Internships and Co-ops: Chris Sookhai

by Stasia Lopez /
Stasia Lopez's picture
Dec 07, 2013 / 0 comments

To add to the College Programming Series, we are doing interviews with people who have completed internships and cooperative education (co-ops). Let’s first talk about the difference between an internship and a co-op.


Internships are a way for a person to gain relevant work experience or those looking to explore career paths. They are relatively short-term in nature (a couple weeks to a semester), but can be longer. Applying classroom theories and concepts through job-training in an internship helps the person to gain exceptional experience and insight to a certain field. Internships can also be paid or unpaid, for credit or not. Typically, a supervisor is assigned as a mentor and assigns projects and also ensures the learning that is taking place. Faculty advisors can also work heavily with the student and the supervisor. You don’t necessarily have to be a student to be an intern, either. I had nine internships between undergrad and graduate school - and two of them I completed when I wasn’t a student at all. There’s always room to build new skills! An internship generally consists of an exchange of services for experience. More and more companies are now paying their interns for the work that they do! No longer are interns expected to fetch the coffee or make copies like in times past. Interns are gaining real work experiences, and many companies see significant value of having an intern or several interns, on board.


Cooperative education, or Co-ops for short, also combines classroom education with practical work experiences. They typically last longer than a semester and many students work full-time at a company gaining skills, credits, and even paychecks! Co-ops really help students to make the school-to-work transition easier because of the expectations, hours, and realistic understanding of the work experience itself. Internships also have many of these foundations. Both internships and Co-ops can ultimately lead to a full-time, paid permanent position with a company, organization, or institution. These hands-on experiential experiences are of high value and the more a person has… the better!


Insight into the industry, networking with professionals, and discovering more about yourself and your interests are just a few of the many perks from having an internship or cooperative education experience. Below is an interview with recent University of Michigan 2013 graduate, Christoffer Sookhai. Chris majored in Industrial and Operations Engineering and had six internships and co-ops with:

  • Denso Manufacturing—Production Engineering Co-op
  • Associated Spring, Barnes Group—Quality Engineering Co-op
  • Post Foods—Production Supervisor Co-op
  • Toyota Motor Manufacturing—Quality Engineering Co-op
  • JAC Products—Quality Engineering Co-op
  • Plastipak Packaging—Quality Engineering Co-op


All of these experiences led him to a full-time job with Toyota Motor Manufacturing as a Quality Engineering Specialist. Read below to learn about his experiences!


Chris Sookhai


How did you choose your major? How did you choose the college that you attended?

I had always wanted to work in the auto industry, and Industrial Engineering is a major that is heavily focused on manufacturing and statistical analysis.

My sister, Alex, was going to Michigan at the time I applied, so it was pretty easy to choose Michigan over my second choice, Michigan State. Another strong factor was that the College of Engineering at Michigan is in the top 10 best engineering schools in the nation.


Chris Sookhai, graduation at University of Michigan


Were internships or co-ops required in your curriculum? How did you start your internship search?

Internships were not required as part of my curriculum, however, they were strongly encouraged since knowing how to apply what is learned in the classroom is just as important as classroom learning.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in a co-op directly after high school through a family program that Denso had, since my dad was a production engineer there at the time. Career fairs at school allowed me to speak with a lot of different companies and get a better idea of what I wanted to do. My second internship was after I got in contact with Associated Spring after they sent an email to the Industrial Engineering department looking for co-ops during the school year.


You had six internships and co-ops. What did each one teach you? What made you decide to have so many? Were all of them paid or unpaid? Were they all in the state of Michigan?

My first summer internship at Denso in Battle Creek, Michigan, I pretty much learned a lot of the behind the scenes “magic” in manufacturing. This one really served to get my feet wet and helped to solidify the fact that I wanted to work in a manufacturing facility as some form of engineer.

My second school-time internship with Associated Spring, in Saline, Michigan, I learned how to apply a lot of what I learned in school to what I was doing at work. At that point, I was a sophomore in college and had learned quite a bit so it was much easier to take what was taught and turn it into something productive at work.

My third summer internship with Post Foods in Battle Creek, Michigan, didn’t quite have much to do with my degree as it was a production supervisory position. However, this was probably one of the most important internships that I had since it really helped me to improve my communication skills. As a supervisor, I was constantly on the production floor and it required me to really get to know the process and all of the workers making the product.

My fourth summer internship with Toyota in Huntsville, Alabama, was my favorite of them all. By that point I was finished with four years of school and had a lot of knowledge and needed somewhere to apply it to. Toyota really allowed me to utilize a lot more of my engineering background than any other internships or co-ops that I had previously.

With JAC Products in Saline, Michigan, during school, I was working as a supplier to Toyota and it helped me to understand supplier/customer relationships. I was involved in helping establish customer set standards to our roof racks that we were producing for the 2013 RAV-4’s.

My final school-time co-op with Plastipak, in Plymouth, Michigan, allowed me to use my statistical analysis background to understand if we were making our product correctly, and how to use that data to identify causes behind production problems.

