University of Waterloo Recognizes 2020’s Co-op Student of the Year Award Recipients

Monday, March 1, 2021

2020 CSOTY Winners

By Namish Modi and Zahra Sakhi

From making a difference in important non-profit organizations to being a part of COVID-19 trials, University of Waterloo’s co-op students shone throughout a challenging and unprecedented 2020.  

They excelled – both digitally and in-person – as the pandemic hit in March 2020.  

Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) is honouring six standout students for exceptional work terms. 

“It’s been a uniquely challenging year for many of our students, and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to recognize our Co-op Student of the Year and Problem Lab award winners,” says Norah McRae, associate provost of CEE. “This group of remarkable winners exemplify how quality work-integrated learning experiences can help students develop the skills they need to be adaptable, resilient, and ready for their future careers.”

CEE is proud to announce the following students as winners and honourable mentions for the annual Co-operative Student of the Year awards:  

Faculty Winner Honourable mention
Arts Jonathan Lee Mayuri Punithan
Engineering Rupa Vemulapalli Amanda Coleman
Environment Brad Bruder Ali Anwar
Health Emily Lam Maddy McBay
Mathematics Ryan Goldford Allen Wu
Science Omar Hajjaj Celine Huab

In addition, students who provide the best analysis of an important problem relevant to the co-op employer or the employer’s industry earn the designation of Co-op Problem Lab Award winners.  

CEE and the Problem Lab are proud to announce the 2020 winners:  

Faculty Winner Term
Environment Petrina Cheung Spring 2020
Science Omar Hajjaj Spring 2020
Engineering David Wheatle Winter 2020
Science Linda Marie Pallotto Winter 2020

The ceremony, hosted by CEE, will feature presentations from leaders across the university and will take place virtually on March 23, 2021.  To register to attend the event, click here.  


Jonathan Lee  -  Political Science (Faculty of Arts)

Jonathan Lee

Advocacy, passion and lobbying for change were all a part of Jonathan Lee’s standout co-op term at Daisy Group in Winter 2020.  

Like many, Lee’s term moved remote when the pandemic started in March 2020. That didn’t stop him from making a huge impact on real-world issues as an associate in public affairs at the political consulting firm.  

During his co-op term, Lee obtained his lobbying registration and represented clients in a local neighbourhood to rename the Swastika Trail in Puslinch, Ontario.   

“It was truly an honour to be able to do so, and in doing so, our firm offered me a lot of trust, as with my clients to represent them,” Lee said.  

Communication was an important aspect of Lee’s term, as providing accurate representations of clients’ needs, Lee says, is paramount for painting an accurate picture of the situation. Meanwhile, communicating with clients and developing presentations over Zoom, all during COVID-19, added another layer of personal development.   

“It was a great opportunity to meet members of parliament, work with senators and work with the community to seek a better outcome and it is something that we are still working on today.”  

Lee’s time at the Daisy Group further confirmed his passion for politics. 

“I was able to gain quite a lot of confidence in working with others, working to develop and think about smart policy and think about the very many considerations that take place a part of everyday political life. It honed and fostered the real spark in me and sharpened my love for politics."

JONATHAN LEE | Political Science


Rupa Vemulapalli  -  Computer Engineering (Faculty of Engineering)

Rupa Vemulapalli

Rupa Vemulapalli – through an ability to innovate and think critically – shone in her second co-op term. She is being recognized for her outstanding contribution to a Waterloo-based energy efficiency consulting firm.  

“I think innovation is crucial, it’s not something that’s inherent, it’s developed,” says Vemulapalli, who completed her Winter 2020 work term at Rushby Energy Solutions Inc. “Like any other skill, it requires time and practice, and co-op offers exactly that. It’s unique because co-op unlocks your own creative potential.” 

Serving as a junior analyst, Vemulapalli, a second-year computer engineering student, was able to play a critical role in the development of an iOS app for electric vehicle charger economics.  

