (environmental engineering '12) the program has been an avenue not just to discuss personal development but also to speak directly with the McCormick administration. "I was excited when I found out I was a part of this pilot group. I felt it would give me a great opportunity to meet important people on campus. How often do you get to sit down with an assistant dean, the co-op director, and your adviser?" she says. "It's been really useful to have this contact, especially as a freshman, when I'm still deciding if co-op is something I want to do. It has proven invaluable."

While co-op remains the cornerstone of industry education at McCormick, this new initiative supports Walter P. Murphy's desire — expressed in his will — that Northwestern's engineering school be "second to none in America."