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Our Rich History: Cooperative education at Thomas More College; early years of work experience

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 13 of our series “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”

Many people in Greater Cincinnati are aware of the University of Cincinnati’s (UC) long-standing program called “Cooperative Education.” UC had the first program in the country in the early 20th century (1906) and it is still a crucial part of the curriculum for many of UC’s academic programs. In simple terms, “ ‘co-op’ is an arrangement between students, the school, and private employers which allows a student to gain practical experience generally by alternate semesters or quarters of classroom study and gainful employment outside the academic world” (“Thomas More Lays Groundwork,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 11, 1976).

Sr. Rita Marie Mueller. (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives.)

What is perhaps not as well known is that Thomas More College, in the 1970s and early 1980s, was also being praised and recognized even nationally for its successful co-op program, Sister Mary Casimira Mueller SND (later Sr. Rita Marie) was the first director of Thomas More’s coop program. She inspired others, first in the Chemistry Department where she taught, and, later, within many of the liberal arts departments. Such programs were not common at private liberal arts colleges.

In the later 1970s, Thomas More was the recipient of a $50,000 start-up grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. A second grant continued the progress into the 1980s. With the initial grant in place, Sr. Casimira turned the leadership over to Dr. Jim Becker from the Psychology Department as Director, with Dr. Patricia Sommerkamp as the co-op coordinator. Other staff in the office during the peak years were Catherine Luken as Assistant to the Director, and Patricia Borne as the Coordinator of the Career Placement Center. Departmental liaisons worked with this team to recruit students in a wide range of disciplines.

In papers written and delivered by Sr. Casimira around the Midwest, she mentioned coming up with the concept of cooperative education in the footsteps of UC as early as 1965, though she added that the decision was, back then, “immediately dismissed as something undesirable in a liberal arts college.” Undeterred, Sister referred to a February 23, 1973 Chemistry Department Alumni Reunion during which several well-placed alumni showed an interest in the partnership and agreed to serve on an Advisory Council. As a group, their first contribution was to help in the creation of a one-credit-hour course called “Careers in Chemistry.”

Dr. Jim Becker.(Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives.)

Another turning point was a Cooperative Education workshop at the University of Cincinnati in the following fall (1974) and a meeting with Wanda Mosbacher, the Director of Cooperative Education at UC, who agreed to help get the Thomas More program off the ground. Internally, as well, both of the next two Academic Deans—Dr. Jim Ebben and Dr. Ron Mann— were supportive of the concept. Sr. Casimira also attended two workshops on Cooperative Education at the University of Detroit. Having bonded with co-op educators from other institutions as supporters helped immeasurably, particularly as Sr. Casimira took the next step beyond the Chemistry Department to the rest of the campus (TMU Archives, Sr. Casimira documents). The two alums who were the key members of the Employers’ Advisory Council were David Kriege and Charles Schneider. Both were practicing chemists in the Greater Cincinnati area at the time.

In Sr. Casimira’s words: “On May 20, 1974, the TMC co-op Program was born when one student reported for his first semester-long work session at the Hilton-Davis Chemical Company … another reported at Sperti Industries in Northern Kentucky (TMU Archives, Sr. Casimira Mueller paper on the early years of co-op at Thomas More College: rough draft and paper delivered on several occasions between 1978 and 1983).

During the first year, all placements were with chemical companies until the $50,000 grant was received “for the purpose of expanding the program through the college.” The two consultants who helped the program move to another level were the previously mentioned Wanda Mosbacher of the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Donald Hunt of the University of Detroit College of Engineering, “both schools with long histories (and a national reputation) of co-op education.”

Sister’s paper provides additional details about how other departments were involved, led by faculty such as Rudolph Morrow in Business Administration and Economics, Dr. Frank Bremer in History, Mr. Joe Connelly in English, and Dr. Jim Becker in Psychology. The latter is especially important since it is Dr. Becker who would replace Sr. Casimira as the new Director for the implementation of the forthcoming HEW Grant.

