Thompson Rivers University

Co-op student shares recipe for success

March 12, 2024

Ahana Ahluwalia, a fifth-year Bachelor of Software Engineering student who worked four co-op terms at Telus Business Solutions, was awarded the 2023 Co-op Student of the Year. She was also awarded an honourable mention for Co-op University 2023 Association for Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning BC.

Ahluwalia worked as a software developer on a core networking DevOps team to automate, test, develop and deploy an API platform that interacts with the central database to track IP address assignments. She also built tools in the lab, testing and validating their operation and assisting with deployment to production environments. She also assisted with solutions related to network security, working closely with various partners and stakeholders on the security team. Here, she shares her insights on the benefits of co-operative education. 

Open-access culture builds confidence

“I had a great co-op experience, partly because my employer treated me like a team member from day one,” Ahluwalia shared. “They gave me the keys to the Ferrari and let me get in the driver’s seat, so to speak,” she laughed.

When planning workload, they said, “We’re not going to give you projects no one wants to do; we want you to do work that you like.” The culture also made it easy to ask for more work or to engage in different projects, so she didn’t have to wait for a window; it was always a good time to ask questions. That said, she was given space to solve problems and wasn’t micro-managed, which gave her a sense of independence, ownership and autonomy. 

Ahluwalia, who was provided opportunities to transfer as her work terms progressed, opted to stick with that original team because she had built meaningful relationships and met some exceptional mentors. “It felt good to be trusted; what I did mattered.”

She also felt supported as she applied for jobs, referring to Leanne Mihalicz, Co-operative Education co-ordinator, as her “co-op person,” who supported her in a myriad of ways. Mihalicz said, “Ahana embraced her co-op experience with grace, courage, and ambition. In addition to her technical accomplishments during co-op, Ahana demonstrated authentic leadership and sought-after human skills. She positively represented Thompson Rivers University, showcasing her passion for mentoring new co-op students. She also inspires women in STEM, helping to empower as a strong leader for underrepresented groups in engineering.”

Seek mentors, be a mentor

As the only female co-op and international student — Ahluwalia hails from Mumbai, India, and lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before coming to Canada — she found herself in many spaces occupied by well-established male counterparts with years of experience. This is nothing new to Ahluwalia, one of the few women in the software engineering program. Because she has felt welcomed and understood how critical that is to one’s sense of belonging, inclusivity is one of her fundamental values. While there was infinite generosity with leaders at Telus, Ahluwalia believed it was her responsibility to be proactive and take the initiative to get appointments on the books. “You can’t rely on the busier person to take the initiative.”

A peer mentor for first-year engineers, Ahluwalia strives to reduce drop-out rates through formal and informal capacities. The primary purpose, beyond retention, is to support women as they apply for different co-op positions, which is a program requirement. “We need to cheer each other on and support each other more. That’s why I love to mentor and pass along what I’ve learned. It’s a chain reaction.” She noted how part of her learning (and mentoring style) is about destigmatizing failure and setbacks. “Failure is the process to success — part of the engineering mindset is to keep going. . . . and muster the courage to try again.” 

Effective mentorship and leadership can help you see your potential more clearly, she said. “You need mentors who aren’t afraid to tell you when something isn’t working out or provide thoughtful, constructive feedback. The trick is to have the grace to accept mistakes and try something else.”

Create a solid foundation for learning

Understanding the terminology is critical to any role, but in particular, as a co-op or new hire, it’s the Rosetta Stone to understanding your job description and how it relates to the organization on the highest-level organizational aspects. “Disparity in language can be detrimental to the learning experience within any industry,” Ahluwalia noted.

One of her mentors recommended she start a document with any terms and concepts she didn’t know so they could work through the list during daily check-ins, which she found tremendously insightful. Not only was it helpful to get that tip, but having someone talk things out made her feel that she was being invested in and affirmed that she didn’t need to know every term and concept — it was understood that co-op is intrinsically about experiential learning — so that took some pressure off and made it feel safe not to know something straight away. Often, the language referred to is connected to classroom learning, but taking the information built into the curriculum and applying it in a practical professional capacity is a whole different level.

Question systems to change systems

The term ‘imposter syndrome’ is often used, especially among young professionals who feel fraudulent as they navigate professional landscapes. But to Ahluwalia, it ran deeper than that. “It wasn’t that I felt like an imposter; I think there’s an unconscious bias at play. You might think you’re good enough, but systems, policies and practices can suppress or limit opportunities, making you question your value within any industry.” She noted that Telus offers various subprograms, like Connections, designed to uplift women and equity-seeking groups, frequently offering empowering sessions, panels and workshops.