I decided to work so often because I did not have the highest grade point during my tenure at Michigan. Even though I struggled in the classroom, I wanted to prove that I was fully capable of performing well on the job and that my grade point was no indication of how hard I truly worked.

All of my internships were paid. All but one (Toyota) were in Michigan.


Do you feel your co-ops prepared you to do the job you do today? What skills did you gain from your internships?

I absolutely feel that my internships prepared me for my current position. Had I not had any internships during school, I would have had no clue at all what to expect when I started work.

My internships definitely helped my problem solving skills and communication skills the most. All of the internships that I had gave me the other 50% of skills that I wasn’t able to obtain in a classroom setting or by reading a textbook.


Internships help people to figure out if they want to spend time in a certain area or field. Were there any internships you had that you didn’t like? What didn’t you like about them? Any challenges?

Initially, I did not like my internship at Post Foods. I was struggling to see any value in what I was doing, and had a hard time figuring out how it had any relation to my field at all. After about a year, and another internship later, I actually found that it was one of my favorite internships solely because of the amount of knowledge I gained from it, such as how to communicate issues from line workers all the way up to site presidents and executives.

The internship I had at Plastipak was my least favorite. Even though I was technically an engineering co-op, I was still doing a lot of work as a lab tech and it was very repetitive work.

The biggest challenges that I had were in finding different ways to relate coursework and readings to the real world. A lot of times a practical application isn’t given in the classroom so it was difficult to grasp ways to apply what is learned to real world situations.


Do you feel that your internships and co-ops helped you to network with people who could help you get a job? Did anything surprise you about interning?

Interning was one of the greatest ways to network. A lot of times, as an intern, you work with people from different companies, whether it be your customer or your supplier. Getting to know these people opens up a lot of doors to you professionally and allows you to meet people you otherwise wouldn’t.

The thing that surprised me most about interning was how much more out of the box thinking was required. Not every problem in the real world has a correct answer to it, let alone a single correct way to solve a problem. Being able to approach an issue from different viewpoints really differed from a lot of course work where there is only one way to get to the solution.


Can you share with us a memory or story about interning from one of your experiences?

During one of my first weeks at Toyota, there was an issue that came up on the line which a couple of the engineers could not figure out after a few hours of studying it. Having a complete outsider’s perspective on the situation with it being my first week, I was able to see the issue differently than the other engineers had been looking at it. Within a few minutes, I made a suggestion from something I remembered from a previous internship. The maintenance and engineering crew tried my idea out and it ended up fixing the issue they were having. Had I not had the knowledge from previous experiences in other internships, the issue could very well have gone on for a longer time than it had.


What were the expectations of your internship or co-op typically? Can you give us a scope of the projects you worked on a few of your internships?

In a few of my internships, I was expected to do the workload of a full time salaried employee. This included addressing a lot of line side production issues and drafting reports to send to the managers and executives. In a couple of the other internships, I was responsible for mainly assisting the other engineers and lab techs with any small projects they may need completed or extra help on.

Most of the projects that I worked on were smaller assignments that took a couple hours to a couple days. Essentially the projects were line side issues where I would have to gather data, analyze it, and come up with a solution based on the findings. I worked a lot with production engineering to get machine settings fixed for issues we would see during production.


Did interning inspire you academically, vocationally, or in another way? Did it confirm that you chose the right major and the right field?

Interning inspired me a lot both academically and vocationally. Academically, I thrived to learn more about manufacturing and statistics so that I could start applying more and more of my knowledge to help out the company I was working with. Vocationally, a lot of what I worked on made me want to address more and more production issues. Every time an issue was solved from something that I did, it gave me a really gratifying feeling, since what I was doing was having an impact on the company, and in turn all of its customers.

Working internships absolutely confirmed what I wanted to do. It helped me to narrow down what I wanted to do, as well. Initially I knew I wanted to work in a manufacturing facility, but I wanted to be a production engineer and work on machines. After I had my first quality internship, my interest in statistics grew and I decided I wanted to do that after graduation. Having an internship helped me to see the different options that were available to me after graduation and gave me first hand experience in a job that I normally wouldn’t have considered to begin with.


Any advice you’d provide to students contemplating a co-op?

If possible, take as many internships that you can afford to take, whether it be during the summer, during school time, or even having to miss a semester of school in order to work one. Although you may graduate a bit later, the more on the job experience you have, the better prepared you will be after graduation. You will be so much further ahead than many other students who may have not taken opportunities when available. When looking for a full time position, a lot of interviewers will look more towards the working experience that you have, and the more experience you have, the more options you will have to choose from after graduation.


Coworkers of Chris Sookhai

Chris and co-workers





Anastasia R.D. Lopez, M.A. recently graduated with her Masters degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs degree from Western Michigan University. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Her experience in higher education and student affairs ranges from Career Services, Academic Advising, working with first generation students, students with disabilities, international students, transfer students, undergraduate/graduate students, and study abroad and international education at both public and private universities. She also has related experience in business as well as hospitality and tourism management. Stasia is a Global Education Editor with Wandering Educators and lives with her husband, Fernando, in Michigan.
All photos courtesy and copyright Chris Sookhai