A Generous Match - Co-Op Program fuels competitive advantage

Bill Nelson’s story reads like an adventure novel. Developing oil in Alaska’s frozen tundra, guarded by professional security in Algeria and making billion-dollar deals in Texas.

A midwesterner, Nelson (BSChE ’74, MSChE ’75) always wanted to be an engineer, so Purdue was at the top of his college list.

While he was an undergrad in the 1970s, stagflation hit, limiting job opportunities. Nelson saw the Co-Op Program as a regular paycheck and a chance to get real-world experience with Mallinckrodt, a chemical manufacturing company based in St. Louis.

“Co-oping with Mallinckrodt was like an extended interview; more important, it gave me the chance to use what I had been learning in the classroom in real life,” Nelson says.

Nelson learned fast. From the intricacies of the office environment and pilot-plant operations to understanding union relationships and the impact of the bottom line, the longer he was with the company, the more responsibility he was given.

“Early on, I gained a much greater insight on how business worked, much more than I had ever learned in the classroom,” Nelson says.

After earning his master’s degree in chemical engineering, he went to work for Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) in its upstream research and development group.

Bill Nelson

During 26 years with ARCO in various leadership roles, Nelson traveled the globe — Alaska, Indonesia, London and North Africa. However, his stint in Alaska was one of his most rewarding experiences. “Working in Anchorage had similarities to being a co-op student. Fellow co-op students wind up being your best friends. They are the people you work with on the same rotation; they’re your study partners,” Nelson says.

Nelson says the most fun he had came after leaving ARCO, when he was leading the exploration and production activities of Hunt Petroleum Corp. As chief operating officer, he increased Hunt’s value from under $1 billion to a selling price of $4.2 billion in 2008.

Nelson says his co-op experience laid the foundation for his success and prompted his $100,000 commitment toward a graduate teaching fellowship within the Co-Op Program — now Purdue’s Office of Professional Practice (OPP), which houses the Co-Op Program. Nelson’s co-op experience mirrors what is currently offered to more than 600 students through OPP — exceptional, real-world experience.

Established in 1954, co-op provides a five-session cooperative education program in which students spend alternate semesters studying and working full-time for a company, repeating the cycle five times with the same employer. It now also offers a three-session option. International programs and internships are now available through OPP.

The office’s flagship international program, the Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education (GEARE) program, offers professional experience and the opportunity to study abroad. Students complete one domestic and one international internship, then one study-abroad semester at a university in the country of their internship.

“Offering classes in the summer has been a challenge for us, especially in recent years, due to budget cuts and a reduction in the number of courses that are offered in the summer,” says Eckhard Groll, OPP director and a professor of mechanical engineering. “That’s where Bill Nelson’s gift makes a real difference. He specifically wanted an endowment to help pay for summer instruction. He is facilitating what Purdue wants to do in the long run — to go to a trimester schedule with a full slate of courses in the summer.”

The Co-Op Program operates on trimesters; students can take a full course load in the summer. Groll says that offers flexibility with respect to work-session schedules and academic sessions.

The Co-Op Program’s payoff is significant.

“We see co-op students getting two-and-a-half times the job offers and earning 10 percent higher initial salaries compared to Purdue students who have a similar grade-point average and do not participate in the Co-Op Program,” Groll says. “If you like what you’re doing, and you’re performing well in what you’re doing — you’re going to get hired.”