Chapter 14: University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management Co-op Program: Aiming for a transformative learning experience

Joan Flaherty and Shelley Gallina

Joan Flaherty, University of Guelph

Shelley Gallina, University of Guelph


The University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management offers a co-op program intended to foster transformative learning. Housed within a five-year Bachelor of Commerce degree, the program includes a year-long work placement in which the student rotates through positions and departments, aiming to achieve an understanding of the property’s operational needs. Employers are strategically selected to offer enriched learning opportunities that target the student’s personal and professional development. The challenges associated with these opportunities are myriad and, to a large extent, an important part of the program’s strategy. By addressing them, with the help of the program’s built in support mechanisms, students move toward achieving a transformative learning experience.


The University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management (HFTM), located in Canada, offers a co-op program that aims to foster transformative learning. The challenges students face in addressing that aim are often formidable and, at times, unpredictable. But they carry within them the potential to be growth-enhancing. Judging by participation rates, both the student population and co-op employers confirm this latter point. Sixty-six percent of HFTM undergraduates choose the co-op program and two-thirds of them receive an assessment of “very good” or “outstanding” on their final work performance evaluations. Based on these positive outcomes, co-op employers continue to compete for students. Each student receives an average of three to four job offers from employers who are eager to bring them onboard for their co-op term. Part of this eagerness stems from the employer’s long-term recruitment goals, for it is not uncommon for graduating co-op students to be offered permanent positions by their co-op employer. This outcome indirectly testifies to our students’ success in their transformative learning journey.


Established in 1991, the HFTM co-op program is housed within the School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management. It is a five-year program that offers its graduates a Bachelor of Commerce degree. The non-co-op option is four years. The program has a limited intake of 40 students per year. Students admitted into the program from high school need a secondary school average of at least 80%, or equivalent to an A. Once admitted, they must maintain a minimum 70% cumulative average (B grade) in order to remain in the program. Not all students can achieve this standard as the attrition rate due to grades is approximately 25%.

The actual work term itself consists of one twelve-month work period that begins at the end of the student’s second year (May) and extends into the following April. Industry employers are typically out-of-province and include hotels/resorts and popular restaurant operations. During their work term, students rotate through various departments and positions within the organization, including finance, sales and marketing, rooms, front desk, spa, event planning, night audit and restaurant operations. All positions are full time and compensated.

The program is administered by a central Co-operative Education Office, which oversees all the University’s co-op programs. The co-op faculty advisor is the students’ resource for academic questions and direction in preparing their work term reports. The co-op coordinator is the students’ main point of contact and co-op resource for their job search, interviews, job offers, learning goals and job-related questions or concerns.

An Important Goal: Transformative Learning

As with every co-op program, ours is intended to integrate theory and practice, in order to facilitate students’ transition from their academic studies to their professional work life. This focus aligns with HFTM’s emphasis on experiential learning. However, we have another, over-reaching goal: transformative learning.

The co-op program aims to move students beyond the comfort of fixed mindsets into unfamiliar terrain that asks them to become “inclusive, discriminating, reflective, open and emotionally able to change” (Mezirow, 2003, p. 58). That is the definition of transformative learning – and it is also a central learning outcome of the co-op program. An integral part of achieving this learning outcome is the concept of “the disorienting dilemma” – a challenge that disrupts the learner’s current way of thinking or belief system, asking them to re-evaluate and perhaps change it based on the new information they are presented with (Mezirow, 2003). These sorts of challenges, along with supportive measures to address them, are embedded throughout the co-op program.

Program Elements that Contribute to the Students’ Transformative Learning Experience

A Five-year Commitment

Unlike many of its College-level counterparts, which offer a three-year diploma, this program is part of a five-year Bachelor of Commerce degree. Extra time spent in the program means extra time learning the principles, theories and skills required for the transition from student to successful industry professional. In short, it means more time for transformative learning opportunities before, during and after the work term, where students anticipate, reflect upon and evaluate key lessons of their work terms.

Ongoing Structured Opportunities that Integrate Reflection, Assessment and Application

The program’s integrated model of reflection, assessment and application is illustrated in the following examples.

