What is WIL (Work-Integrated Learning)?

Work-integrated learning (WIL) refers to student-centered internships, co-ops, field placements, and other experiences that connect classroom learning with real work experience, fostering personal and professional skills that are beneficial for career exploration and development. Though these experiences are student-centered, they also provide opportunities for university mentors and employers alike. Given WIL’s collaborative nature, each stakeholder stands to reap the benefits of such partnerships, but with the possibility of growth comes potential risks for each party (Fleming and Hay 2021).

What Are Risks in WIL?

Risk, in its simplest definition, is one’s degree of exposure to hazards that may cause loss or injury. When applied to WIL, risk is the positions of harm each participant may put themselves in despite positive intentions. Categories of risk include health and safety, conduct, law and liability, finance, ethics, strategy, and reputation (Cameron 2017). Each risk bears the possibility of invoking legal and fiscal consequences, as well as reputational damage (Ackley et al. 2007). Some risks can be applied across the distinct types and contexts of WIL, while others are specific to certain industries and situations.

A partnership is necessary for the facilitation of WIL practices, but it is also the partnership in and of itself that creates such risk. Employers are faced with the possibility of taking on students who communicate confidential information to competitors after their WIL experience, as well as students who may act unprofessionally. Universities and university mentors may face reputational damage if their students act inappropriately, as well as legal risks if the partnership were to be detrimental to the student. Risks for students are mainly associated with the employer and may include physical or psychological harm or exploitation of contributed work (Fleming and Hay 2021).

Overview of Student Safety

Given that WIL is centered on students, they are in the most vulnerable position and have the greatest exposure to risk, but it is also such partnerships with students that cause risks for the other stakeholders. Over the past year, I have participated in an Elon University campus employment program through which I was pre-vetted to apply for select job opportunities on campus. It was through this program that I accepted an internship position with Bringing Theory to Practice (BT2P) as a communications intern. I fully acknowledge the risk undertaken by both Elon’s staff for pre-reviewing my application and thus commending me for employment, as well as those at BT2P for hiring me as an intern. The potential risks of my WIL internship experience are minimized due to the culture of collaboration, respect, and inclusivity that has been fostered throughout my experience. Concrete protections against risk may include pre-placement preparation, contracts protecting intellectual property, and university-employer relationships, in addition to forming mutually invested partnerships (Fleming and Hay 2021). Substantial risk can be alleviated, ensuring WIL experiences are valuable for all who participate in them.

An important question to raise is whether all risks should be mitigated. There are circumstances that are uncomfortable due to legitimate causes, but there are also factors that are uncomfortable due to inevitable learning curves (Cassidy et al. 2001). It is essential to determine the difference between such instances of uncomfortableness to establish appropriate boundaries and safe environments, while also leaning into the productive discomfort. The term productive discomfort is indicative of its function—engagement in unfamiliar, new experiences and tasks to maximize growth and change. Risk, in moderation, in safe environments, is often necessary for personal, academic, and professional advancement.


As a CEL student scholar, I have the opportunity to collaborate with participants in the 2022-2024 Research Seminar on Work-Integrated Learning. Coming out of the first summer convening of the research seminar, the factor of risk is apparent in each of the research groups’ research questions. The participants are diving into various research topics such as the examination of WIL in a healthcare context, faculty involvement in WIL, and the role of WIL for first-generation students, among others. Many of the aforementioned risks are applicable to the various research questions of this seminar, as well as other WIL research endeavors. Even if risk is not the main point of WIL-focused research, it is important to recognize it as a confounding variable that may be a contributing factor to stakeholder perceptions. Risk is present in many of life’s challenges, and so it also holds true for WIL experiences. As a student who has participated in various WIL opportunities, I have found that the takeaways from my internship, study-away, and service-learning experiences far outweigh the potential risks.

This post is the first in a three-part series about risks present in work-integrated learning. Be on the lookout for the next two parts that delve specifically into risks for students and university mentors.


Ackley, Sheri, Megan Adams, Grace M. Crickette, Christine Eick, Leta Finch, Richard W. Freeman, Bonney J. Herbert, Gary W. Langsdale, Catherine Lark, and Ellen M. Shew Holland. 2007. “ERM in Higher Education.” University Risk Management and Insurance Association, September 2007. https://www.odu.edu/content/dam/odu/offices/risk-management/DOCS/erm-urmia-white-paper.pdf.

Cameron, Craig. 2017. “The Strategic and Legal Risks of Work-Integrated Learning: An Enterprise Risk Management Perspective.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education 18 (3): 243-56. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1159152.pdf.

Cassidy, Dale, Larry Goldstein, Sandra L. Johnson, John A. Mattie, and James E. Morley, Jr. 2001. “Developing a Strategy to Manage Enterprisewide Risk in Higher Education.” National Association of College and University Business Officers. https://www.cuny.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/page-assets/about/administration/offices/ehsrm/risk/nacubo_rm.pdf.

Fleming, Jenny, and Kathryn Hay. 2021. “Understanding the Risks in Work-Integrated Learning.” International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning 22 (2): 167-81. https://www.ijwil.org/files/IJWIL_22_2_167_181.pdf.

Gianna Smurro is one of the 2022-2025 CEL Student Scholars. She is collaborating with participants in the 2022-2024 research seminar on Work-Integrated Learning. Learn more about the current student scholars.

How to Cite This Post

Smurro, Gianna. 2022. “Assessing Risk in Work-Integrated Learning.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 20, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/assessing-risk-in-work-integrated-learning.