During her co-op, Ahluwalia facilitated talks on bias and equity through the Tech Leadership program. Another community-centered initiative extending beyond Telus’ portfolio was Telus Day of Giving, where employees worked with different charities, engaged in events and donated time to sorting materials at food banks and picking up litter at local parks. “Any organization can write a cheque, but there was more value placed on making a tangible difference; it connected you to your colleagues, community and sense of confidence.”

Ahluwalia reflected on the power of fun as a bonding tool and how Telus helped forge bonds through acts of service, trivia nights and dinners. “We celebrated everything. The organization believed it was essential to acknowledge your humanity and find authentic and genuine ways to connect and offer support.”

Talk yourself up, but don’t oversell

Upon reflection of the initial interview process, Ahluwalia believes that honesty and humility factored into her success as a candidate at Telus. “It’s okay to share that, while your knowledge base is limited, you’re a keen learner excited for a challenge.”  

Her supervisor, Bernardo Altamirano, said, “Ahana didn’t have all the knowledge when she joined but never shied away from learning opportunities, and she was always ready to take on new challenges for our team. I can confidently say that she has been the best co-op we’ve had. We look for attitude and willingness to learn, and Ahana excels in both.”

When asked about other dos or don’ts, she noted that being overconfident or indifferent doesn’t bode well for you. “Whether you’ve over-promised and have to face the impossible standards you’ve set or underwhelmed the hiring committee because you appeared casual or disinterested in the role, it doesn’t help you get the job, much less thrive if you did get hired.” That said, don’t undercut your accomplishments; Ahluwalia smiled, referring to the Barbie movie as encouraging a narrative in which a woman can celebrate their successes and say, “I worked hard, and I deserve this award/promotion/opportunity.”

Professional development and personal growth

Ahluwalia also recommends trusting your intuition if a job doesn’t fit. She explained that she once turned down a job offer to explore life in a bigger city. “I wanted a well-rounded experience by working for a larger organization and living in a place like Vancouver, so I could expand my horizons and explore all the possibilities . . . . see what else was out there.”

During her four work terms, Ahluwalia lived alone in Yaletown, which she loved. “It was such a fun time. I got to know myself better; I learned what I like, what I don’t like, and what I want for my future. I learned how I wanted to show up and who I wanted to be.” She lights up at the memory of that time, of walking the seawall every day, going to the beach, attending concerts, making friends and spending time with her sister, who also lived in Vancouver.

Curiosity and the creative spark

Ahluwalia learned a lot from her Telus colleagues, from their technical experience and how they approached the work. “Everyone had a great attitude; their energy was motivating and uplifting. From their example, I learned how to shift perspectives and move forward.”

She credits the Telus culture as contributing to the team’s connectivity, citing incremental working cycles, regular check-ins, social events and community service. “Having managers help you find exciting projects, doing work that matters, and lots of banter and laughter.”

When asked where she sees herself in 20 years, she again referred to her colleagues as the model of curiosity. “I was taught never to get too comfortable, to check your ego, to be open to change, and that wisdom and knowledge can be exchanged between people. Technology moves fast; you have to keep learning.” 

Show up for others, show up for yourself

“You want your co-op experience to speak volumes; you want to make the time count. I want to do big things, make an impact and create change. I’m not scared of hard work and being challenged. You’ve got to show up for yourself.”

Ahluwalia credits physical activity — she goes to the TCC gym and attends group fitness classes regularly — and shares that dancing or working out is a great way to clear her head, as is teaching herself how to cook and bake. “I’ve dedicated myself to one self-care action a day, whether texting a loved one, learning new recipes, meditating, meal prepping, taking a hot yoga class or spending an extra minute or two in the shower. 

She celebrated her 22nd birthday on her own as part of her commitment to self-compassion. “My co-op experience made me a better person and helped me get in touch with myself. Being kinder to myself helps me be kinder to others.”

Connecting co-op to the classroom

As she approached graduation in the summer of 2024, Ahluwalia enthusiastically returned to her final classes. While some students return impatiently, having had a taste of life beyond academics and ready for the workforce. For Ahluwalia, “It all made sense, not just the material but how I approached learning. This past semester was the best I’ve performed in school, partly because I wasn’t burned out. I think I’ve been seeking validation through grades and other forms of feedback, which was very tied to the routine of student life. It felt more critical than ever to understand than memorize something long enough to survive exams. Focusing on the content instead of the outcome will improve the outcome.” 

The Co-op Student of the Year is an annual award that recognizes outstanding achievement in all aspects of the co-op student’s performance, including academic achievement, work term learning, job achievement/employer evaluation, personal statement, co-operative education and contribution to extra-curricular activities and the community. Learn more about Career and Experiential Learning at


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