Before the work term

During the students’ second year of study, just before starting their work term job search, they complete a co-op preparation course (Introduction to Co-operative Education). Here, students participate in self-awareness exercises, identifying what they can contribute to the workplace and developing a plan to deepen and broaden that contribution. The subsequent insights are then applied in practical exercises where students learn to professionally present themselves, both verbally (cover letters; resumes) and orally (job interviews).

During the work term

The year-long work term is split into three four-month long semesters (Spring/Summer; Fall; and Winter). Throughout each work semester, students are required to take time to reflect upon what they are experiencing, assess the extent to which their experiences fit the theories they have learned in the classroom, and identify a course of action to deepen their learning.

For example, Work Report #1, due at the end of the Spring/Summer work semester, includes the following:

  • a progress review in which the student considers what they have learned so far on the job and what challenges they have faced;
  • an initial skills assessment, where the student critically reflects on their current knowledge, skills and abilities, assessing the extent to which they match the job’s requirements;
  • weekly journal entries, each entry divided into three parts: a description of relevant events; a reflection on their underlying importance and opportunity for learning; and a plan of action for positive change; and
  • a critical incident report which explains two separate impactful incidents, positive or negative. The student identifies the cause of the incident, considers factors that shaped its outcome, and reflects on pertinent theory associated with it.

Thus, Work Report #1 directs the students’ attention to their own personal and professional growth, with a consistent theme of how further development can be fostered and applied. Work Report #2, due at the end of the Fall work semester, broadens the context: now, the students’ attention is directed not just to themselves, but also to the leadership models they have encountered in their workplaces.

Along with their weekly journal entries and critical incident reports, each student also conducts a “leadership audit” in which they discuss the most and least effective leaders they have encountered in their organization. No names or position titles are included. The focus is on the qualities and behaviours of the effective or ineffective leader; the response of others to this leadership style; and the reason for this response, all drawing on theory learned in the classroom.

Based on this analysis, students then turn their focus inward to describe a situation during their co-op term when they were placed in a leadership position, either formally or informally. They have to answer a variety of questions, such as ‘What style did they use?’, ‘What were the outcomes?’, ‘How would they assess those outcomes?’, and, lastly, ‘What practical steps can they take to ensure positive outcomes going forward?’

Work Report #3, due at the end of the final work semester, builds on this learning by requiring each co-op student to assume the role of leader. The student develops and presents an “industry project” that, if implemented, would substantively contribute to their co-op workplace. Past projects have included a wide range of topics such as orientation and training; cost control; turnover; and customer feedback measurement.

The reports throughout the work term have two purposes. First, they are designed to give the co-op student a deeper understanding of the management of the property. Granted, this understanding could result simply from being immersed for a year in the organization. However, the requirement to produce a report at the end of each work semester helps keep the student on task, reminding them not to get so caught up in the daily minutiae (i.e., the particular skills needed to, for example, check in a guest, prepare a forecasting sheet, or serve a customer) that they overlook the bigger picture: identifying and addressing operational needs. Second, the reports are designed to give the co-op student a deeper sense of their own professional potential, the barriers (sometimes self-imposed) that stand in the way of achieving that potential, and a concrete action plan to blast through those barriers.

A 12-Month Work Term

As illustrated above, working fulltime for one year allows students to learn more deeply and contribute more substantially than the traditional four-month co-op work term. Those eight additional months help distinguish the work term from a summer job because they allow for a fuller, more prolonged immersion as the student rotates through positions and departments. Of course, those additional months also allow for more problem-solving, conflict management – and soul searching – which can help deepen the student’s self-awareness, guiding them toward the necessary changes that foster their personal and professional development. This process is the very essence of transformative learning.

Learner Autonomy with Program Support

A central tenet of the program is learner autonomy. Each co-op student is expected to forge her or his own path to success. Developing and harnessing the initiative, perseverance and judgement to do so plays a strategic role in their learning journey. Any obstacles (or disorienting dilemmas) they encounter along the way have the potential to be significant learning opportunities. And, yet, common sense tells us these obstacles also have the potential to dishearten and discourage. The program aims to reconcile this dichotomy through incorporating measures that foster learner autonomy while supporting students as they navigate the challenges – or “disorienting dilemmas” – associated with this autonomy. Some examples follow.

