Look how far you can go with experiential learning

Presentations and posters at Oct. 21 expo will show and tell about social service and engagement from Waltham to Haiti


From Costa Rica to Nepal and points between, Brandeis students will showcase where they have been, what they have done, and what they have learned outside of the classroom in the eXperiential eXpo Thursday, October 21, at Shapiro Campus Center.  Posters will be displayed in the atrium and presentations will take place in the second-floor multipurpose room from 5:00 p.m. until 6:30 p.m.  The program is intended to spark ideas for off-campus learning adventures, especially among first-years and sophomores.

Many colleges have experiential learning in the form of internships, volunteer work, study abroad and other programs that take students out of the confines of a classroom.  Brandeis is one of the few that has an official Experiential Learning Program, a solid structure underpinning these experiences, making sure connections are made between the classroom and “the real world,” and ferreting out the best policies and practices in the field.

“What distinguishes experiential learning from more traditional learning,” says Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe, a founder of the program, “is that you’re doing something that, when you start doing it, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

It was the bed bugs and the peeling lead paint that got to Chelsey Dionne, a Community-Engaged Fellow who graduated last spring, when she toured a run-down Waltham apartment with the health inspector.  The mother who had been living there with her two toddlers, aged two and four, reported the living conditions to the advocacy group Waltham Alliance to Create Affordable Housing (WATCH).  Dionne, a volunteer from Brandeis’ Experiential Learning Program, was on duty when the mother and children came into the WATCH clinic. The children were sick from lead paint and bed bugs.

“It was the first time I saw bed bug bites, and it was horrible,” says Dionne.  “They both had bites in their ears and on their arms. The two year old had lead paint poisoning too.”

Using the contents of her Brandeis course Environmental Law and Policy, Dionne and other Brandeis WATCH workers help tenants with all sorts of problems.  “Learning law is pretty boring, but then you go to the clinic and it comes to life for you as you teach the tenants about their rights,” says Dionne.  “We had to know the law inside out.”

Dionne could cite the landlord’s legal obligation to deal with the lead paint and the bed bugs.  The process is the same for most tenant complaints.  “First we’d write a letter to the landlord with our organization’s name and the tenant’s name.  We’d cite the Massachusetts housing law and would write down when repairs needed to be completed and the tenant would send it registered mail, and if repairs weren’t completed, we’d call the housing inspector.”

In this case, the landlord did not make the repairs, and when the inspector toured the bug infested home, Dionne went along. “The house was dirty and you could see the bed bugs, and you could see the paint was old,” says Dionne. “There were other problems too that the inspector cited, like broken screens.”

Still, the landlord was too slow making repairs.  Through WATCH, Dionne found the family a new apartment, and "the landlord was put on a list," she said. "Until the bed bug and lead paint issues are resolved, he can’t rent [the apartment] again to little kids. “Once the inspector cites it, things have to be fixed,” she said.

“You’re taking your course work and bringing it to life,” says Dionne, “and experiencing it first hand.”

Dionne became a manager at WATCH, training volunteers right through graduation and into the summer.  She now works with the Framingham Heart Study, assessing dementia, and she holds a second job with the Physician’s Health Study, looking into the effects of multi-vitamins.  She plans eventually to get her Masters degree in Public Health Administration.  “What I did in WATCH and in the clinic I want to integrate in my career, working with low income people,” she says. “I want to work for a firm that helps people get adequate health care.”

Brandeis’ Experiential Learning Program got underway officially about five years ago, according to Dean Jaffe.  There have long been off-campus, real-world-focused projects, he says, but this approach is more deliberate.

“We are very systematic about thinking about the relationship between the learning that goes on in the classroom and the learning that goes on outside the classroom,” says Jaffe. “We try to create these opportunities for our students, not just to go out and ‘do something’, but to go out and do something that is grounded in and connected to what they do on campus and in their courses.”

Jaffe says Brandeis is refining experiential learning, not pioneering it. “We’re not claiming that we invented the internship,” he said.  “I do think that if you actually look at the substance of the things that Brandeis students do, there is an extraordinary range in both the activities and the depth of participation in the things that they’re doing…around the world and in different communities that I don’t think are actually happening very much in other places.”

Anum I. Khan, a Wien scholar who also graduated in the spring, started her experiential learning in a modest enough way, spearheading a campus sustainability drive dubbed Greening the Ivory Tower.  She says working on maternal and child health issues at a U.S. Agency for International Development health agency in her native Karachi, Pakistan, deepened her on-going interest in health policy problems. 

Khan received a grant from the Hiatt Career Center’s World of Work, and she interned at UNICEF in Canada’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.  “Aboriginal children lack access to health care,” says Khan.  “Who is taking responsibility for aboriginal children? There is much to be assessed and addressed.”

“I’ve benefited from experiential education, and encourage others to try it,” says Khan.  “I think it’s important that the curriculum require a community based-experience.  Bridging that gap is truly what community based experience does.  We live in a world where we are increasingly connected and increasingly diverse.  It’s about seeing yourself as a part of a greater unit and seeing how you engage and implement change."

Khan currently is living in Toronto, working for a project that creates internationally-useable manuals for treating non-communicable diseases.

Many current students with experiences like those of Khan and Dionne will give their reports from the field at the October 21 experiential learning expo.  This can be a big help, especially to underclassmen, administrators of the program say.

“Students -- like sophomores who have figured out that they’re interested in anthropology but they’re not quite sure what they would ever do with it -- get the opportunity to hear about some really exciting things that students have done in Costa Rica and in India and in Nepal," Jaffe said, "and they start to think, ‘I can do that,' whereas otherwise they might just be going to class and not really exploring the range of the kinds of experiences that could be available.”

Jaffe says there are two ways to get involved in Experiential Learning.  “If you can scope out something that you want to do, and you can identify a faculty member who is willing to work with you on it, you can set it up as your own individualized internship.  We also have what we call ‘internship courses.’  You basically have a seminar-style course which is run by a faculty member for say, all his students in sociology who are doing projects of this kind, and they come in and they report to each other on the projects that they are engaged in… what they’ve learned from it, what they’re thinking about it.”

It all comes down to the number 89, says Jaffe.  “There’s a course number 89 which is offered in every discipline.  There’s a business 89, sociology 89, health science and social policy 89, journalism 89,” he says.  “These are all basically internship courses which are a frame-work for students who are specifically doing internships.”

On the Brandeis campus, all of these fall under the umbrella of the five-year-old Experiential Learning Program.

“What the umbrella does is two things,” says Jaffe.  “It makes sure that there is always this connection to the learning that’s going on within the curriculum, and they’re not just off doing an internship where they’re photocopying or they’re bringing people coffee or they’re doing other things that really aren’t educational. And the other is that there are really a lot of exchanges of ideas that go on, though we have people who are working with students in the laboratory talking with people who are working with the legal-aid society, and they’re sharing ideas about how do we maximize the extent to which the students are reflecting on what they are doing and are really learning as much from it as they can.  It makes all of these experiences potentially better because people are sharing practices and ideas about how to make them as educational as you can possibly make them.”

This kind of field work, “is very naturally connected to the social justice mission of the university,” notes Jaffe, “because in many cases, what the students are going out and doing is in some ways making the world a better place.”

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