The Student's Perspective

Photo of DO-IT Scholar Dave demonstrating a web resource

Video Presentation


This section and the accompanying video presentation and handout speak to the issues of access to, and benefits of, work-based learning activities from the student's perspective.

Why Participate in Work-Based Learning?

Work-based learning experiences are any work experiences, paid or unpaid, that provide opportunities to practice skills learned in school, clarify academic and career interests, determine which worksite accommodations work best, and develop contacts for future employment. Much of what students gain from participation in work-based learning activities cannot be taught in a typical college course. Through the interaction of classroom study and work experiences, students can enhance their academic knowledge, personal development and professional preparation.

Work-based learning can give students with disabilities opportunities to practice disclosing their disabilities, and requesting accommodations from potential employers while determining which accommodations work best for them. It is essential to their future success that they be able to clearly articulate their accommodation needs as they apply for jobs after graduation. The time to practice is now. In addition, participating in work experience programs can help students with disabilities:

  • clarify academic and career goals,
  • gain academic credit,
  • pay for their education,
  • apply practical theories from classroom work,
  • develop human relations and teamwork skills through interaction with co-workers,
  • develop job search skills,
  • learn to tailor résumés and cover letters to particular employers and positions,
  • gain exposure to specialized facilities not available on campus,
  • identify community-based career assistance programs, and
  • develop contacts for employment after graduation.

Many colleges and universities offer programs that help students gain work experience and network with potential employers. Offerings vary from campus to campus. Students need to do some research to find those best suited to their needs. Work-based learning programs include:

  • internships,
  • cooperative education,
  • job shadowing,
  • service learning,
  • independent study,
  • informational interviews, and
  • career services.

Descriptions of these activities are as follows.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a time-limited, intensive learning experience outside of the typical classroom. Students work with program staff and participating employers to locate suitable positions for a planned set of learning activities. Internships give students broad overviews of occupational fields while providing opportunities to develop work-readiness skills. Academic credit is sometimes granted, depending on the academic program.

What is Cooperative Education?

Cooperative education programs work with students, faculty, staff, and employers to help students clarify career and academic goals, and expand classroom study by allowing students to participate in paid, practical work experiences. These programs provide students opportunities to work in trainee positions in their fields of interest and to gain career-related experience as a part of their academic programs. Many employers use cooperative education programs as a way to groom future employees. Academic credit may be arranged.

What is Job Shadowing?

Job shadowing, where students visit businesses to observe one or more specific job, provides them with a realistic view of occupations in a variety of settings. They observe essential functions of occupational areas of interest. Experiences vary in time from one hour to a full day depending on the amount of time employers can provide. Job shadowing experiences offer opportunities for career exploration. Students usually arrange job shadowing appointments independently. Typically, they do not generate academic credit.

What is Service Learning?

Service learning programs offer opportunities to be concerned, informed and productive citizens by providing community service in non-paid, volunteer positions. It gives students opportunities to apply knowledge and skills learned in school while making a contribution to local communities. Academic credit may or may not be arranged depending on the field of study.

What is an Independent Study?

Students may be able to earn academic credit for work experiences outside of a structured career-based program. Many academic programs allow independent studies as an optional program component. Students who choose to enroll in independent studies work one-on-one with individual faculty members to develop projects for credit. Projects can range from research papers to work experience within their fields of study. Work experience, coupled with documentation, such as a journal or paper, is an excellent way to practice and demonstrate the skills learned in college.

What is an Informational Interview?

Informational interviews, where students meet with people working in careers to ask questions about their jobs and companies, allow students to gain personal perspectives on career interests. They also allow students to learn more about jobs from the people who do them every day. Informational interviews are usually arranged by the students themselves and don't typically generate academic credit.

What is Career Services?

A career services office provides a variety of career and job search services to students and alumni. Many can help people develop career plans and job search skills through individual counseling and job search workshops. The career services office acts as a liaison between students, alumni, faculty, staff, and prospective employers by organizing campus interviews, employer information and career fairs. Many offices also provide job listings and job lines for students and alumni to access.

Which Employers Participate?

Federal and State agencies, public, private and nonprofit businesses seek college students for placements across the country and overseas. The majority of opportunities are for sophomores and older students. However, some also offer opportunities to freshmen. Boeing, IBM, Microsoft, NASA, the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, US Central Intelligence Agency, USDA Forest Service, the US Department of Energy, and Weyerhaeuser, are just a few of the thousands of employers nationwide who offer valuable opportunities to students.