Securing a co-op position

Securing a co-op position is a competitive process. Students are expected to take the initiative to research employers, identify the most suitable of the job postings made available to them, and then apply for an interview. Engagement is key to their success. No applications mean no interviews and therefore no co-op job offers. The predictable anxiety that accompanies any job search gets exacerbated by the fact that most of our students have limited to no work experience. The co-op program is their first exposure to the job market. Therefore, the high level of excitement and anticipation that accompanies the process can also shift into worry and stress, with students feeling that they are out of their depth.

The program offers a number of supports to avoid this possibility – or lessen its impact. As explained earlier, each student has been prepared for the job application process through having taken Introduction to Cooperative Education. Each student, therefore, has received instruction on employer expectations and how to meet these expectations with professionalism, maturity and initiative. The program also helps the students get a head start on their job search by narrowing the possibilities right from the start. The Co-op Office solicits, screens and then posts appropriate industry positions. The program facilitates the interview process by (i) inviting employers to campus to conduct their interviews over a period of several days; and (ii) providing interview rooms. Thus, students are interviewed in a familiar setting and spared the necessity of having to travel outside campus, incurring travel costs and possibly missing classes. All students, even those whose initial interest is limited to one or two of the postings, are encouraged to apply to a number of the posted jobs in order to gain more experience – and confidence – in applying, interviewing and learning more about the industry.

Starting work in the new co-op position

Most students have had to move away from home and transition to university life in an unfamiliar place, away from family and childhood friends. Now, their new co-op placement almost always requires these students to relocate again – often at some distance. Sixty percent of placements are out-of-province. Therefore, co-op students’ lives are uprooted as they change their social and support network, move to another province, into a new apartment or shared staff accommodation, and begin a new job where they quickly begin to learn how much they do not know. Not surprisingly, under these circumstances many students experience a period of renewed homesickness and may struggle to adapt to their new work environment as they feel overwhelmed with everything in their worlds being new and unfamiliar.

Exploring unfamiliar territory is a crucial component of transformative learning. At the same time, though, we are mindful that our travellers are young and inexperienced. Consequently, to help ensure they stay on their learning path, the co-op program offers the following guideposts. First, as much specific detail as possible is provided about the position they have accepted, so each student has a realistic preview of what their co-op year will entail. Second, students are required to identify Learning Goals each term to articulate both personal and professional skill development and to share these Goals with their supervisors. The first requirement helps focus the student, reminding them of what they are aiming for; and the latter helps facilitate a relationship between student and employer right from the start. Third, we select employers who are willing to help the student adjust to unfamiliar surroundings by offering additional benefits (e.g., subsidized or complimentary accommodation and meals; partially or fully re-imbursed travel expenses; signing bonuses; access to guest amenities, such as the gym or pool; and discounted room rates for visiting friends and family).

The above examples are more than just perks. They are gestures of welcome, signalling to the student that they are valued and that they belong. Thus, these additional benefits set a firm foundation for the challenging work of transformative learning to continue in this new setting.

Once established in the co-op workplace

When pairs or small groups of students go to the same workplace, they often settle relatively quickly since they have maintained some of their social circle. Consequently, as the work term proceeds, most students motivate one another to perform, collaborate and achieve. However, the opposite outcome can also result. Students who work with their classmates can be a distraction for one another, become overly social and fail to prioritize their jobs and learning. The latter scenario does not happen often with students. They have, after all, spent two years in the program preparing for their placement. More common challenges are imposter syndrome, a feeling that they are not qualified for what they are undertaking; or, conversely, disillusionment with their assigned position due to feeling that their talents are not being recognized. For example, a student assigned to a housekeeping rotation might chafe at having to clean toilets and make beds. After all, their reasoning goes, “haven’t I spent two years in the School being told that my education was preparing me to be a leader?”

