What experiential learning means to your students, in their own words

Kathleen Escarcha, staff writerKathleen Escarcha, staff writer

As pressure rises for colleges to offer more experiential learning opportunities, more institutions have begun to offer these programs over winter and spring break.

The push for experiential learning comes from both students, who worry about their post-grad career prospects, and employers, who report widespread skills gaps.

We asked students and recent graduates how their alternative break experiences shaped their academic and professional goals. Here's what they said.

Lesson 1: Students discover new academic interests

Last year, Jorge Bagaipo, a junior at American University (AU), spent his spring break in El Progreso, Honduras completing a service project to empower local youth.

During his trip, Bagaipo saw a real-world application of the international relations concepts he was learning in class. And while he began the trip with an interest in environmental policy, he left Honduras with a newfound passion for international development and Central America's immigration issues, he says.

Experiential learning opportunities like service projects help students connect coursework to their real-world interests and career goals, Alexa Silverman writes for EAB's Academic Affairs Forum. Not only do students get an early look into academic and career options, they are also guided to see the connection between their coursework and their interests, skills, and aspirations, she adds.

Lesson 2: Students explore possible career options

As part of her Global Supply Chain master's program at the University of Southern California, Cheryl Tolentino went on a career exploration trip to Singapore and Malaysia. While abroad, Tolentino and her classmates visited local businesses and heard presentations from industry leaders.

Listening to an alumnus from her master's program discuss his work as the chief operating officer of Grab, South East Asia's version of Uber, was the most inspiring moment of the trip, she says.

Career exploration trips not only help students explore career options, but also help universities strengthen relationships with employers, Kathryn Masterson wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education. And strong industry partnerships connect students to job opportunities and employers to an untapped talent pool.

Lesson 3: Students develop workplace-ready skills

Students don't have to book a plane ticket to reap the benefits of an alternative break. Many universities are providing mini alt-break opportunities around campus.  

For example, Cris Agonoy, a recent graduate from Drexel University, earned class credit while volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Philadelphia.

According to Agonoy, her spring break service project helped her land an internship with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). "My interviewers said I stood out because I had leadership and collaboration experience outside of the classroom," she explains. Agonoy believes her community service project and GSK internship are the two critical experiences that helped her land a full-time job with the pharmaceutical company after graduation.

She's probably right.

Research has found that employers tend to hire roughly 50% of their interns as full-time employees, and 80% of employers consider internships to be a recruiting tool. Similarly, more than 90% of executives believe colleges should increase experiential learning opportunities, according to survey from Northeastern University. Employers are increasingly looking at what candidates have done—not just what they studied. 

Also see: How experiential learning can boost graduation rates

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