Who are the Team Players?

Career development professionals are required to assist all students, including students with disabilities, as they prepare to enter the workforce. Other team players in assuring successful transitions to employment include the students themselves, employers, faculty members, staff, teachers, counselors, and disabled student services staff.

College students with disabilities should:

  • Register with campus work-based learning centers, such as Career Services and Cooperative Education, so they can notify them of work-based learning opportunities.
  • Participate in orientations, seminars, workshops, and individual counseling sessions to effectively enhance their job search skills.
  • Let the work-based learning and disabled student services coordinators know what types of accommodations they may need to effectively perform in a specific work setting.
  • Access local support networks and disability services organizations that may be able to aid them in their job search.

Employers should:

  • Update position announcements and notify work-based learning coordinators of new positions.
  • Work in partnership with work-based learning centers to proactively develop strategies to encourage students with disabilities to participate in their work environments.
  • Educate their staff regarding diversity.

Faculty members, staff, teachers, or counselors should:

  • Encourage students with disabilities to gain work-based learning experiences.
  • Invite staff members from Cooperative Education, Career Services and other campus programs to speak to their classes or programs.
  • Encourage employers to seek students with disabilities for work opportunities.

Disabled Student Services (DSS) officers should:

  • Encourage students to register and participate in work-based learning centers on campus.
  • Be proactive in students' academic and career plans. Let them know how accommodations are provided in the workplace.
  • Work in partnership with work-based learning centers to determine appropriate accommodations.

How Should Students Disclose Their Disabilities?

There isn't one correct answer when it comes to disclosure of disability to a potential employer. Applicants are not required to discuss their disabilities or request accommodations until a job offer has been made. An employer may only ask about an applicant's ability to perform the functions of the job in question, not his/her disability. If a student's disability is obvious, he should be prepared to discuss its implications during the interview. He should discuss the disability as it relates to the performance of specific job tasks rather than how it is defined medically. He may choose to volunteer the methods he uses to accomplish standard tasks. For example, if blind, he might describe how his voice output system allows efficient computer access.

How Can Students Get Started?

To get started, students can use the AccessCAREERS acronym:

C is for Careers. Think about interests. Be imaginative, then narrow it down.

A is for Academics. Determine which academic programs best suit career goals.

R is for Research. Research careers that spark interests, maximize strengths, and minimize weaknesses.

EE is for Experiential Education. Practice job search skills. Apply for internships. Ask for informational interviews and try other work-based learning opportunities.

RS is for Relevant Skills. Use on-the-job experience to learn practical, "real world" skills. Apply school learnings to the workplace. Test which accommodations work best.

Students should start doing everything they can now to make themselves attractive to future employers. The resources are out there. They need to find and make use of them.

Photo of DO-IT Scholar catching up on e-mail

DO-IT Goes to Work

Work-based learning experiences help students choose careers, network with potential employers, clarify academic goals, and develop job skills relevant to future employment. In one discussion that occurred via an electronic mail discussion list on the Internet, DO-IT students and adult mentors focused on work-based learning experiences that occur before graduation from college. Participants, who have disabilities themselves, responded to the following questions:

  • What work-based learning opportunities have you had?
  • How do you feel that work-based learning experiences can help people prepare for future employment?
  • Do you think it is particularly important for students with disabilities to have work-based learning experiences before they graduate from college? Why or why not?

Below is only a sample of the rich conversation these questions stimulated.

