Real World Learning: A Co-op Success Story – Q & A with Christina Hassan

Coop Education Week is a time to celebrate students, cooperative education and work integrated learning. There’s no denying experiential learning is one of the fastest growing areas on university campuses and its value has a ripple-effect that is truly profound.

It is through co-ops, technology-enhanced courses, work-integrated learning, research opportunities, entrepreneurship skills development and online learning, that Ontario universities are transforming the way they teach in order to enhance the skills and future success of university grads. University co-op programs specifically are where student curiosity and learning is put to the test in the real world – giving our students the chance to learn valuable skills and better prepare for their futures.

A report by the Council of Ontario Universities – Bringing Life to Learning at Ontario Universities – provides a snapshot of the breadth of experiential learning opportunities offered by Ontario’s universities and places a spotlight on students and employers who are benefitting from them. The following is the story of just one student – Christina Hassan, a recent Health Studies graduate and current Master of Public Health candidate at the University of Waterloo – and it highlights the tremendous value co-op opportunities can bring.

Q: Why did you choose to study co-op at the University of Waterloo?

I did co-op in my last semester of high school. I worked with a doctor in my community and got to see what his life was like and the patients he saw. It gave me the opportunity to see if that was something I was interested in doing later in life. I’ve always seen the value of experiential learning (learning through action) in order to gain hands-on knowledge coupled with the classroom experience. It’s what specifically led me to apply to Waterloo’s co-op program.

Q: Can you describe your experience in Waterloo’s co-op program?

Christina stands with Ugandan mothers and babies during her Save the Mothers internshipFrom working on policies and programs for the Region of Peel in Brampton to project managing a start-up Clinical Trial Consortium at St. Michael’s Hospital, I’ve had several amazing experiences through Waterloo’s co-op program. I also worked for Save the Mothers, an Ontario-based not-for-profit that teaches a Masters in Public Health Leadership in Mukono, Uganda. As an intern of this program I worked in administration at the university, delivering care in hospitals, and leading public health discussion in communities on the importance of maternal health.

What perfect combination of words would do this experience justice? Amazing. Life-changing. Spectacular. During a talk at the University of Waterloo’s TedxUW conference, I describe the joys of helping deliver 200 babies as well as some of the more difficult memories during my time in Uganda. Click the following links to watch the video of my TedxUW talk as well as another video that sums up my story.

Q: How did you end up putting your co-op experience into action?

When I returned to campus after my work term with Save the Mothers I became involved with Waterloo’s social start-up incubator, GreenHouse, at St. Paul’s University College. It was clear during my co-op experience that mothers around the world need stable, long-term funds to address the gaps in their care. It was at GreenHouse that my passion for helping the women and babies of Uganda took shape.

Christina organizes medical kits with two volunteersI’ve learned that ideas are like wings – their power comes from being able to spread them into our community and then out into the world. Sometimes they flourish through coop terms, like they did with me at St. Michael’s hospital, where I helped save my employer over $15,000.

For me, my ideas flew me to Africa, where I started FullSoul as a direct result of my co-op experience. FullSoul is a not-for-profit equipping hospitals in Uganda with medical supplies. We have raised over $15,000 to date. Each medical kit has the power to deliver up to three babies per day, 365 days of the year, for approximately 20 years.

Q: In your experience, how does the value of co-op translate into the real world?

I remember playing dress-up as a kid. I had this little Fisher Price kitchen that I set up next to my mom’s kitchen, where I would make the same things as her, in plastic, and serve the food to my dollies. I looked up to my mom and emulated her every move.

As co-op students, sometimes we play a bit of dress up. We live in four-month intervals. Four months of work, four months of school. Four months we have a real job, wear professional work clothes, wake up at seven and go to bed at 11 every night. It’s like playing pretend grown-up for a while until the four months are up, when we relinquish all responsibility to our employers and return to being students once again!

But once back in school we don’t forget the journeys our co-ops have taken us on. What it was like to step outside of our comfort zones long enough to let new experiences transform our minds.

This transformation doesn’t happen over weeks or months, it happens every moment. It happens during your first ever interview, as you wait for your name to be called and you’ve wiped your sweaty palm about 500 times as you prepare for that first handshake. It happens when you walk into work on your first day, when you walk into the Region of Peel and think to yourself, “Ahhhh that’s what cubicles look like.” Or when someone says, “Christina, you can take a lieu day on Friday” and you wonder, “Why do I get a bathroom day on Friday?” It happens in the middle of your work term at St. Michael’s hospital, when you are sitting in as your employer tells a young mother that she has breast cancer, and it takes all the power you have in your body not to cry along with the patient. And then it will happen as you are working a night shift for Save the Mothers in Uganda, the hydro is out and all the beds are full as you help a woman deliver her first baby on the hospital floor. Only to realize you are too late, the baby has already died and if the bleeding doesn’t stop, so will the mother.

These experiences go on to shape us, help us discover who we are and prepare us for what the future has in store.

Q: What advice would you give to students considering co-op?

I would not be where I am today without co-op. Co-op is a great opportunity to try out different things to help us find where our passion lies — different types of work, from the typical to the atypical, from the predictable to the extreme.Christina stands with a doctor with baby in Canadian hospital

This is your opportunity to experience jobs and build relationships with the people that you are going to be someday. You can find mentors and cross jobs off the list that you know you do not want to be in. You can look into your future a little and get the chance to ask people out to lunch and find out the paths they took to get there.

You will gain really valuable experiences through co-op that you wouldn’t ordinarily, so don’t be afraid to put yourself in an uncomfortable position. Just apply, leave your doors open and allow yourself to try things out. A great thing about co-op is that you can try something for four months and try something else for another few months. That’s not necessarily something you’ll be able to do later in life. So don’t hold back.


Christina HassanChristina Hassan is a recent Health Studies (’14) graduate and current Master of Public Health candidate at the University of Waterloo. As an undergrad co-op student, she brought her wealth of experiences to five co-op terms ranging from world-class research at St Michael’s hospital, public health work at the Region of Peel, and medical internship with Save the Mothers in Uganda, where she helped to deliver 200 babies and raised awareness about maternal health issues. This life-changing experience led Christina’s to found FullSoul, a company that raises money for hospital supplies in Uganda.

Her achievements earned her Co-op Student of the Year in 2011, YMCA International Peace Medallion, and 2015 University of Waterloo Young Alumni Award. She has presented her research internationally throughout Canada, the United States and Europe and it has been published in various scientific medical journals.