Serena Zoe Valles, a fourth-year Architectural Engineering student, shares how she took advantage of international co-op opportunities to build her architectural resume.
Work term 1: Worked in Vannes, France at the architecture firm Alinea Architects.
Work term 2: Worked in Toronto, Canada at Kearns Mancini Architects Inc.
Work term 3: Worked in Vancouver, Canada at D'Ambrosio Architecture + Urbanism.
Work term 4 & 5: Worked in Aarhus, Denmark at the architecture firm C.F. Møller.
What does an architectural co-op student do?
At her most recent firm in Denmark, Serena worked in the competition department. She explained that she learned a variety of different things at each of her co-op roles. For example, she worked on intricate drawings and presentations for proposals.
"A developer will hold a competition and lots of different architecture firms will input a proposal. My team would help put together panels and drawings to try to win the contract with the developer."
Serena’s team would present their "big idea" drawings and designs with the concepts they produced for the project. Then the developers would select a firm with the best idea to work with their team to start working on the refinement of the design.
"It was very fun to work on larger scale projects and see the process which was really interesting. The best part was the project that I worked on actually won."
Where did you find your co-op jobs?
"Most of the time I would look on my own, especially for international opportunities."
Serena would look at architecture firm's websites all over the world and their listed projects.
"You can get an idea of what kind of work they're doing and if I liked what they were doing, then I would reach out, either through their emails on the website or through an application portal they had set up."
"A lot of times, it's just doing your own research and finding the firm. I did it online, just through Google and Google Maps."
"I found my other jobs through personal connections and WaterlooWorks."
What projects are you proud of?
"Our team won a competition to build a monastery. It was really interesting because it was a historic building built in the 12th century. One thing that I like with an international experience is being able to work on projects that you wouldn't normally get in Canada, or in North America."
"We had to transform the entire property and modernize the monastery as it was outdated and its previous program was no longer necessary for the area."
"We were also looking at how to develop the surrounding community for all ages, like senior housing and housing for students and families."
What was the culture like?
"There is a very different mindset on how to work in the region of Scandinavia. They are very family-oriented and value their personal lives. They prioritize being able to go home on time and relaxing after work whether both with colleagues and family which was nice."
"I also found they were so open to ideas. As a North American intern, I was used to getting a project and having to follow the head architect’s lead. And then in Scandinavia, they expect you to come up with ideas, and they're very open to hearing them."
Serena explained that she found adjusting to the new norm to share her ideas to be a bit of a struggle in the beginning. However, towards the end of the term she built her confidence and felt comfortable proposing her ideas.
"It was an advantage to see that different way of thinking in the work culture there and being appreciated for my ideas."
"As for the language barrier, France was not as English-friendly. They kind of have their own way of doing things."
"Denmark, on the other hand, was great because everyone speaks English, so, I didn't have to worry about learning Danish because Danish is a very hard language. And the people are also very friendly and open."
"One thing that I would suggest is finding roommates when you go to a new country. It really helps with integrating into the culture. Even if they're international roommates, just having people to go out with and explore the city encourages you to do the same and go out of your comfort zone, especially."
What was life outside of work like?
"I lived with two Danish roommates and they were amazing. We hung out everyday cooking meals and eating together. You go to a new country and you're finding your way. It’s nice to come home to a little family and do the small things together. Having roommates checking in on you makes you feel safer in a new environment."
Serena would often take advantage of the nice weather by going out with the other interns she worked with. They would have fun by enjoying the night life, biking, going to museums and checking out parks as Denmark has a great landscape design.
"A great thing about international co-ops is having a home base in a new country. You're able to explore and go on day or weekend trips to places that you wouldn't easily be able to go. Some friends and I went up to the Faroe Islands, which would be very difficult to get to unless you're in the UK or in Denmark. We also had access to cheap transportation to explore other surrounding countries too."
What important skills did you learn from co-op?
"I learned confidence and finding my own voice." "Traveling solo teaches you how to be independent. When you're traveling alone, you make new friends wherever you go; I noticed a huge difference in my confidence by being able to approach new people and being able to start up a conversation. This confidence helps with things like networking, finding jobs, just figuring things out and talking to new people."
"My technical and communication skills were also developed through co-op as I worked with other people who have differing opinions and experience. Being able to collaborate with many people in a workplace is a huge benefit."
"Every time I go to a new place I go online and join student Facebook groups to participate in activities like hiking and karaoke. By doing this, you can easily expand your group and made new connections. I think it really helped me feel more at home and get to know people a bit better."
"In school we learn software programs like Rhino, Adobe suite, and digital fabrication. But through my co-op jobs I've further developed more technical skills by using Revit, AutoCAD, SketchUp, Enscape and Vectorworks a lot more."
Do you have any advice for future co-op students?
"In terms of finding a co-op, just apply. Even if you don’t think you’ll get it or you’re scared because it’s a very big and well-known company. Just apply wherever you want to apply. It might be a little more work to do it, but you never know what you might get."
"Don’t be afraid to go outside of your limits. I think co-op is such a great opportunity to do international travel and experience something new because visas are so much easier to get when you're a student and you get to really experience life as a local."
"Use co-ops to get a taste of a new place. It’s not permanent, you will always be able to go back home, but you may never be able to have an opportunity like this again. Take the opportunity, try it out, give it a shot, it is worth it."
What's next for you?
"Next year, I'll be done with my undergrad and I will be starting my master’s after taking a year off. During that year, I’d like to travel and find some interesting topics to focus on for my thesis. I’m excited to be able to dive deeper into a thesis topic and using my experiences through my international work terms as a starting point for my future studies."
"Co-op gave me the chance to develop a good relationship in many firms, which is a great opportunity for future employment and networking."
"Overall, I’m excited to be able to continue travelling and use the confidence and knowledge that I gained through co-ops, to guide my studies and future work as an architect."