Vemulapalli’s job description did not include app development, nor did she have any experience in it.  The app, that looks at increasing efficiency, will help electric vehicle suppliers quantify long-term gains in establishing charging stations in designating locations. The app is in the process of being added to the Apple app store.  

Prior to the pandemic, she attended frequent site visits, customer meetings and even had the opportunity to represent Rushby Energy during the annual Energy Solutions Expo. In-person site visits ended as COVID ramped up.  

“The way I adapted to that is essentially learning that there are other ways to maintain teamwork and collaboration in a remote setting,” Vemulapalli says. “Such as frequent Zoom calls, video calls, and even just touching base with teammates and employers on a personal level.” 

Vemulapalli says at the beginning of the term, she did have challenges, in terms of understanding certain aspects of the job. Through asking questions and constantly trying to learn, she was able to complete and become a standout in her work term.    

“If we choose to pick ourselves up, and learn and grow from the opportunities, it'll bring out the best in us and that's what I did."

RUPA VEMULAPALLI | Computer Engineering


Brad Bruder  -  Planning (Faculty of Environment)

Brad Bruder

During COVID-19, Brad Bruder saw his work at an important non-profit organization become even more vital.  

“We had to really get creative with technology to make things work,” Brad Bruder says, of his virtual co-op term at Habitat for Humanity. Bruder worked at Habitat for Humanity in Spring 2020 for eight months, as a senior manager of planning and development.  

Bruder’s work term helped move 18 families into homes in the Greater Toronto Area. The process was made challenging due to COVID-19.  

“Habitat has shown me how to be a good leader and how to work on a team, especially during trying times like COVID,” Bruder says, adding that resilience became increasingly important in a remote work setting.   

Bruder led a team in delivering 600 affordable housing units in the organization’s development pipeline, and played a role in the Habitat Hotel project, which will see the building of 50 affordable short-stay housing units for vulnerable populations in Burlington.  

“It’s a really great place to grow and [Habitat] empowers you to take on new skills and sometimes things you have no idea how to do,” Bruder says. “And to sort of put a shovel in the ground and start from there and ask for help when you need it. 

Bruder has completed several work terms at Habitat for Humanity while working in strategic initiatives, urban planning and project management. His contributions have earned him a full-time role at the organization.  

"Winning the award feels pretty great. I think it says that my employer gave me the tools and empowered me to make a real difference during my co-op, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Habitat for Humanity for that."

BRAD BRUDER | Planning


Emily Lam  -  Health Studies (Faculty of Health)

Emily Lam

Emily Lam earned an honourable mention for her work in 2019 at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. 

Lam is a Faculty of Health Co-op Student of the Year award winner for her work during Spring 2020.  

Lam’s exemplary accomplishments in important research in the Department of Radiation Oncology earned her this well-deserved recognition. This work term was Lam’s third at Sunnybrook as a clinical research assistant.  

During the third-year Health Studies student’s term, she published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Supportive Care in Cancer, which investigated the impact of pain in over 400 patients receiving breast radiation therapy. Lam’s findings will help provide clinicians with a clearer timeline of pain progression to help improve symptom management during treatment.  

“I never expected to be able to write papers and do these things that many doctors and researchers are doing. As an undergraduate I think it's incredible, but also something I would have never imagined,” Lam says, who was interviewed during a shift amid her fourth work term at Sunnybrook.    

Co-op Student of the Year is not the only honour Lam has received as she was named one of five recipients of the 2020 Young Investigator Award, presented by the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC).  Lam is also a nominee for the 2020 EWO (Education at Work Ontario) 2020 Co-op Student of the Year award.  

Lam, says innovation, a critical component of Waterloo’s Future Ready Talent Framework, is an extremely valuable skill pertinent to a career in healthcare.  

