Hi, I’m Elinore! In this series, Community College Focus, I’ll be talking to people doing interesting work in community colleges throughout the U.S., and whose programs are attuned to student variability and supporting all learners.
For our first interview, I checked in with Chuck Sekafetz, Chair of the Electronics Department at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon. We discussed a few exciting projects at the college such as the Cooperative Work Experience, a program that has helped hundreds of students, including several with autism, gain work experience, college credits, money, and expanded networks.
Elinore Alms: Hello, Chuck! First off, let’s talk about your college’s Cooperative Work Experience (CWE) program. Please tell us about it. What does the program aim to accomplish? Do autistic students come through it often?
Chuck Sekafetz: Our CWE program is best described as an internship program. While “internship” covers the majority of the idea of CWE, it is more than just working for a company. It creates a framework for student success based on learning skills and gaining knowledge through supervised activities that a business is willing to share. This supplies a student with skills, knowledge, and experience for future employment, and also provides businesses the opportunity to potentially review a future job candidate. More on CWE can be found here.
In our field, we hope that the employer will want to continue the student employment after graduation, as they have now hopefully trained a new employee and found that they are a good fit for the company.
Autistic students do come through the CWE program in our department. Sometimes it is to get experience only, and others look to find that employer match for a long term hire. We find that the student who has gone through CWE with an employer has an easier time transitioning to full time employment due to the created familiarity with the employer and/or coworkers.
EA: How long do students generally participate? What kind of supports are available for students struggling in the program? Can students redo the program if the first opportunity does not result in employment?
CS: Each CWE is a term long – 12 weeks – and it follows our normal school terms. So, students sign up for classes and CWE at the same time. Yes, they can retake it under various circumstances. For example, if the site wasn’t a good match and they were utilizing it for possible employment, a student might try another CWE opportunity. Another reason is if they just never showed up for work to get credit. Yet another reason is if they show up but do not accomplish the tasks due to their own lack of discipline. The grade for the class is not wholly determined by the student’s accomplishments at the job, but is also derived in part from talking and discussing their progress with their instructor (such as myself). I have in the past put much of this information online. I now use a different format for delivery, but this is my old syllabis, and you can see that the site supervisor has a large part of the final grade, but that grade does fall fully on the instructor. Mentorship from the instructor has proven very effective as it provides a consistent point of contact for the student. Looking at the weekly report that I require, you’ll see that it gives the student an opportunity to let the instructor know if there are problems. For example, in the past after reading a student’s comments, I removed them from a CWE site due to potential questionable practices by the owner.
So, students can retake the CWE or even take another semester if they wish – as long as it meets the needs of the program they are in and their education goals. One program at Chemeketa required the students to be in CWE for a whole year. This gave students a huge opportunity within the companies as they were able to really learn and associate with the employer and other employees.
EA: Wow, so Chemeketa Community College has really developed a flexible, sincere program for connecting students and employers! I assume a wide variety of opportunities is available. How many employers do you work with during an average year? Is there a range of workplaces from local businesses to large companies, or somewhere in between?
CS: In our area of program offerings (electronics and robotics), we place students in small, medium, and large companies. Many times it is the student who suggests a place, so they are better invested in their decision. We might work with 1-5 employers a year, but our whole CWE department (we have staff dedicated to this) may work with 40 to 100 employers a year. Of course, it all depends upon the year. They coordinate multiple sites: high tech, retail business, hospitals, welding shops, manufacturing, and even automotive. It really depends upon the students who walk through the door and their goals and interests. Next term, I will likely have a person working with a local crane company. Not the small cranes either, the skyscraper construction variety! Cranes involve a lot of hightech electronics, and companies need people who can troubleshoot issues quickly.
EA: I’m completely impressed by the Cooperative Work Experience. It seems like a powerful tool for all students, but especially helpful for STEM majors in need of support, flexibility, and networking. Thank you so much for sharing with us! Are there other noteworthy programs for autistic students at your school?
CS: We also have another program, the Occupational Skills Training Program, run by my Chemeketa colleague named Mark Noah, that some students interested in CWE might want to explore.
This program is unique because it can be a stand-alone program. In other words, students don’t necessarily also have to be enrolled in classes. I have sent students to this program if they were interested in our program, but the ability to learn in a formal classroom environment was not the best match. In this program, students will be placed into a workforce position and, much like CWE, will be given credit for their time. However, the expectations are even more directed at learning on the job. Skills and work habits are developed with long term employment beyond the traditional school term. This can be full time employment for as briefly as three weeks, or as long as two years. Mark Noah and Occupational Skills Training team have won awards for their work.
EA: Chemeketa sounds like a pretty great place for the neurodiverse population. I’m so excited to hear about the opportunities available to students with incredible gifts who may otherwise be overlooked.
With that, I think it is time to wrap up this interview. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about the Cooperative Work Experience and its many supportive features! Which college or program would you recommend we interview next time?
CS: I would check out the University of Idaho and their Raven Scholars Program.
Looking at the Chemeketa website, it’s clear this college is invested in the success of its students, and talking to Chuck gave me the same feeling. The CWE program, specifically for STEM majors, does not have an equal at my college nor, I suspect, at many others. I think it is a great idea that helps students of all flavors build networks, something that can really be a daunting task for neurodivergent students in particular. It was a true honor talking to Chuck Sekafetz, and I am looking forward to speaking with Leslie Gwartney, Coordinator of the Raven Scholars Program for students on the spectrum, in our next installment of Community College Focus.
To learn more about community colleges and autism, you might like Parent Perspective: Autism and Auditing Community College Classes. Also check out Community College Can Be a Good Fit for Students on the Spectrum and Steps to Autism Acceptance Podcast: Episode Five, Inclusive College Models for Students Who Have Autism.
In the meantime, if you have questions or comments for me, please join the conversation!