Students find a variety of lessons through experiential learning

Reading and writing about other cultures and social interaction came easily to Iva Dimitrova, a third-year anthropology student at the University of Georgia. It was the idea of going out and interviewing strangers in the field—anthropology in practice—that really scared her.

But after spending a semester in the field in Costa Rica last fall, that fear turned into confidence, she said. Things came into focus when she helped conduct an oral history project about Costa Rican grocery stores. Dimitrova got to practice skills she had only talked about in class, and she loved it.

“Finally, after two years of studying I get to see how it all comes together,” Dimitrova said. “It gave me the confidence to see that this is what I like, and I wanted to do it.”

Not every college student gets to have this kind of clarifying experience, but UGA is considering a strategy to direct students toward similar practical learning opportunities, at home and abroad, through a proposed experiential learning requirement for all undergraduate students.  The goal is to nudge students toward getting better prepared for work or graduate education and becoming more confidence in their abilities.

“Each experience… would help students connect foundational knowledge to real-world challenges, hone critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and build confidence and civic responsibility,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead in announcing the proposal during his State of the University address in January.

The plan is moving through the faculty governance process and is expected to be voted on by the university council later this year. Details are still being worked out, but, in the initial proposal, the requirement could be met with an internship, a research project or a study-abroad trip.

Nationwide, employers have been complaining that recent college graduates are unprepared for the workforce in areas like communication, teamwork and problem-solving, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Employers said they were more likely to consider recent grads who had “participated in an internship, a senior project, a collaborative research project, a field-based project in a diverse community setting with people from different backgrounds, or a community-based project:” all hands-on learning opportunities listed in the experiential learning proposal.

If approved, the experiential learning requirement would set UGA apart from its peers, said Tom Jackson, the university’s vice president for public affairs.

“The program will give students an experiential opportunity that is matched by few large public research universities in America and without adding to the number of credit hours needed to graduate.”

Jackson said there are a lot of “what-ifs” that will be worked out in the planning process. And one challenge could be finding enough experiential opportunities for students, especially for those in the humanities. After all, where do a history, English or anthropology majors find experiential learning opportunities relevant to their disciplines?

Toby Graham, the head librarian at UGA, said campus libraries already offer a variety of research and hands-on learning opportunities for students through internships and fellowships. They could offer even more if needed, he said, which would be a win-win for students and researchers in the university’s digital and special collections librarians.

“We have seen in the past that these have been great experiences for students, and they also bring some great people in the library,” Graham said.

Mikala Bush, a fourth-year psychology and public health double-major, said she gained valuable experience as a student worker at the Peabody Award archives, which is housed in the UGA Richard B. Russell Special Collections Libraries Building. Bush helped organize a screenings and exhibit for the Peabody Decades project last year, searching for video clips through the Peabody Awards archives centered around the 1960s.

Compared to a class assignment, Bush’s role in Peabody Decades project gave her more control over her learning experience.

“In a class, most of the time, you can’t pick the syllabus, the curriculum or the subject,” she said. But that’s exactly what she did for her screening project.

After Bush graduates in May, she’s hoping to join the Peace Corps. She thinks her experience researching and then facilitating an event like Peabody Decades will be useful if she gets a spot overseas.

For Dimitrova, her experience in Costa Rica helped clarify her career goals. She has added a second major in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication so she can work toward becoming an anthropological documentary filmmaker.

Dimitrova said she supports an experiential learning requirement because some students like her, who can be timid about finding learning opportunities, need to be pushed toward the kind of experiences that enriched her education.

“Everything seems so daunting,” she said, “until you actually do it.”

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