A reflection of my past co-op experience in college for software engineering:

I am in third year of a three year software engineering program at my college. This is officially my third and last co-op semester of the program, as I only have one semester of school left after this.

My first co-op was very unsatisfying. I was in second year then, and I was hired by the college to basically unpack and image new Dell machines and put them outside of people's desks so the real help desk staff could install them. I was greatly dissatisfied with this, but I plugged away ar it anyways. It paid $8.50 an hour, but it did pay for my next semester of school (and a breakfast club every morning). And I did do a lot of self education, specifically learning a lot more about PC hardware and operating systems.

For my second co-op term, I was interviewed against about 8 other people for the job of Helpdesk technician for Environment Canada. This was sort of a neat job because you never know what 's going to come next and how you're going to deal with it. There was a lot of learning at first, mostly hardware and networking things, or specifics to various Microsoft products. And this job had its extreme tediums as well. I enjoyed it for the most part, though when it was frustrating, it was REALLY frustrating (spending 45 minutes cleaning spyware off a Windows 98 Pentium II). I was responsible for answering the help desk telephone line, which makes me more or less a secretary as well. This means I would be doing about 80% of the helpdesk calls while the other two people I worked with worked on their own things like server backups and software rollouts.

This paid for college once more, as long as a few other nice things. The whole semester allotted me about $6500 @ 11.50 an hour. Not great compared to what some of my classmates who were doing real code analysis for the big banks were making. What intrigued me the most were what the other two people I worked with were making. They both have super secure, nice jobs with the government that has great benefits, job security, lots of room for growth and promotion, and these two were barely a few olders than me, graduates of my own college and making approx. $50,000 a year.

So after my first semester in year three, my third semester rolled around. This semester meant a lot to me in terms of computer knowledge in programming and Linux. Perl instantly became my favourite programming language, and Linux my favourite OS, though I still depend on Windows for quite a few things. However, rather than pursue by reinspired lust for code, I went back to Environment Canada for a second term; something not uncommon for co-op students to do at this place.

And here I still am, largely doing the same stuff I was doing last co-op, which makes it that much more tedious because there's a lot less to learn from there. I was having regrets for a few weeks about coming back, as I was apparently going to graduate with pretty much no real world programming experience from a software engineering program.

I don't feel so bad now though. I'm going to learn an awful lot more during my last semester of school about Linux administration and Java programming and creating a major software engineering project and offering it to a company. My resume will look good with 8 months experience for this very corporate-like government institution. And I will have some great references. This particular place more than likely won't hire me because it is much cheaper for them to just keep getting co-op students for the monkey-work, but there are a lot of other government institutions in Canada that have an IT staff. And all of the baby boomers are retiring, former punch card programmers that have worked there for 35 years and now their main job is creating new email accounts in Microsoft Exchange and making $80k a year. That is job security.

I guess the moral of the story is you can take some great experience out of anything you do, even if it's not quite what you expected to be doing. For the most part, you decide what you want to do with your life.