Update #1: June 6, 2018 (An introduction)

Since this is the first Experiential Learning Project Update, and a considerable aspect of my work is founded on relationship building, it seems appropriate to share with you a short, perhaps vulnerable narrative about how I became interested in EL. Sometimes reflecting on our beginnings is the best way to understand our motivations, our values, and even our theoretical frameworks.

I was 22, reeling from a broken heart, and (for a change) found myself following my father’s advice: “If you’re not into, take a year off of university and go explore the world. Trust yourself enough to know you’ll return and finish your degree.” In the six months that followed, I traveled to Ghana, volunteered as a (completely unqualified) teacher in a rural village, and backpacked around 8 countries in East Africa. (As it were, I also had my introduction to all the cliché and salvationist ways that one should not behave when volunteering; little did I know that my PhD research would one day focus on critical and social justice-oriented approaches to international service-learning, and I would use my past self’s approach as an example of what not to do). Nonetheless…

Early one morning in Rwanda, my friend Cheri and I took bicycle taxis to a small village called Ntarama. It was known for a graphic and raw genocide memorial that had been preserved over the ten years since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Inside the one-room church-turned-memorial, we had to step on pews to avoid the severed bones and skulls that had been left in place. I write this tentatively and with the knowledge that I can’t possibly unpack and do justice to the horror that occurred in that place. But I do wish to focus on a moment that stands out for me in relation to “experiential learning.” A local woman had come to watch us at the memorial. We couldn’t speak the same language but she studied my face as I took in the scene, and as we discovered through broken translations, she had lost her whole family in that room. I won’t pretend to understand her pain, and I’ll never know if my interpretation of our connection was correct. But when we cried together, and looked at one another in the eye, I felt that she felt sorry for me. Our connection – one that may never be corroborated by her – affected me in ways that “book learning” about genocide never had. That learning moment was replete with intense emotion, a physical connection to place, a passionate motivation that gripped my whole body, and a perceived human connection that eludes capture in the confines of any language or text. The woman we had met thanked us for coming, and as our informal local guide explained, it was helpful for victims to know that the injustices of the genocide had not been forgotten.

To say that I returned to my undergrad at UVic the following year with a renewed hunger to learn and generate change is perhaps a gross understatement. In fact, I took any class that involved East African politics, archaeology, anthropology, and the like; I chose research projects that explored the precursors to genocide; I became an activist for genocide education; I dove into postcolonial theory and gave great thought to why and how the West failed Rwanda. Five years later, I also returned to live in Rwanda as I conducted my Master’s fieldwork there.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, I see experiential learning as incredibly powerful in its potential to educate for justice, social change, and resistance to systemic inequalities. [*On this visual that I developed to show 3 key theoretical currents in experiential learning, I began my journey with the critical theory current]. I also, however, came to understand EL’s capacity to teach tangible skills, prepare me for professional life, and generate important abilities in relationship building. As an undergraduate, in a world filled with colour and humans and wind and injustice, I had often resented the hours I had to sit in a desk and listen to a lecture. But I see now that those content-rich lectures were also necessary, and that the combination of raw experience, critical reflection, and “book learning” is perhaps one of the most potent pedagogical combinations of all. Now, when I teach my own courses with an eye to student engagement, I try to remember my younger self and her desire for “real-world connections” (while also attending to her problematic assumptions that can accompany idealism)

What about you? If you’re engaged in experiential learning as a faculty member, student, community member, or staff member (or other), what makes it special (or not special)? Is there a narrative about the beginnings of your engagement with experiential learning? What does it tell you about your motivations now? I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for reading.

PS – Expect the rest of the updates to be a lot more pragmatic, focused on goals, research findings, new discoveries, and resources.

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