by Juliana Palomino
When Damarcus Smiley began his chemical engineering studies at the University of Kentucky, he was adamant about one thing: he did not want to participate in the College of Engineering’s Cooperative Education Program (Co-op).
Damarcus knew a co-op rotation would conflict with the availability of certain chemical engineering classes. As a result, he would need five years to graduate instead of four. The idea of being in school for so long worried him—how could a co-op not set him behind?
Nevertheless, after continually hearing from older students and professors that co-ops were beneficial, Damarcus decided to get more information. After attending a spring career fair during his sophomore year, he interviewed with Marathon Petroleum. Despite his resignation that the company was out of his league, two days later he received an emailed offering him a summer co-op in Canton, Ohio, and a fall co-op in Catlettsburg, Kentucky.
Damarcus was excited. And nervous. That emotional mix swirled inside him on his first day at Marathon’s refinery in Canton.
“It was a big job. There were W-2 and I-9 forms, and I didn’t know how those worked,” he remembers. “We got security badges to go in and out. It was nerve-wracking.”
Nonetheless, he jumped into his first project with an engineer’s enthusiasm; however, he was hesitant to ask any questions. When his supervisor asked him for a certain type of drawing, he assumed he knew what the supervisor wanted. After delivering an unsatisfactory drawing, Damarcus realized that asking questions was not only permissible, but essential.
“I wanted to prove that I knew a lot, and that was my first mistake,” he recalls.
After asking the supervisor exactly what he wanted, he produced a quality drawing that advanced the project.
Throughout his time with Marathon, Damarcus continued to build confidence and eventually decided to pursue another co-op opportunity. He next worked with Belcan, an engineering design firm in downtown Lexington. After deciding that he wanted to orient himself more toward manufacturing engineering, he accepted an internship with International Paper in the much smaller town of Maysville, Kentucky.
“People there knew where I lived when I told them that my apartment was behind the McDonald’s. I don’t know about you, but I’m used to there being multiple McDonald’s’,” Damarcus laughs.
The internship was such a success that his supervisor recommended he continue with the company. Following his graduation in May 2018, he will join International Paper’s Wilmington, North Carolina location.
Among the numerous lessons Damarcus learned while engaged in coops and internships, the most significant is the way that hiring officials value experience on a resume. While at International Paper, he remembers watching his boss narrow down a list of five student resumes. The final two resumes pitted a 4.0 GPA with no internship or co-op against a 3.2 GPA with co-op experience.
His boss chose the one with the co-op experience.
“Having a co-op or internship helps you anywhere. A lot more doors are opened for you because of that experience,” Damarcus explains.
Now Damarcus, who has gone from never wanting to co-op to becoming the UK College of Engineering’s 2017 Lou Takacs Co-op of the Year award winner, also has an invaluable sense of confidence.
“We all have that experience of sitting in class, feeling overwhelmed and not ready for a real-world job,” he says. “With my co-op experiences, I can look at a job and know that I can do it. I’ve been through fire, and I can now tackle any job I want.”