John Tan always had a passion for sports, so when it came to choosing a university course after national service, it was a no-brainer - he opted for sports management.
Next was figuring out which university to go to.
After some research, he zeroed in on Drexel University in Philadelphia in the United States, partly because of its thriving professional sports scene. But the clincher for him was the 'co-operative education programme' at Drexel, referred to as 'co-op' for short.
Co-op programmes are offered by more than 50 North American colleges and universities, and students alternate between periods of studying and gaining work experience. Students at Drexel, which has the largest and one of the more successful co-op programmes, can opt for the four-year degree course with a minimum six months of work, or the five-year degree course, which requires up to 18 months of work.
Mr Tan opted for the full five-year programme as he felt that the substantial on-the-job experience would give him an edge when he goes out to work.
'I feel that increasingly, a degree alone will not do. You need that something extra and I felt that 18 months of solid work experience would give me just that.'
The 22-year-old is now on his first work attachment, having landed a job as a game-day intern with the Philadelphia Soul, a professional American football league team. In his first month, he has juggled tasks from selling tickets to promotions and managing the crowd.
'It has already helped me clarify my job preferences. I realise that I am more interested in the business side of sports management, rather than managing a team,' he says. 'So when I go back to school next term, I will probably take more management and business-related courses.'
Mr Peter Franks, senior associate vice-provost who heads the co-op programme at Drexel, says that like Mr Tan, more than 60 per cent of the 3,000 freshmen every year choose the university because they believe the internships built into their course will give them a competitive advantage upon graduation.
'Never mind if it takes an extra year and they would not have much of a summer break through their four or five years in university,' he says, adding that many use the summer breaks for their work stints in the US or overseas.
Mr Franks, who has been in co-op education for more than a decade, is used to people asking if this is just a glorified term for internships which undergraduates in many other universities also do. His answer: not only are the work attachments for a longer period of three to six months, but they are also more structured and integrated with what the students learn. Also, the co-op experience counts as academic credits and appears in a student's transcript.
Another difference is that the university prefers co-op employers to offer full-time jobs and a weekly salary, as opposed to no-pay or typically low intern allowances, although some students are allowed to take up volunteer positions.
Being paid ensures greater commitment by employers, who would also be more inclined to assign the students more responsibilities than if they were unpaid.
Students earn an average of about US$550 (S$690) a week, although for those in sought-after majors such as chemical engineering and IT, it can be above US$700.
The 50 staff and faculty who run the Drexel co-op programme first vet potential employers and the jobs on offer to ensure that it will be a valuable, relevant learning experience for students. It has more than 1,500 employers in 28 US states and 25 countries offering jobs to students through the co-op scheme.
Before their first work stint, students have to attend weekly Co-op 101 classes where they are taught job-related skills, such as how to do a job search, resume writing and how to impress during an interview. All available jobs are listed online and students then use their newly acquired skills to compete for them.
On completing the work stint, students meet their co-op coordinator to reflect on the experience and key learning points before they are awarded their credits.
Research by organisations such as the World Association for Cooperative Education in Massachusetts shows that, compared to graduates in traditional programmes, co-op students have higher grade point averages, higher graduation rates, receive more job offers upon graduation and progress in the workplace at a faster rate. They also tend to stay longer at their jobs.
Another Singaporean at Drexel is Ms Milu Mathew, 21, a former Catholic Junior College student doing chemical engineering. She did her work stint with a Singapore company during her summer break last year, and helped in planning a peanut processing plant.
'It was an eye-opener to the working world,' says Ms Mathew.
Mr Franks says that upon graduation, about 40 per cent of students go on to permanent jobs with one of their co-op employers. The numbers are even more impressive for engineering students, with 60 per cent taking up jobs with the companies they interned with. On top of that, co-op students start on a slightly higher salary than fresh graduates from other universities.
He points out the benefits for companies.
'Employers are able to see how young people are going to perform within their own organisation and make judgments on whether these are young people they might want to hire when they graduate.'
Like Ms Stephanie Takach, 22, who is about to graduate with a mass communications degree, and did her internships at Philadelphia's Chamber of Commerce and then Johnson & Johnson for the next two years.
She explains how she benefited from co-op: 'It added depth to my classroom studies and exposed me to possible career paths and opportunities. After every co-op experience, you go back to class with a sharper focus on what skills and knowledge you need to pick up to land the job you want.'
She will graduate next month but has already found a job in brand management with Johnson & Johnson. She says: 'My friends, who went to some of the top universities around here, graduated a year ahead of me but have yet to land a job.
'It isn't just an internship, it's the chance to audition for a career.'