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Getting the Most Out of an Experiential Learning Opportunity

I would not be where I am today without experiential learning. I know that might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s true! My experiential learning opportunities as an undergraduate and graduate student have undoubtedly led me down a path full of growth, new knowledge, and professional confidence.

During my undergraduate career at Ohio State, I participated in the Washington Academic Internship Program (WAIP) through the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. The program allowed me to spend a semester in Washington, DC and intern with a congressional newspaper and website. Additionally, I networked with Ohio State alumni working in DC and participated in professional development activities like informational interviewing. My time in WAIP offered me the opportunity to apply what I was learning in the classroom to a “real world” experience and get a taste for what the professional world would be like upon graduation.

I am forever grateful for my internship experience because it allowed me to explore what I liked in a job, what I didn't like, and where I still needed to grow academically and professionally.

In fact, by participating in the program, I realized that I enjoy the coordination and logistics of building out a program like WAIP; and after graduation, I was offered a newly-created full time role at the organization! It was through this experience that I narrowed my interests, discovered a passion for higher education and student affairs, and decided to pursue a graduate degree in the field. So, when I say I would not be where I am today without experiential learning, I truly mean it! That is the beauty of experiential education - you never know what you will learn or where it will take you.

1. Put emphasis on the learning!

During my time with WAIP, I often worked with students who were nervous about being “pigeon holed” into a profession and desperately wanted to find the perfect internship. Of course I would support them in their search; but, more importantly, I would encourage them to think about the skills they still wanted to learn and how they could apply them to a future career. Even if their dream job was to write for a news publication, they could still take a research internship with a think tank - it is all about transferable skills! So, as you are considering ways to develop skills and knowledge, I would encourage you to choose your own adventure and try new things. Knowing what you don’t like is just as important as knowing what you do like.

A personal example: All of my higher education experience had been at Ohio State - a large public university. Thinking ahead about my career goals, I knew that it would be important to diversify my experiences and get exposure to other types of colleges and universities before starting my post-masters job search. I wanted to experience what a smaller private university might look like, which is how I ended up here at Lehigh as a graduate intern in the Office of the First Year Experience! By stepping out of my comfort zone, I allowed myself to learn new skills and knowledge in an area I had previously known little-to-nothing about. Now, I feel confident that I could thrive in a first-year experience office after I graduate from my master's program.

2. You never know if you don’t ask!

It is not lost on me that I had the privilege of participating in WAIP, which opened the door to so many other opportunities for me. I know that sometimes experiential learning programs come at a cost and are not always accessible to everyone. My advice to you would be to ask for assistance. The worst someone could say is no. Is there a research project you want to work on? Ask if there is an opening on the research team. A study abroad experience? Ask if there are scholarships available. Some of the most helpful experiential learning opportunities I’ve had came from simply asking questions. That said, you want to be intentional about what you are asking for. I encourage you to think about the “why” behind your ask. Why this experience? Why now? Why will this experience benefit you and what you are asking for in the long run?

The Key Takeaway

In the simplest of terms, experiential learning is learning from experience - learning what you like, learning what you don’t like, learning new skills, learning new knowledge. I encourage you to embrace that learning! It is okay if you don’t love an experience, but at least you tried. On the other hand, you may absolutely love an experience and uncover a clearer picture of what your future holds. Ask for advice, ask for opportunities, and ask for help. You never know what can come from asking. Learning in the classroom is great and of course it is what college is all about, but when you step out of the classroom and begin to apply your knowledge, that is when the magic happens and everything can connect. I hope this was helpful as you continue to craft your journey at Lehigh and beyond. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Sydney is a current graduate student at The Ohio State University studying higher education and student affairs and is an Assistant Hall Director. Sydney also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Management, Leadership, and Policy from Ohio State. She is originally from New Jersey and enjoys all things pop-culture and BravoTV, ice cream, hiking, and exercising. Connect with Sydney on LinkedIn!

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