The program, in concert with the co-op employer, helps students address these challenges in the following ways. First, on-site and virtual visits with the co-op coordinator allow the coordinator and student to share feedback and to plan next steps. Out-of-province students typically receive one in-person visit and two telephone/virtual visits during the year. Those who are local receive two in-person visits and one telephone/virtual visit. During these visits, the student is encouraged to build their professional network, to make a strong contribution by going above and beyond their regular work tasks, and, in this way, to raise their profile. Our students, therefore, often become engaged in extracurricular workplace activities, such as sports teams, safety committees, or in-house journal writing/editing. The subsequent increased visibility and engagement help boost the student’s confidence, reminding them that they do have an important role to play in this workplace.

Second, performance coaching, if needed, can be provided. A Human Resource staff member, the student and the co-op coordinator discuss how the student might forge a path to success. Depending on the situation, the result might be extra training with a supervisor; more time spent mastering the skills before moving to the next rotation; modified work responsibilities; or a direct transition to the next rotation for a better job fit. The co-op coordinator then follows up with more frequent check-ins to ensure progress continues and the student is feeling supported.

Third, the Work Report requirement prompts each student to reflect on lessons to be learned from every task. This ongoing reflection encourages them to connect the dots between serving and leading; and between humility and strength. It encourages them, in other words, to see the learning potential in even (or perhaps especially) the most mundane jobs.

Fourth, the program strategically chooses employers who agree to offer students a full year of enriched learning though special projects or committee work. Some create an entire training plan with set rotations, while others define only the starting role and allow the student to participate in creating their own path. Consequently, most students are given opportunities to demonstrate leadership through helping guide, develop or even supervise new staff. For example, students may participate in additional cross-training opportunities that arise with special events. Thus, a student assigned to front desk duties may find themselves also working in event management, helping to organize a conference set up or supervise a banquet crew. They may also seek new positions that arise due to promotions or staff turn-over. The goal here is not to settle comfortably into one job for the work semester. The goal is to accept new tasks, responsibilities and challenges, all in the name of increasing the student’s personal and professional self-awareness.

Fifth, and finally, work performance evaluations are conducted at the end of each work semester. The co-op student receives an evaluation from their employer/supervisor that gives detailed feedback and ratings in a dozen performance categories, including Communication, Teamwork, Initiative and Problem-Solving. (As an added incentive to achieve an exemplary evaluation, the resulting grade is included on the student’s official transcript).

After the work term

The post-work term transition back into the identity of “student” is not seamless for any co-op student. After all, someone who has just spent a year working in a fast-paced industry, building their professional credentials – and bank account – through on-site experience may have mixed feelings about returning to the classroom. The prospect of attending classes and focusing on assignments may feel constrictive, like a set of clothes that no longer fits. It may, in other words, present a disorienting dilemma for co-op students.

To help this dilemma become the catalyst for transformative learning, the program has built in the following support systems for the returning student:

  • a post-employment seminar in which co-op students discuss informally with each other key lessons learned from their experience;
  • interview with the co-op faculty advisor, allowing each co-op student an opportunity to debrief their own experience – including the challenges faced during the work term, those anticipated going forward, and a plan to address those challenges; and
  • enrolment in core course: Experiential Learning and Leadership in the Service Industry. Here, students are reminded of the importance of theory in guiding their actions as future industry leaders.


The co-op program’s academic and work-related demands set the bar high for students. In fact, at times, its height can seem daunting. A fifth, additional year of study adds to the student’s regular course load as they complete their Bachelor of Commerce degree. And the year-long immersion in their co-op workplace comes with its own set of pressures. Once they have arrived at their workplace, typically far from home, students may experience homesickness. Tasked with demonstrating superior performance and strong leadership for their peers, they may feel like an imposter. Anxious to prove their worth in an unfamiliar setting, they may overestimate their capabilities. The challenges are myriad – and, to a large extent, an important part of the program’s strategy. By addressing these challenges, with the help of the program’s built in support mechanisms, students move toward achieving a transformative learning experience.


Mezirow, J. (2003). Transformative learning as discourse. Journal of Transformative Learning 1(1): 58-63. doi:10.1177/1541344603252172.


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Practical Learning in Hospitality Education Copyright © 2021 by Joan Flaherty and Shelley Gallina is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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