These were among the first words I uttered on the TEDxNormal stage in November 2015 and among the first critical thoughts I had about our current education system a year and a half ago.
My name is Kali Lewis. I graduated from college this past December (2015) and am currently designing a year of my education through experience with Experience Institute. My journey to this point has provided me with glimpses into the different facets of education and a strong belief in something called experiential learning.
I grew up going to school getting A’s and B’s, doing the usual school thing and being involved in athletics and music. High school was just as predictable and junior year, like everyone else, I took the ACT and started looking at colleges and considering majors. I chose the thing I was good at (English) and soon stepped foot into my first college dorm to live and breathe the college life I’d been hearing so much about.
I started out at a public university. It was awful. I was in classrooms of 400 plus. I had no interaction with professors. I was eager to learn but I couldn’t see myself benefitting from an environment where the teacher and learner were so far removed.
LESSON: Learning is not having information tossed your way.
I transferred to a community college. Classes were smaller and I entered into a form of learning where my professors played a more active role. I got involved in the honors program which led me to co-organizing a TEDx event. This first venture outside of a classroom taught me more about work, and the work I did and didn’t like doing, than all of my years in a classroom. The project of organizing a TEDx event required me to learn as I worked towards a specific outcome. It was my first time seeing the interconnectedness of the seemingly disparate fields out there. In organizing the event, I taught myself the basics of Photoshop and InDesign to create promotional flyers (graphic design and marketing), I learned to be resourceful on a minimal budget (accounting), I learned how to work within the guidelines of two organizations, learned how to recruit volunteers (HR), and navigated tension in a group that needed to work together to succeed.
LESSON: Learn what you enjoy doing and figure out how that fits into what everyone else is doing.
LESSON: Choosing a major is nice, but it’s crucial to understand the interactions between different fields.
I tranferred to a private college. I changed my major to psychology. I went to career fairs that felt more like Times Square than a place for finding employment. I began to fall in love with the field of psychology, the scientific process, and research, but it all felt so far removed from the rest of my passions. Why can’t I learn more about graphic design as a psychology major? Why am I not learning about finances and accounting while going into so much student debt? Why am I not learning how to get myself out of debt? Do I have to go to grad school and be a counselor as a psychology major? What opportunities do I have after graduation? I was pestered by these thoughts more and more frequently.
LESSON: Education isn’t about getting answers, it’s about asking questions and finding answers.
Experience became a necessary and separate classroom. I sought experiences that were beyond my skillset in order to challenge myself to learn something new, but was never able to bring those experiences into the classroom. A unique opportunity to bridge these separate learning spaces came in the form of a study abroad program in Copenhagen, Denmark called the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. Here I not only learned about things, I did things. Things like visiting an open prison in northern Denmark, exploring the depths of human sadness and the heights of human joy, interviewing guest lecturers, visiting elderly homes, visiting prostitute homes, touring Danish Broadcasting headquarters, and doing a semester-long project with Volvo’s UX team. The classroom wasn’t a specific space, it was a mobile unit of people. I found that it is infinitely more valuable to learn something than to be told something.
The classroom provides context. I wanted to lean heavily into experience, but needed a classroom or mentor or community to help me contextualize and unpack my learnings. Most importantly, I was able to realize rather than memorize these lessons. I have concrete memories that I lived through and those mimic the reality of the things that reside in books.
LESSON: It’s not enough to read something, you have to live something. You have to interact with it.
Experiential learning has become my mantra and catch phrase. I returned to the states with an insatiable curiosity about it. I began finding different forms and levels of experiential learning which led me to this year I’m currently in — fully immersed in experiential learning with Experience Institute and fighting for students (current and life-long ones) to ask their own questions and find the answers through experiences.
In the months since graduation, conversations and experiences have become my new classroom. One of those many great conversations occurred when I met NuGrad’s Jack Owen. We’re on separate missions that are innately intertwined. While NuGrad is on a mission to place emphasis on experience in the hiring process, I’m fighting for students to ask their own questions and find those answers through experiences that matter to them.
If you find yourself relating to my experience or if you’re curious to learn more about experiential learning, I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter. Hear, read, and see the different ways experiential learning can manifest in individuals’ lives. Learn more about me, my year with Experience Institute, and where I’m heading at kalilewis.com.