Experiential learning connects classroom with community and beyond

More than 80 students hope to inspire others at the third annual symposium on March 24

Photos/Mike Lovett

Students participate in "Filmmaking: From Script to Screen," a Justice Brandeis Semester course.

At first, Tyler Belanga ‘12 found it unsettling. A one-day crash course in Massachusetts housing law hardly seemed like enough training to advise the often-distraught clients who visited the Waltham Alliance to Create Housing's (WATCH) tenant advocacy clinic.

He was "thrown into the fire," he says, but his confidence came in time. By the end of his Justice Brandeis Semester, through which he volunteered as part of his coursework, he realized he was learning much more than housing law. Belanga will present on his continuing work with the WATCH clinic at the Experiential Learning and Engaged Learners Symposium March 24.

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2011 EL(2) Symposium

For the full symposium schedule and to download the program, visit the Experiential Learning site.

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"I get to interact with a lot of people who need help in very different ways," Belanga says. "Now I'm a lot better at just knowing what to say and being more comfortable" in tense situations. "You need to know how to handle bad news and how to deliver it."

Belanga realized he didn't need to be an expert, he had to listen to tenants' problems and direct them to appropriate resources. Some have to deal with landlords who enter the home unannounced, some are apartment-seekers without Internet access, some are struggling with applying for Section 8. Volunteers help inform people of their rights, write letters, assist with online searches and grant applications and make referrals to lawyers.

"Sometimes people just need their story heard," Belanga says.

He enjoyed the work so much that after he completed his JBS last summer, he continued volunteering once a week in the fall, and this semester, as part of a paid TD Bank internship, he and another student follow up with clients and update their info in the computer system a few days a week. They are also planning a three-mile run on campus to raise money for WATCH.

At the symposium, he'll share his experiences at the WATCH clinic, as well as with Worcester Roots, an organization that works on remediation of lead soil, where he helped assess whether their methods were working.

"There are so many opportunities. I hear what other students are doing all the time and I want to get involved," says Belanga, an environmental studies major. The key to choosing a path is to "follow your heart."

Jessica Paquin, the assistant director for academic internships, echoes his sentiment. "Imagination is your only limitation," she says.

The annual symposium, now in its third year, gives students time to reflect on what they've done and articulate what they've learned, according to Audra Grady, the administrator of the experiential learning program. More than 80 students will participate, either through panel presentations or by presenting a poster they created to represent their experience.

Faculty and students who have thrived in experiential learning situations hope those presentations inspire a new generation of students to participate. It isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. Under the umbrella of experiential learning at Brandeis are conventionally organized courses like biology, independent research opportunities, internships, community-engaged projects, studio and art work and study abroad programs. Like Belanga, a student's first participation in experiential learning often leads to others. Students build on those experiences from semester to semester.

Abigail Katznelson's experiential learning program evolved after she won the Fashion Scholarship Fund's annual competition. With that funding in tow, she spent 50 hours developing a new brand to fill a gap in the market: an expansion of athletic shoes that tone muscle as you walk.

"We think outside the box on a regular basis, but experiential learning at Brandeis is the opportunity to live outside that box and understand what it means to put theory into practice," says Katznelson, a junior majoring in finance. "This is our chance to see what all our learning amounts to."

Hannah Katcoff '12 participated in a practicum in conjunction with her Health, Community, and Society course through which she received an additional two credits. The practicums allow students to apply in the community what they've learned in the classroom.

One of Katcoff's projects was to assess to what extent Waltham residents understand their medical instructions and prescription medication. But the work didn't end there. Participants were awarded a Best In Class Leadership grant from Massachusetts Campus Compact to continue the practicum in conjunction with another course, Racial/Ethnic and Gender Inequalities in Health and Health Care.

"It's not an office with drop-in hours, and it's not a requirement but it's such a strong thread at Brandeis," Paquin says. "I want people to know that this is an organized initiative and there are resources."

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