Bridging the Gap

a room full of people standing and talking

Author: Ashley Rabinovitch

An ambitious new fund expands the realm of possibility for co-op students in the Faculty of Mathematics.

With more than 8,000 students and 250 full-time professors, the Faculty of Mathematics (FOM) contains the largest concentration of mathematical and computer science talent in the world. If the FOM is a factory of innovation, its co-op program is the primary pipeline that carries this talent out into the world. In the past year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and increased the barriers that students face in finding a co-op position that’s both financially feasible and professionally rewarding. In an unprecedented push to help students overcome these barriers, the FOM has launched a brand-new Experiential Student Success Fund.

Identifying barriers to opportunity

According to Lori Case, Associate Dean for Cooperative Education in the Faculty of Mathematics, the Fund is carefully designed to meet the evolving needs of Math students, 70 percent of whom are currently enrolled in the FOM co-op program. In a perfect storm, the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of available co-op positions at the same time that the incoming Fall 2020 class, which was twice as large as in the past, increased co-op enrollment. “As a result, more students are competing for fewer co-op jobs, and first-term students are less likely to be offered a position than their more experienced counterparts,” explains Case. “We have identified an urgent need to support them early on so that they don’t fall behind.”

Sanjana Naik, a fourth-year Math student, has five co-op terms under her belt, but she remembers what it was like to be a first-term student. “I really struggled to get those first few positions,” she shares. “Now, incoming students have it even harder than I did.”

To add to the challenge of landing a first co-op job, international students like Naik experience an additional set of obstacles. Some partner organizations have certain residency or licensing requirements, making options for international students more limited. These students can find themselves in a precarious position since their eligibility for a post-grad work permit may be compromised if there is a break, such as an unemployed work term, in their degree progression.For many students, completing a co-op in their home country isn’t a viable option. “The money I earn from my co-op jobs here in Canada funds a portion of my tuition and living expenses,” says Naik. “It was a deciding factor in coming to Waterloo.”

Other Math students are taking the initiative to find less traditional but equally rewarding co-op jobs. Whether it’s investing in a cause close to their hearts through working at a charitable organization or taking a risk on an early-stage startup, countless Math students have been inspired to think outside the box when it comes to choosing a co-op position. Far too often, however, these opportunities are financially out of reach for those who can’t afford to forgo a traditional salary for months at a time. “We can’t wait any longer to address these inequities and open the door to a broader range of experiences,” says Jeremy Steffler, Faculty Relations Manager for Cooperative Education. “So many students have the drive and the desire to make a wider impact through their co-op experience, but they need extra support to make it happen.”

Judy Lin (BCS’21), a computer science student who is preparing to graduate this summer, has discovered an interest in back-end developing through well-paying co-op jobs in her field, but she might have pursued more unconventional co-op opportunities with additional support. “Sometimes you go onto the job portal and see something that looks fascinating, but you have tuition and living costs to pay for,” she explains. “As much as co-op isn’t primarily about the money, it’s still a real consideration.”

Blazing a new trail

The FOM is raising the bar for supporting co-op students through establishing a permanent Experiential Student Success Fund. “As first work term and international students require higher levels of support, and a growing number of students aspire to make an impact through less traditional co-op jobs, we are redoubling our efforts to make their time in the co-op program as productive and enriching as possible,” says Case. 

The Fund will support co-op students in several key ways:

Student Awards

Full-time undergraduate students enrolled in the FOM’s co-op program will be eligible to receive one of three new awards: First Co-op Support awards, Co-op for Social Good awards, and International Student Support awards. Students can apply through the Office of the Associate Dean of Co-op for the FOM to receive up to $3,000 of additional financial support for a co-op term.


The Fund also supports students with an entrepreneurial spirit. Programs like the Bridging Entrepreneurs to Students (BETS) Program and Enterprise Co-op equip students to join an early-stage start-up or spend a work-term bringing their own vision to life.

Innovative new ideas

The Fund provides the flexibility to support innovative new programs and initiatives in the FOM as they arise.

The Fund will support students now, when they need it most, but the fundraising goal of $1M reflects the aim to support students in the future as well. “We envision this Fund as a prominent source of funding for Math co-op students, one that will create infinite possibilities and blaze a trail for generations to come,” says Case. 

Waterloo alumni have already demonstrated a special interest in giving back to those who came after them. Award-winning animator Bill Reeves (BMath’74) and his wife Ricki Blau made an early donation to the Fund.  “One of our children graduated from university just before the last recession, so we are sensitive to the struggles that students face when starting careers in times of widespread economic challenges,” they share. “We were motivated to widen opportunities for students so that they can hit the ground running.” 

Francis Lee (BMath’77), a business leader who works in Hong Kong, views his donation to the Fund as a direct investment in student success. “The co-op program is a critically important piece of teaching students to handle the responsibilities of a full-time position, learning the give and take of the office and how to overcome failure,” he affirms.

Judy Lin proves his point. As she prepares to graduate from the FOM in a few short months, she reflects on her professional journey through the co-op program. “In my first co-op term, I had no idea how to interact with coworkers, navigate challenges, and ask for help,” she remembers. “I’ve come so far since then. Thanks to the co-op program, I’m going into job interviews with the confidence that I have what it takes to succeed. I know where I can bring value to a company.”

To learn more about the Fund, please visit Support the Faculty of Mathematics.