“For example, in my role, I work closely with patients every day and there’s so many times where unexpected things happen, questions come up, problems come up with clinical trials,” she says. “I think to be able to think quickly and critically to solve the problem in a safe way for patients, and also to be efficient in order to benefit the team that you’re working with, can really make you a valuable member of the organization.” 

“It is humbling to know that my work has made some sort of impact in the field, and I think it was also reassuring, and gave me the confidence to continue pursuing a career in healthcare and research."

EMILY LAM | Health Studies


Ryan Goldford -  Actuarial Science (Faculty of Mathematics)

Ryan Goldford

Efficiency is something that all organizations and departments strive for. Actuarial Science student Ryan Goldford helped to achieve that, through the development of an onboarding guide for future students during his 2020 work term.  

Goldford excelled in his role as an actuarial analyst in the Group Retirement Services (GRS) valuation department - a department that calculates the amount of money that Sun Life Financial as a whole, needs to set aside to pay future benefits to clients on its group retirement portfolio.  

During Goldford’s time at Sun Life, the fourth-year student created the onboarding guide, which will help increase efficiency in GRS.   

“It’s something that I think is going to also help new full-time analysts or members who joined the team get an understanding from my perspective of how Group Retirement Services fit Sun Life as a whole,” Goldford says. 

Goldford also effectively leveraged software to automate a key component of the organizations’ capital reporting.  

“[This] resulted in about a day's worth of time savings during the team’s busiest period,” Goldford says.  

Goldford’s ability to innovate and go above and beyond expectations has earned him recognition by CEE.  

“I think being able to have this honour is meaningful because I know how quality the students are at our school and so to represent them in this capacity feels incredible,” Goldford said.  

As a part of his term, Goldford presented key results to senior managers while he also mentored multiple co-op students. Goldford, who has completed several work terms at the company, has secured a full-time role post-graduation.  

“I would say it was very impactful to my future aspirations because it gave a lot of exposure to the actuarial field. Through the co-op program you can figure out what it is that you want to do, what you don’t want to do, and maybe confirm some inklings that you had coming into the program about what you thought that you would like and want.”

RYAN GOLDFORD | Actuarial Science


Omar Hajjaj  -  Biology (Faculty of Science)

Omar Hajjaj

In a time when clinical trials were perhaps at the peak of their importance, a Waterloo Biology student was playing a vital role, as a blood transfusion medicine research assistant.  

Omar Hajjaj, a fourth-year student, excelled during his eight-month work term at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre which began in Winter 2020.  

From playing a role in COVID-19 clinical trials to having a chance to coordinate some on his own, Hajjaj’s co-op experience paves the way for a bright future in research.  

“I really got to explore every facet of research during my co-op term there and it spans from government clinical trials, to even starting up some of my own smaller research projects and see them to the end,” Hajjaj says.  

During his work term, Hajjaj was part of the first COVID-19 trial in Ontario to enroll a patient to receive an investigational product.  

“I think it’s a personal experience that you don’t get often in research,” Hajjaj says.  

Alongside the COVID-19 trial, Hajjaj also produced an automated matrix of 826 blood samples, by “outlining locations and specimen details.” 

He also held responsibility for coordinating four government-funded clinical trials while working at six different hospitals in the GTA.  

Hajjaj, who has completed all his work terms in research – including three at Sunnybrook – credits his co-op experiences for helping determine his future professional aspirations. Meanwhile, he says his work term helped him understand the importance of building relationships and connections with colleagues.  

Hajjaj was also named a University of Waterloo Co-op Problem Award winner for 2020 and is nominated for CEWIL (Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning) Canada’s Student of the Year Award as well as EWO’s (Education at Work Ontario) Co-op Student of the Year Award.

“It is a great validating experience, I owe a lot of it to my employers who helped foster such an opportunistic work environment, where I got to explore different avenues of research, and kind of take my own path in something that interests me. I have a lot of mentors to thank as well, and I really am grateful for co-op."

OMAR HAJJAJ | Biology

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