  • Work-based learning sounds like an interesting idea, however I am not sure if it is more important than staying on campus and having regular classes at school. Personally, I think a person should be focused on their academics instead of working.
  • It is true that it is important to focus on one thing, however life is seldom that simple. I think for the first couple of years of college that classes should be the main thing students worry about. However, it is vital to get hands-on experience before graduation.
  • I had a project my senior year of college where I built and maintained a Web site for my church. I'm still maintaining it even after college. It has let me gain experience through experimentation on how to build an effective Web site. It is important for ANY student to do this, and it is especially beneficial to people with disabilities because they sometimes need more help to overcome employers' biases.
  • I think work-based learning is an incredibly important component of a student's education. I believe this to be true for any student, with or without a disability. It can be more beneficial for a student with a disability, however. Here's a condensed list as to why it is important:
    • It can help you figure out what you DON'T want to do. A lot of people go through their education with a romantic vision of what career they will pursue after graduation. They often picture themselves as prepared, having taken numerous courses within the occupation's subject area. They are often very disappointed. You may not always enjoy the "practice" as well as the "theory." I have met all sorts of people who hate their jobs, but loved their majors.
    • It can help you determine which accommodations work best for you. The accommodations you use in school may not work at the worksite. Your technology may not interface with the employer's. You need to become a master of your accommodations. Work-based learning gives you the opportunity to practice accommodating yourself. So... when you are applying for your "real job," you will know what accommodations you need as well as where and how to get them.
    • It offers a low-risk, non-threatening opportunity to disclose your disability to an employer. Disclosure of disability can be a nerve-wracking process for both the student and the employer. Interviews for internships and other experiences can help you try out ways of talking about your disability.
    • You can apply what you're learning in school to a real-world situation. This makes learning fun and offers a whole new perspective on the subject area.
    • It enables you to learn and practice skills not learned in a typical classroom.
    • You can sometimes get academic credit for it.
    • You can sometimes get paid for it.
    • You can network with potential future employers. You can prove to an employer who has never had an employee with a disability that you are capable; thus creating a future position for yourself or opening the door for a friend.
    • You might have the opportunity to work with state-of-the-art equipment not available on campus.
    • Employers want education AND experience. Just a degree simply won't cut it anymore. If you want a job when you graduate, this is the best way to get experience in your field.
  • I'd agree with the general sentiment that internships and work-related experiences can be good, especially for students with disabilities, although I do think that one needs to ensure that it is a GOOD opportunity.
  • I'd argue that internships would work best:
    • where there is clear agreement on tasks to be performed.
    • where previous interns and perhaps the supervisor have disabilities.
    • where the transition to a paid position is clear, if not for the agency, then somewhere else.
  • Good point that although internships are a good idea, not all internships are good ones. I would add to this list:
    • a clear understanding that you are there for educational purposes. This could mean a number of things, but most of all it means there is someone to ask questions, and that you will be allowed to perform tasks in such a manner that helps you learn and not necessarily have the focus on performance.
  • Also, I agree internships need to be clear about the pay situation, future or whatever. I wouldn't assume however that it will automatically mean employment. Don't be afraid to voice your desire to work there, or get a good recommendation. The bottom line is -- be clear and honest in what you're looking for.
  • I agree. Not all internships will lead to a paid position with a company. However, they will help to lead to a paid position somewhere in that they will help to give you much needed experience. Employers want education and experience.
  • Hey all! I graduated from high school in '94 and have not yet gone back to school. Since then I have worked with DO-IT, Time-Life Libraries Incorporated, and presently Ticketmaster Northwest. Working has given me motivation to want to return to school and do it well this time. For four years I've been working entry level positions and now have a better understanding of where I want to be in life and the "direction" that I want to go. I also feel that I have a better understanding of the job market and how things work in a highly corporate environment. On the one hand, I'm jealous of the seemingly simple life of college students, and on the other hand, I wish all DO-IT kids could feel the motivation and excitement to learn what I have after four years of poverty and $5.50 an hour jobs.
  • I had a valuable work experience when I was in high school. I worked on a project in Explorer Scouts. We formed a group that worked at a local TV station and we actually produced 6 half-hour TV programs that aired on Sunday afternoons. Of course, we were not paid for this, but the experience was valuable in many ways. Other opportunities exist through such programs as Junior Achievement, 4-H, and many community service organizations.
  • I do believe that many things can be gained from work-based experiences, even if those experiences are not directly related to the field of interest or career goals of the individual. Interpersonal skills, communication skills, and awareness of one's strengths and limits are just some benefits that can be gained through work-based experiences.
  • Where I live, in the country, by a very small town of 514, there just isn't anything for me. I work on our family farm doing what needs to be done, and do some of the paperwork for our finances on my computer, so I guess that is kind of work experience. It should look good on a résumé if nothing else (besides making a small sum of spending money).
