Texas shield logo

Setting Sales: Students get more than T-shirts at the Co-op

Co-op interns working on t-shirt sales

image of co-op
Just across from the main entrance of UT Austin is the flagship University Co-op, the go-to retail shop for textbooks, game-day attire and Longhorn-themed gifts. Now it’s also a one-stop-shop for students looking to get their feet wet in the retail industry.

The Co-op is adding a new twist to the standard semester-long internship experience: In partnership with the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence (LCAE), the nonprofit retailer is offering a two-and-a-half-year internship program that introduces students to a variety of fields, from accounting to product merchandising to online marketing. The paid internships are part of the LCAE’s College to Career (C2C) initiative, which is designed to prepare students for the new world of work.

“I love that this program is giving students the opportunity to narrow down their field of interest while adding to their resumes in the process,” says Co-op President and CEO Cheryl Phifer. “This is a unique opportunity to expose students to so many different fields and to help them become more marketable when they enter the workforce.”

Launched in the fall of 2018, the first leg of the program incorporates job shadowing and classes taught by LCAE and Co-op staff. Participating students then rotate through different departments, where they are able to discover the nuances of various jobs within the retail industry. They later work on the retail floor before movinginto a department that more closely aligns with their career goals.

Unlike the typical short-term internship, this new program allows students to develop and hone their skills over the course of two years. By the time they finish, they will have a nuanced understanding of business operations in both the retail industry and the nonprofit sector.

“We are excited to give a group of students more specialized work experience,” says Co-op Store Director Kelly Hanks. “When they discover what they love, that’s how we truly benefit from this program.”

Right from the start, the interns learned an important rule of thumb in the business world: All decisions must revolve around one overarching mission. For the Co-op, that means putting UT Austin students, faculty and staff above all else.

“Since this is a nonprofit, making a profit isn’t the No. 1 goal,” says Patrick Chukwurah, a business freshman. “It’s about giving back to the university and to the students. That goal affects the Co-op’s day-to-day decisions.”

image of co-op interns
After wrapping up a job-shadowing stint at the store’s distribution center, Chukwurah is more excited than ever about entering the world of business. The job shadowing alone, he says, has taken the learning experience to a whole new level.

“I love that the internship is so interactive and so hands-on,” Chukwurah says. “It’s one thing when they’re teaching you in class, but it’s a whole new experience when you’re working with them on-site. The best part of this internship is having all of these skills under your belt and applying them to everything you do.”

For Arquala Davis, an undeclared freshman, the most exciting moments happen when she’s watching brainstorming sessions unfold in the boardroom.

“I’ve really learned a lot just by sitting in on the meetings and seeing how everyone communicates,” Davis says. “It’s been helpful to see that everything they do ties into their mission to serve students. When I become a doctor, I want to use these skills to make sure my patients have a positive experience.”

Amaya French, a political communications sophomore, also enjoys working behind the scenes, where she has developed an interest in online marketing. The internship, she says, has given her a unique opportunity to learn more about the technological side of business.

image of students at co-op“I’m interested in working in communications and the tech industry, but there’s a learning curve since I came to UT from a small town in Texas that is not tech-oriented,” French says. “Here, I’m getting to see how data analytics works and how websites are managed.”

Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the internship, says French, is working alongside LCAE and Co-op staff members, who are all committed to creating a rewarding experience for students.

“I appreciate the time and effort every individual puts into making this a successful program,” French says. “The staff are truly invested in the students’ success and it shows, which makes the workplace a fun and enjoyable environment.”

Uriel Castro, a neuroscience sophomore, also plans on entering the business arena when she opens her own dental practice. The Co-op internship, she says, has given her some valuable insight into how to run and manage a small business.

“It has exposed me to the nitty-gritty details of a successful business, and I plan to implement what I’ve learned in my private practice in the future,” Castro says.

The learning experience goes both ways, says Hanks, who co-teaches classes with Phifer and several LCAE staff members. Because the Co-op must evolve with the changing tides of marketing and merchandising, she encourages the interns to share their perspectives and ideas.

“At the end of the day, we’re here to serve students,” Hanks says. “We need to be listening to them because they are our priority constituents.”

by Jessica Sinn