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Experiential Education: A Higher Form of Learning

Dr. Gail Lamberta

Experiential learning is not a new concept in higher education, but it has recently taken a front seat, especially within liberal arts institutions. Although many colleges and universities offer practicum relative to specific majors, today there is an effort to provide a variety of opportunities within the context of experiential learning across and among all disciplines and campus life. In essence, involvement includes students, faculty and staff, hence creating an engaged campus.

Here at SJC, and as reflected in our mission, “the College prepares each student for a life characterized by integrity, intellectual and spiritual values, social responsibility and service.” As an institution rooted in the liberal arts, and in alignment with its mission, SJC has incorporated a requirement within its new general education core that will expose all students to opportunities inclusive of experiential learning.

In order to meet the needs of a diverse student population and curriculum, this integrated learning area is structured into three categories: service learning, experiential learning curricular and experiential learning co-curricular. All of these categories will provide students with experiences that promote meaningful engagement in both local and global communities that foster a broader knowledge base, while furthering one’s intellectual and practical skills, along with developing both personal and social responsibility. As such, these experiences will encourage students to forge a link between theory and practice, while clarifying their connections to these communities and coming to recognize the value and need for ongoing inquiry, analysis and evaluation.

Through this concept, an emphasis is placed on the identification and understanding of pressing social, civic and ethical issues and potential ways to improve upon those conditions, thus creating purposeful pathways for all to become agents of social change.

Service-learning courses are credit-bearing educational experiences that link theoretical constructs to relative social issues within a real-world setting. Students are able to apply the theoretical foundation of the course to experiences outside of the classroom. Through engagement in activities beyond the classroom, students will be able to increase their awareness of the relevancy of social responsibility, while addressing community needs. By gaining exposure to issues such as diversity, social injustice and poverty, students are better able to develop and refine their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, reflect upon their experiences and acquire a greater understanding of themselves in relation to others and the world as a whole.

Experiential learning courses that reflect curriculum are also credit bearing and may serve as the capstone for some disciplines. Courses such as internships and student teaching will foster the application and practice of theoretical constructs, ideas and skills that enhance professional and personal intellectual maturity. A deeper understanding of social issues and challenges within local and global communities, and alternatives to improve upon the same, foster a broader appreciation of the discipline and a greater sense of civic engagement and responsibility. Students have an opportunity to become advocates for those served, and engage in purposeful actions toward creating a more cohesive society.

Experiential learning co-curricular opportunities are those that promote positive social change, equity, inclusion and active participation. Although not credit bearing, these experiences provide students with activities and programs that promote a connection with the community environment through responsible actions that emphasize scholarship, citizenship, leadership and reflection. Students will have a chance to address community needs on a local and global level, and develop both leadership and teamwork skills while participating in supervised and collaborative ventures that initiate lifelong commitments to civic engagement.

In sum, experiential learning initiatives are transformative opportunities that help to prepare students for a successful life in a diverse society through practices that bridge intellectual activity and intentional engagement in the world. Through reciprocal partnerships and collaborative efforts, students will be able to deepen their learning experiences, which will realize high-impact outcomes, and as such, a higher level of learning.

Dr. Lamberta is chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, an associate academic dean and SJC’s coordinator of experiential learning.

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