  • I am visually impaired and hearing impaired as well... I am currently involved in work experience programs within my school and the community as well. The school district has a program called "School-to-Work" and a "school-within-a-school" program. A school-to-work program is basically a program that fits inside the school within a school program. A school-within-a-school is kind of like having a miniature school inside a large school. My school has 3 of these. All three of them have school-to-work programs for internship and co-op training. We do our internships and work experience projects during school hours once a week for 3 1/2 hours at a business/agency. In the past 2 years (third year this year) I have been to a manor, doctor's office, Internet provider and a travel agency and I will be transferring to a new facility next week to a computer center for the disabled. I have gained a lot of knowledge of business management work ethics and other work-related skills. Besides the internships once a week, we are in the school-within-school classes 4 days a week for 3 1/2 hours Mon, Tues, Thurs, and Fri. We take our required classes in this program and it is integrated... Most of all, the school-within-a-school program teaches résumé composition, cover letter composition, business letters, some general knowledge of business law, interview practices and rules, and how to apply for a real job and use good communication skills with supervisors, staff, managers and co-workers.
  • I myself have been interested in weather for a long time, but when I was an executive intern with a local meteorologist during my senior year in high school and then worked for two summers for the Assistant State Climatologist of Colorado, these experiences strengthened my desire to go into atmospheric science research. I also learned that connections can really help you get a job! And I practiced articulating my needs when necessary.
  • I have some pretty strong viewpoints about work-based learning experiences. I did one last summer and even though it was frustrating, it taught me some lessons that I would not have learned otherwise. First of all, I learned that we need to be able to focus on more than one task at a time. Two, I learned that one can usually do something that he sets his mind to.
  • When I first started working for the press, I was doing a little computer article every week. I covered different topics for using the computer... Work, play, Internet... Then, when they got the new computer in with the new software, they were really wondering how to use it and get the job done. I said I was really interested in graphic work. My boss was really wondering if I could do it because, obviously, if you are working with pictures, you have to see... pretty well. He was a little leery about letting me do it because of the program too. It turned out I knew more than him about it, but he didn't want to take the chance. I watched him for a little while one day, and he said ok, try it. From that day on, I was the primary person who did all of it. We just have to know what we can and can't do. At least we have the right to try. If not, oh well, but you can't say we didn't try.
  • I've had the following work-based learning experiences:
    • Nursing home administration (worked in the following departments: business, recreation, nursing, social work, maintenance).
    • Hospice (hospice counselor and respite provider/shadow intern).
    • Ronald McDonald House (fundraising department).
    • The American Heart Association ("Jump for Heart" representative and school contact).
  • Work-based learning experiences give you a chance to practice and develop work skills that are not taught in the classroom (this would include personal interaction with others, team work, learning how to take criticism etc. etc.).
  • I believe it's very important for students with disabilities to have work experiences before they graduate. An internship gives students a chance to problem solve how they will use or transfer an accommodation used in school to a work a non-threatening environment. It's a learning experience! You learn what works for you, and you learn what doesn't work for you. You may have good experiences or bad experiences, but in my opinion...the bad experiences are sometimes more valuable than the good experiences.'s fun!
  • My senior year, I had an intern job at a local newspaper... I had been interested in doing some graphic work using computers for a couple of years. I had a couple of job shadows in high school that made me really consider something in this area. So this was a really good way, I think, to get my foot in the door... I think it's important to have one or more of these jobs as early as you can. Whether it would be raking or mowing at the house down the street, or something like I did. My internship wasn't a paying one, but I got high school credit for it since I did it during school hours. If you get paid, great. Extra cash won't hurt, but if not it's still good to just have the experience...
  • It's also easier to get a real job in the future if you have done something like that. I work at Disability Support Services on the UND campus, and having the computer and graphics background helped make me look more qualified for the position.
  • I focused almost exclusively on academics during high school and college, but got my work experience in during the summers. That seemed to work well.
  • It seems the discussion of work-based experience has centered around employment, however, keep in mind that work-based experience does not need to mean that one gets a job. There are other avenues by which one can gain experiences and skills which will be useful once one enters the work market. One can demonstrate leadership by becoming involved in clubs and organizations... run for an office in the student council, for example. Dealing with the challenges one may face in these situations (such as mobility, public perception, adaptive equipment) can help prepare you for dealing with those challenges when they arise in the job market.
  • To answer the question raised earlier about the priority which should be placed on work-based experience and school, there is no contest here. School should definitely take priority. However, I think many things can be woven into academic pursuits which will not adversely impact one's education while providing work-based experiences. Keep an open mind and consider all options.

As demonstrated by these opinions, participation in an internship or other work-based learning experience can provide an important step in the transition to a successful career, especially for people with disabilities.