Experiential Learning – Not Just A Buzzword

Written by Tim Rice (Vanderbilt University) Student Correspondent CET Florence, Spring 2018

View from St Peters Dome

View from St Peters Dome

I’ll be honest – my primary motivation for studying abroad was not about learning – instead it was just to have a blast. Unexpectedly, however, studying abroad in Florence has taught me more about myself and about the world than anything I have ever done. What’s unique about the experience, though, is that the majority of the learning has happened organically and outside of the classroom. My classes are great – but learning is a multi-faceted process that involves a lot more than what you can acquire in a classroom. I’ve done a lot of studying in my time, and as of now there’s not a lot that’s going to surprise me from a course. Before coming abroad though, I hadn’t been to Europe. I understood how to take derivatives and integrate functions but I had no idea how to, for example, make sense of the Italian train system. In other words, I had a lot of book knowledge and not quite as much life knowledge – which comes from experiences. There’s a scene in Goodwill Hunting that I think captures this idea perfectly. Robin Williams’ character is giving advice to a youngster who is intelligent and well-read but has little inspiration and few interesting experiences:

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”

I went to Rome and Vatican City a few weekends ago (CET took us and organized the whole weekend). Now, I’ve looked up at that “beautiful ceiling.” Another example – I had read a great deal about Gladiator fights (and even seen the Russel Crowe film). All of that was absolutely paled, though, to standing in the actual Colosseum, looking around, and understanding (at least in some small sense) what it may have been like to fight to the death underneath the eyes of 40,000 spectators.

I’ll add to the list.

Roman Water Fountain note the SPQR

Roman Water Fountain note the SPQR

I’ve taken the London Tube and seen the Swiss Alps. I’ve gotten very sick in a foreign country and figured out how to see a doctor and get better. I’ve sipped water from a water fountain that draws from the Roman Aqueducts that were built over 2000 years ago (perhaps the same aqueduct that quenched Julius Caesar’s thirst). I’ve gone from being a tourist to the person that helps tourists when they are lost and confused. You get the point – a great deal of the learning from studying abroad is experiential. You can learn a lot from courses, and perhaps there is a travel and culture class out there that imparts some of the same things as studying abroad, but I doubt it. The things you learn from experiences can’t really be written down, put into a google doc, or made into a multiple-choice test. They are, however, just as valuable as what you learn in the classroom. College has made me a smarter person. Studying abroad has made me a wiser, more interesting person. I’m very thankful for that.