Gen Z: Changing the world one co-op term at a time

Jahanvi desaiWith so much uncertainty in the world, Jahanvi Desai (BES in progress) doesn’t know exactly what her career will look like but she is certain about one thing: she wants to engage in meaningful work.

Born after 1996, Desai is part of Gen Z, a generation that places a priority on values, especially in the workplace. “If my role as a campus coordinator has taught me anything, it is that youth are leading the change and stepping up where adults are not,” says Desai, an Environment and Business major in the Faculty of Environment.

Like many Waterloo students, Desai is using her co-op experience to engage in work that advances the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On her second co-op term, Desai worked as a sustainability project co-ordinator for the University’s Sustainability Office. During her third and fourth work terms she was an air quality and climate change co-ordinator for the City of Hamilton where she calculated the greenhouse gas inventory for the city and helped them develop a carbon budget.

Whether it’s testing soil samples near Lake Erie, managing social media at a non-profit organization, or helping develop affordable housing, co-op work terms give Waterloo students an opportunity to make a social, environmental and economic impact in organizations around the world.

Norah McRae

Recent research conducted by the University’s Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) unit showed students in work placements and internships across 12 countries carried out work related to the SDGs – 17 goals that include zero hunger, quality education and clean water and sanitation.  

“The research comes as higher-education institutions are looking to act as allies for change and achieve the SDGs through teaching, work-integrated learning, research and partnerships,” says Norah McRae, associate provost of CEE and co-author on the study. “Educational institutions and students all play a vital role in taking on global challenges and ensuring a sustainable future. Universities can play a role in developing students who can bring those skills and motivation to the future workforce. 

“It is imperative that we leverage our co-operative and experiential education programs to understand how we can further engage our students to work towards advancing the SDGs.” 

And while many students see SDG opportunities in the non-profit sector, Desai hopes the private sector can also work with students to create work cultures where Gen Z talent can make an impact. “I find that businesses have a lot of potential to contribute to the betterment of society – not just the environment, but through corporate and social responsibility initiatives,” Desai says.

Sometimes I feel the general public doesn’t really care about what young people have to say, even if you have co-op experience and have seen
things first-hand … the co-op program really opens up students’ minds to think they can make a difference.

Higher-education institutions are looking to act as allies for change and achieve the SDGs through teaching, work-integrated learning, research and partnerships.

More co-op students advancing the SDGs

Veronica Santi

Veronica Santia (BES in progress), a third-year Geography and Environmental Management student, worked for Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 where she monitored nutrient loading from farmland near Lake Erie. In her second work term, Santia participated in fieldwork in Essex County, installing flumes and taking soil and water samples with the goal to reduce algal blooms in Lake Erie. “Sometimes I feel the general public doesn’t really care about what young people have to say, even if you have co-op experience and have seen things first-hand,” Santia says. “I think the co-op program really opens up students’ minds to think they can make a difference.”

Emma Schuster

Emma Schuster (BES in progress), a third-year Environment, Resources and Sustainability major, worked as a social media student for Habitat for Humanity where she learned that she didn’t want to pursue social media but realized she’s passionate about working in the non-profit sector.

“Regardless of the specific role, I want to work for an organization that does good things,” Schuster says. “I also would like to work for a sustainable business that participates in the circular economy.”

Asser AngAsser Ang (BES in progress), a third-year Environment and Business student, has had co-op terms at Greensaver, a non-profit energy conservation organization, and the Waterloo Sustainability Office where he advanced several SDGs including climate action, quality education, life on land and responsible consumption and production.

At the Sustainability Office, Ang worked on advancing the University’s environmental, sustainable strategy. He created social media content and hosted events like Eco Summit. He also wrote a report that will inform the University’s sustainable air travel policy. “There’s this common misconception that the SDGs are just about the environment, but they are also about social and economic factors,” Ang says. “The SDGs are really about making sure marginalized communities are not left out of the sustainability conversation and no one is left behind,” Ang says.


Terissa Zhang (BES in progress), a third-year Urban Planning student, completed her co-op work term with the United Property Resource Corporation (UPRC). UPRC, which partners with United Church on the majority of its projects, builds sustainable and accessible housing that is affordable for the average Canadian on underutilized church and non-profit lands. Being part of a private firm gave Zhang a unique perspective and understanding of the responsibilities of businesses when it comes to advancing the SDGs.

“Unlike our non-profit clients who tend to face challenges around fundraising and adequate funding, I think private companies have power in the sense that they can bring more financial strength to these causes,” Zhang says.