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The unexpected benefits of real-world work experience

The Faculty of Engineering is the most diverse faculty at McMaster University. Find out why Troy Kuang, a Computer Science student from China, made the decision to call it home.

When Troy Kuang first decided to pursue a 16-month co-op in Markham, ON, he thought he would gain two things: new skills and experience. He wasn’t wrong, but he also underestimated the impact it would have on him. 

As the fifth-year Computer Science student reflects on what he gained in his co-op, he lists them off with enthusiasm, without stopping for air or quiet thought.

Strong friendships. Lasting connections in his field. Higher confidence. A better sense of self-awareness. 

These are just a few of the things Kuang gained during his co-op, where he focused on quality assurance and software development. He says he never knew how deeply a 16-month experience would impact the rest of his life.

One of the ways it impacted him was by learning how to create a healthy work-life balance, something he hadn’t thought of prior to starting his co-op.

“I realized that having a work-life balance is real,” says Kuang. “It’s necessary, as is taking initiative. A turning point for me was that I learned how to take control, rather than doing what people told me to do. The fact that people would respect the decisions I made was pretty cool.”

Kuang says that one of his favourite things about his co-op was having a manager who not only listened to his input, but put it into action.

“I learned to be a better communicator, work with others, work within a team and I became a better programmer,” says Kuang.

While the purpose of co-op is to provide necessary transferrable skills and experience to students, it often paves a path for more opportunity. This was true for Kuang, a native of China, whose co-op helped him become the head of logistics executive for DeltaHacks, a student-run hackathon for social change.

“Co-op put what I learned into practice” says Kuang. “There’s always a disconnect between what you learn in school and what you learn in the real world. I understood concepts from class but didn’t have the practical skills. Co-op put them together. Now, I feel more comfortable graduating and finding a job [because] I have real work experience.”

Like many other students who pursue co-op, Kuang’s co-op experience had both personal and professional value. The ability to implement skills learned in the classroom into the real-world gives students the opportunity to learn about what best suits them in a career. It also gives them exposure to a variety of experiences, such as collaborating with colleagues on projects or learning how to navigate challenging situations.

“At the end of the co-op term, I knew what I did and didn’t want to do,” says Kuang, “I know what works for me. I know now [that] I’m capable of learning something new, even if it’s a project I’ve never worked on before, or just in an area I’ve never worked in. It’s reassuring to know I’m capable of learning continuously and that I’m doing okay.”