Description of “What Co-op is All About in a Cooperative Education” (Courtesy of Thomas More archives)

In her final reflection paper called “Development of a Cooperative Education Program at a Small Liberal Arts College,” presented at the Great Lakes Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society at Illinois State University (June 7-9, 1982), St. Casimira stated, “At TMC the Cooperative Education Program is truly an academic one … the personnel assisting our co-op students are all ‘bona fide’ academic faculty members. The Director is on the level of a department chairperson and each of the departmental coordinators (across the liberal arts spectrum) is an active teaching faculty member of the department in which the co-op students are majoring” (p. 3). With great pride, Sr. Casimira Mueller, SND, managed to establish a successful broad-based program that admirably fit the needs of a small liberal arts college.

The early success was validated by the news that the Federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare had agreed to support this departmental expansion with a $50,000 grant. For the next decade, the Co-op Program (merged with Career Development) was guided by Dr. Jim Becker and his team, with the input from an active Employers’ Advisory Board. It included representatives from such influential Cincinnati-area companies as: U.S. Shoe; Central Trust Bank; Levi Strauss Co.; Cincinnati Gas and Electric; Emery Industries; the U.S. Civil Service Commission; Northlich-Stolley Inc.; and the Hilton-Davis Co. The Greater Cincinnati business community was solidly behind the program, and it flourished to the mutual benefit of the students and the employers alike.

By 1980, it was noted that there were 53 placements with a total of 145 for the 1979-1980 academic year which was “the highest total to date.” The Center, with Dr. Jim Becker as Director, was called (at its peak) the Experiential Learning and Career Development Center. The linchpin behind its success was Patricia Borne, who also served as an adjunct faculty member in English. In a letter dated August 30, 1978, Dr. Becker submitted to the Academic Dean three documents that reflected how far the program had come: A Student Handbook for Cooperative Education; Procedures for Experiential Learning and A Pamphlet of the Career Development Center. For a number of years, there was also a Co-op newspaper, called Co-op Opportunity, edited by History Department faculty member, Dr. Ray Hebert. In the minutes of the March 5, 1980, Quarterly Meeting (#15) of the Employers’ Advisory Board, for example, it was noted by advisory Board members how popular an article had been entitled “Employers Solidly Behind Co-op Program.”

Dr. Patricia Sommerkamp, Co-op coordinator. (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives.)

While the number of students in the program declined over time and the second grant (a $40,000 continuation Title VIII Cooperative Education Grant) was not followed by a third and some of the staff departed or moved to other positions, the concept had caught on and “co-op” was at Thomas More to stay. With several of the “dream team” members gone, the shift meant more of a role had to be played by departments. Thomas More College still continued the original concepts in active departments like Accounting, Business Administration and, in time, Computer Information Systems. On the humanities side, the History Department remained active in the pre-legal and public history sectors (museums, archives, libraries). It was also significant, as pointed out by then Co-op Coordinator Patricia Sommerkamp, that the development of a new co-op program at Northern Kentucky University, would clearly impact Thomas More’s numbers in the future (TMU Archives, Enquirer article by Andy Schroeder entitled: “NKU Co-op Program Boon to Students,” February 25, 1979, and Sommerkamp letter to multiple administrators/Executive Board members dated February 26, 1979).

Looking back, in the spirit of the founder, Sr. M. Casimira Mueller (later Sr. Rita Marie Mueller), SND, the Co-op Program at Thomas More College was invaluable to a large number of students over the years who learned to value field-related work experience while still in their undergraduate years. As emphasized in the early literature, which was never forgotten among the Co-op team, “students who participated in the program for four calendar years may complete a baccalaureate degree and graduate with the equivalent of more than a year of work experience. National surveys show that Co-op students receive job offers of 3 to 7 percent above offers to other students at graduation” (TMU Archives, Cooperative Education in the Liberal Arts College Student Handbook).

Sr. Rita Marie Mueller’s contributions to Thomas More College’s Cooperative Education Program were monumental in the early years and have never been forgotten. After she retired from teaching, Sr. Rita Marie finished her years at Thomas More in a newly created role as the Director of Institutional Research and was instrumental in laying the groundwork for data creation that would become essential for maintaining institutional accreditation for many years to come.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu .

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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