Transforming Students through Experiential Learning

Share this Story

Experiential learning, such as study abroad, prepares students for intellectual, professional, and civic lives

Featured News | October 31, 2017


By Sara Sewell


“It is said that if one were to look at the stars every night, life would be viewed very differently. The universe whispers its secrets, luring curiosity to go beyond the limits of reality. In Africa, the nighttime sky is bursting with life. Looking up at this celestial masterpiece every night on Misali Island in the Zanzibar Archipelago, I saw my dreams spread out before me, and I felt an undeniable hope in what the future held in store. Africa made me feel alive. The experience I had in Tanzania will forever be etched in my heart. I experienced something that was bigger than myself, and it changed my life forever.”

Global Scholar Ashley Whipple ‘18 studied in Tanzania in fall 2016. Her words testify to the transformative power of semester study abroad.

At Virginia Wesleyan University, experiential learning, such as study abroad, effectively prepares students for their intellectual, professional, and civic lives during college and beyond. In August 2015, VWU opened The Lighthouse: The Center for Exploration and Discovery to promote experiential learning. The Lighthouse brings together programs in study away, internships, and undergraduate research, housed in a single office in Clarke Hall. It provides financial support, instruction, advising, and programming to students and faculty who engage in experiential learning. In the two years since its founding, The Lighthouse has made a substantial impact on campus. As Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Timothy G. O’Rourke attests.

“The Lighthouse is quite literally a beacon to students, drawing them to activities and experiences that transform and enrich them intellectually and personally. The Lighthouse greatly elevates the quality of curricular offerings, helping faculty to design study away courses, create special undergraduate research projects, develop internship placements, and attract notable outside speakers and artists.”

One measure of the impact of The Lighthouse is the increasing  number of students who undertake a study away, internship, or research experience. In 2016-17, nearly 75 percent of graduates completed at least one of these experiences. Internships, study away, and undergraduate research are being increasingly interwoven into academic majors and students’ courses of study. What was once considered learning experiences for only a few is now an expectation for all students.

Educational research underscores the life-changing capacity of experiential learning. By challenging students to undertake consequential projects that require them to apply the knowledge and skills mastered in the classroom, experiential learning pedagogies teach students to question, to consider different viewpoints, to tolerate uncertainty, to persist when confronted with challenging problems, to reassess their values, and to take action. Such learning nurtures the essential knowledge, dispositions, and skills of engaged citizens.

Whipple illustrates such engagement. “In Africa, I gained a profound appreciation for the life I lived, for the person I became, and the incredible people whom I came to know. I lived a life of simplicity and values that were so unlike those in the West. Everything I knew before felt inconsequential in comparison to what I found to be the true meaning of life in Africa.”

Destini Garrison ‘18 echoes Whipple’s words. Researching the model moss Physcomitrella under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Eric Johnson, Garrison explains how independent undergraduate research paves the way for a personal metamorphosis. “Working with Dr. Johnson challenges my critical thinking skills. He guides me just enough to make sure my research progresses. But he leaves the critical thinking and decision making to me to ensure that my research experience is personally stimulating.”

Damon Brown ‘17, who interned with Dale Carnegie Training in spring 2017, explains internships in similar terms. The internship helped “me to understand how businesses operate and to develop critical thinking skills.” It also taught “me how to conduct myself, how to become more professional, and how to be more confident both in and outside of the office.”

To guide students to transformative immersive study away, research, and internship experiences, Virginia Wesleyan launched its Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) in August 2015. Through The Lighthouse, the QEP offers considerable support to students and faculty to engage in experiential learning. Among the most popular programs is our Study Away Course Grant Program for students, which provides financial support to enable students to enroll in study away courses. Last year’s destinations included Mexico, Prague, South Korea, Hawaii, and Alaska. Courses were offered in a variety of departments, including Psychology, Criminal Justice, Environmental Studies, and History. The 2017-18 line-up proves to be equally exciting with courses traveling to Israel, Costa Rica, Berlin, London, and elsewhere.

Under the auspices of the QEP, The Lighthouse organizes a variety of programs to promote experiential learning to all students. These include the Summer High Impact Practice Program (SHIPP) that funds students’ experiential learning projects during the summer months, an On Deck speaker series, and a transportation program that sponsors field trips. The goal of such programs is to provide all students with new experiences, exposing them to an array of new peoples and ideas. As English Associate Professor Rebecca Hooker explains, “Because of the support from The Lighthouse, I can show my students the world, even if we only travel a few hours away from campus.”

The Lighthouse also renovated the space on the first floor of Clarke Hall to create a modern, student-friendly academic space with a coffee shop atmosphere. Associate Professor Deirdre Gonsalvez-Jackson explains that “students now have a welcoming academic place to network and discover opportunities for engagement in their studies outside of the classroom. Even if students come in just for coffee or a place to charge their phones, they may walk out with a plan for studying In Costa Rica or or Israel.”

VWU’s showcase for experiential learning is Port Day when the University sponsors a daylong symposium that features student presentations of their capstone projects in study away, internships, and undergraduate research. Port Day is held at the conclusion of each semester; the next Port Day is scheduled for December 5, 2017 . Academic year 2016-17 marked its inaugural year with 265 student presenters. Associate Professor Jayne Sullivan points out that Port Day is important not only for the presenters but also for the audience. “It served as an inspiration to my first-year students who are now anxious to plan their own study away, research, and internships.”

Whipple was among the student presenters on Port Day. She recounted the wisdom she gained as a result of studying abroad. “After living as a Muslim for four months, I learned that there needs to be more respect for other people's culture. My beautiful homestay family showed so much love and compassion for me that it fueled my anger about the ignorance of others. But I learned that instead of being angry, I need to be the voice for these people. It is my civic duty, a responsibility, and a part of my life’s purpose. My biggest advice to anyone is to learn acceptance. I came to accept the values, culture, and beliefs of both Muslims and Africans. To me, it is important to see the humanity of people. It’s time to start making a change with love, understanding, and compassion.”