April 12, 2019

Undergrads find direction through volunteering, service learning, field experience, research

Karen Quinn, undergraduate in Art History, among students across faculties telling us their experiential learning stories
Karen Quinn
Karen Quinn says experiential learning helped her find a purpose Adrian Shellard for the University of Calgary

“This may sound a bit over the top, but for me, experiential learning didn’t just help me find a career direction or a job — it helped me find a purpose,” says Karen Quinn, an academic adviser and undergraduate student in the Department of Art History at the University of Calgary.

Formerly a postdoctoral biomedical researcher, Quinn returned to university to pursue a degree in the Faculty of Arts. She started in the Department of English, then switched to focus on ancient and medieval history before finally enrolling in art history.

“I had thought that the subject area of my degree would give me a new direction for my career, but that didn’t happen, so I kept changing my major,” she explains. “After a couple of years of that I began to feel… sort of directionless.”

She began working with an adviser in Career Services, who recommended she apply to experiential learning programs. UCalgary offers curricular and co-curricular experiential learning opportunities across faculties. These programs provide students with hands-on opportunities to increase their understanding, develop new skills and promote new ways of thinking. Students involved in experiential learning, like Quinn, suggest that the benefits far exceed this scope.

Quinn’s experience as a peer helper and tutor with Read, Write, Review, Develop helped her get her current advising role, in which she encourages students to seek out experiential learning opportunities. She says, “I think, in some respects, that if almost every student had at least one experiential learning experience it could be really quite an important part of their higher education. It has certainly made me see university as a holistic experience and not just as the degree that you’re doing.”

Developing the skills and knowledge to succeed 

Peter Le Hoang, a first-year student in the after-degree education program, also speaks highly of experiential learning.

“Classroom learning is similar to working on individual skills, learning bits and pieces at a time, analogous with practising dribbling, shooting or passing in basketball,” he describes. “Experiential learning programs glue all those pieces together, analogous with playing an actual game itself, where all the pieces come into play at the same time."

Le Hoang first graduated from the University of Calgary in 2017, double-majoring in pure and applied mathematics with a minor in philosophy. During his first degree, Le Hoang volunteered in and outside of the university while also working as a teaching assistant for first-year math students.

“My intentions initially were to volunteer and work in education-related areas to see if it was a fit with who I am and who I want to be,” he explains. “This soon transformed to intentions of gaining as much knowledge, skills and experience to be the best teacher I can possibly be one day.”

Le Hoang returned to the University of Calgary looking for more opportunities to add to his experience. He has been heavily involved in service-learning courses through the Office of Undergraduate Programs in the Werklund School of Education. His first service-learning course focused on inclusive post-secondary education, where he modified courses for differently-abled students. His second explored Junior Achievement, where he taught business and financial literacy to elementary school students. He is now starting a third service-learning program, working with Indigenous youth to learn STEM concepts by building robots.

Le Hoang says, “I’ve found service learning to really be meaningful, and there was a lot that I learned from service learning that perhaps is missing within the lectures, or perhaps is an extension from the lectures.”

Personalizing undergraduate degree programs 

Like Le Hoang, Brooke Thomas has used experiential learning to amplify her after-degree program. Thomas is in the final year of her post-diploma Bachelor of Social Work degree.

She says, “Being able to have these experiential learning opportunities means that you have these little pockets of time and space created within your degree to do the things that are very targeted to your interests and where you want to go professionally.”

Last summer, Thomas received a Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) Award at the University of Calgary. Thanks to this award, she was able to travel to Northern Ireland during the marching season to study post-conflict reconstruction. Her project combined her religious studies background with her personal past experience living in Ireland.

“In social work, it’s very important to situate who you are in relation to the work you’re doing,” Thomas explains. “And so, being able to select my own research topic obviously meant that it had personal value and meaning to me.”

Throughout the past year, she has been fulfilling her diploma’s practicum requirements. Once again, Thomas found an opportunity to individualize her degree to her interests.

“I went into my first practicum focused on the skills that I wanted to learn. I didn’t necessarily anticipate how much I would see myself reflected in the work that I was doing,” she says.

For her second placement, she selected a community-based research practicum with a strong personal connection. “I probably made that more purposeful decision because of my PURE work and because of my previous practicum work, realizing how interconnected the personal and the professional really are,” she notes.

Thomas will continue her research at the University of Dalhousie this fall. In her master's program, she will build on the work she did through her PURE research. She is entering her graduate program with confidence in her capability.

“These experiences have helped to solidify my identity as a researcher, not just a student,” she says.

Discover more about experiential learning April 29–May 1

Learn about Exploring Experiential Learning, the 2019 Conference on Post-Secondary Learning and Teaching, here.

Register here. Special pricing for University of Calgary students, staff and faculty.