Record number of N.B. university students participating in internship program
Co-ops, experiential learning programs doubled amid pandemic, bucking national trend
When the pandemic hit, Monica Boquin feared her chances of landing an internship were gone amid massive workplace disruption.
"Companies were moving online, businesses were moving online," she said. "So that meant they were probably going to reduce staff or just just stay with the people they had and not expand."
But when the virtual fall semester began, the fourth-year student landed a placement with the Multicultural Association of Fredericton through the office of experiential learning at St. Thomas University.
And she wasn't alone in securing a spot.
New Brunswick reported record-high participation in its government-sponsored experiential learning program, including double the number of students and business partners.
In 2020, 2,200 university students were connected with experiential learning opportunities with 550 employers in the province. That's 1,100 more than in 2019, according to figures from the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour.
The numbers also include 135 students in the Future Wabanaki program for Indigenous students.
Those positions are under the Future NB, a government initiative started in 2018 to help students gain work experience and employers find qualified staff.
Making an impact
Experiential learning programs at New Brunswick's four publicly-funded universities include workplace opportunities such as co-ops, internships and practicums. They also offer opportunities to engage with the community through courses, volunteering and projects.
At the University of New Brunswick, several programs have more than doubled over the past year.
"We've definitely seen a huge increase in the number of students looking for experiential learning opportunities and the number of partners who want to engage with our students," said Sarah King, director of the office of experiential education.
"What we're hearing now from students is they're saying things like 'How can I make an impact while I'm at university, what can I get involved with, how am I going to get to know this community.' They come to us looking for these types of opportunities."
The growth of the programs in New Brunswick during the pandemic counters national trends. Opportunities are down about 15 to 30 per cent across the country compared to early 2020, according to Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada.
King said that's in part due to the presence of small and medium-sized businesses that are closely involved in the community.
"Our employers have been really open to having students work remotely from wherever they are, including international students," King said.
Prepared for the workforce
Most internships and experiential learning opportunities were arranged remotely under Public Health restrictions.
In Boquin's role with the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, she coordinated different programs for newcomers to the city — all while working virtually. The opportunity to help others appealed to the international student from Honduras.
"I really connect to what they go through also coming from another country, so I knew I really wanted to lend a hand to someone," she said.
The internship was extended for another semester. Then, the association hired her for a job which will continue into her final academic year.
Boquin said the placement allowed her to develop connections in the community, gave her confidence and prepared her for a career.
"I was also able to understand better what I want to do with my degree, exactly what area I want to work in," she said. "If I had waited until graduating to start looking for a job, I probably wouldn't have realized that until later.
St. Thomas University is also reporting rising numbers. In 2020-21, about 150 students secured paid internships. That's double the number when the program was launched two years ago.
Clara Santacruz, manager of experiential and community-based learning, said students now want to apply their degrees to the world.
Another selling point: all the internships are paid.
"That is very attractive to students too, knowing they can have some financial support while clarifying their career interests, and having firsthand experience in a professional setting," Santacruz said.
"Students also know that it's not just taking a part-time job but an opportunity to learn from those people who have more experience."