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Making a Difference

Making a Difference

By Robin Boon

Fusing the best things about Westminster's past and present and the myriad of possibilities for its future, the Center for Experiential Learning has grown out of Westminster's new strategic plan and the college's long and successful history with civic responsibility.

Part of the mission at Westminster is "to prepare students to lead lives of learning, accomplishment, and service, and to help them develop skills and attributes critical for success in a rapidly changing world." Experiential learning plays an important role in the mission because it allows students to apply theory to practice outside the traditional classroom setting.

Thirty years ago education consisted primarily of instructors transferring knowledge to students. Today students are active participants, deeply involved in their own learning. Confucius defined it well: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

The role of the Center for Experiential Learning is to serve as a valuable resource for faculty, staff, and community, and to tie the Westminster learning experience to academic theory. While currently in its infancy, the center's proposed steering committee will include faculty, staff, and students, as well as community leaders who can contribute a wide range of knowledge to enrich the experience for everyone.

Assistant Professor of Management and Director of the Practice Experience Program at Westminster, Stephen Hurlbut, explained the fundamental goal of the new center: "Before they leave Westminster, every single student will have at least one project of community involvement and service that is both academically sound and a valuable contribution to the community. We want our students to see that they can make a difference."

One type of experiential learning, service learning, provides service to businesses or the community with specific learning goals in mind--not just skills, but a deep understanding of social, political, or economic contexts.

One current example of a service learning class at Westminster is Issues of the Homeless, a class that grew out of Professor of Nursing Diane Van Os' sabbatical in 1992. One of the course requirements is that students secure donated food from local businesses, prepare it, and serve it to the homeless at The Road Home, a family shelter.

Senior communications major Nelson Emeric explained that the class showed him a world beyond the life he has lived. He never thought it would affect him like it did. Nelson's required journal concluded, "...this course was the most informative, humbling, rewarding, and interesting class I have ever taken at Westminster College. I now view the homeless community not as individuals with only substance abuse issues, but as real human beings that have had unfortunate things happen to them in their lives. They are people who need love, attention, and a second chance in life. The most serious deprivation that any human being faces is not that of wealth, but that of opportunity, experience, and most importantly the lack of love."

The rewards of learning through experience are significant, and everyone involved benefits. Our society has problems that are real, unpredictable, diverse, and nationwide. In this often fragmented society, students learn skills that they cannot acquire in the classroom. Research shows unequivocally that students involved in experiential learning remember more of what they learn than they do in a traditional setting because they are able to tie theory to practice.

The new Center for Experiential Learning will encompass far more than theory and subject matter. Students will define their personal and career goals and strengthen their commitment to social responsibility. Students will see the difference they have made, not just in tasks or projects, but in people's lives. They will learn what they are capable of, become confident in their skills, learn to communicate professionally, and learn to collaborate in an uncertain environment--all prerequisites for success in the real world. Their sense of community and commitment are likely continue after graduation.

The Center for Experiential Learning will also help faculty and staff. They will have expanded opportunities to reconnect with best practices and stay in touch with current issues in their fields.

Westminster's strategic plan includes the development of a Center for Experiential Learning to prepare students to be critical thinkers, effective leaders, responsible citizens, and more tolerant and creative humans who have a deeper and broader understanding of the world.

Hurlbut concluded, "Working together, we can make an even bigger difference in the lives of our students and the quality of life in our community."