December 20, 2015


This semester I’ve been interviewing students at Illinois Wesleyan University, capturing 20 individual’s undergraduate experiences. I’ve called it user-centered research – interviewing, and researching – but my preferred title for it has become “story-catching”. Through these interviews I’ve met someone who taught herself Chinese, a future missionary, closet creative writers, and people heading for a career in the medical field. I’ve also interviewed friends and now know them on a deeper level. This is why I call it “story-catching”. To call it research or interviewing doesn’t convey the brilliant life each conversation unveiled – I didn’t collect information; I caught stories.

Why am I catching these stories? In my apprenticeship with Ei, my goal has been to understand the undergraduate experience and where Ei semesters might fit in based on students’ interests, wants, and needs. I also did it for my own benefit as I am deeply invested in improving, if not changing, education. I personally think experiential, hands-on learning is the way to go and from what I’ve been hearing, that seems to be the direction things will be heading.

When I share this with people, that I want to play a role in improving and changing education, I am sometimes asked if I am opposed to traditional education. And to me, that’s really not a fair question. The answer is no. Definitely not. Wanting to improve something and also loving it are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But how is someone supposed to fall in love with a subject or dive deep into material without also understanding its practical application? Any class I remember something from has been one where I go out and struggle with the real-world version of what I am learning. And from my interviews, that’s when other students have learned the most too. I asked students when they’ve felt most engaged and disengaged by learning experiences.

Some features of engaging learning experiences are as follows:

  • largely self-directed
  • a mentor is involved
  • a challenging question with an unknown answer was posed for a group to figure out
  • it took place outside of the classroom or under the instruction of a professor who brought the material to life through personal stories
  • it incorporated the real world into their collegiate experience.

After studying abroad in 2014, and living a full semester of experiential, hands-on learning in what was still a fairly traditional classroom setting, I began to wonder why more schools weren’t embracing this style of learning. I studied in Copenhagen, Denmark with a program called DIS where I did a semester-long partnered project with Volvo, interviewed Danes on why their country was one of the happiest in the world, visited a safe house for prostitutes and an elderly home, traveled to London and walked through the Globe Theatre, did random acts of kindness, and meditated every day in a class. What I loved most about this experience was that it tore down the silos I had created in life. Silos for majors, silos for careers, silos for learning spaces – they were all demolished when I was able to step into the real world where unlike things coming together isn’t simply scary, it’s innovative.

Which leads me back to the stories I caught this semester. I was afraid it was just me who was eager to somehow incorporate the future I was working toward into my immediate learning experiences, but I now know there are at least 20 people in this world who want the same as me. And if these 20 people are a representative sample of all college students, then I think there is no better time for a change.

The tiny moments I’ve gathered and pocketed from these stories will serve as reminders for me to continue pushing forward. In addition to talking to students, I’ve also talked with faculty members. Change in universities is a trek. The politics are enough to drive you mad from simply reading the meeting minutes. Just ask any professor how their last faculty meeting went and you’ll see. But if this conversation continues, if people, and especially students, begin demanding experiential learning then it just might be enough to generate a much needed change.

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