Experiential Educator Feature
Guillermo Vásquez de Velasco
What does experiential learning mean to you?
A natural means for the promotion of multidisciplinary education, which is critical in the development of an institutional signature in Experiential Liberal Arts. Experiential learning is not limited to one field or discipline, but rather an essential part of every classroom!
What is on the horizon for DePaul University?
The university has been extremely supportive in promoting experiential learning, as the idea of learning-by-doing for the common good directly aligns with our ethos and br anding. It is truly beautiful how well the two link together. Recently, twenty of our academic departments came together to collaborate on an experiential learning curriculum focused on applied diplomacy from the perspective of the common citizen. This effort clearly indicates how experiential learning is influencing the DNA of the curriculum itself. Following the success of this collaboration, DePaul was awarded a $20 million donation to create The Grace School of Applied Diplomacy that further embraces the spirit of “Here We Do.”
We are laying the foundation for sustainable growth. We look forward to the opportunity to share our experiences with other universities, and we welcome the idea of creating an interconnected network of students from various universities that come together to address current universal issues in multidisciplinary, project-based learning courses.
Can you give us an example of a successful experiential learning engagement that you've coordinated/delivered?
In the Honors 350 Capstone course, Wicked Problems and Multidisciplinary Strategic Thinking, DePaul students learn in an immersive classroom taught by all 10 deans of the university. This collaborative, project-based class allows for the intersection of a very large number of disciplines and represents DePaul’s commitment to the mission of “doing good, and doing it well.” As educators and students embrace this experiential approach to the classroom together, “we definitely do.” Each year, the students tackle a new social justice issue while taking advantage of the university’s central urban location and pooling from real experiences directly located in their surroundings. Last spring, DePaul partnered with the Institute for Global Homelessness, an international non-profit, to explore solutions for homelessness in Chicago. Our next course will focus on urban violence, in partnership with the Chicago Gun Violence Collaborative.
The results go beyond a memorable learning experience, but also manifest in project deliverables that provide the building blocks for the production of faculty experiential teaching portfolios, academic program portfolios, and most importantly, student experiential portfolios. It is through student experiential portfolios that we provide evidence of the competency of our graduates beyond conventional resumes.
Why do you use experiential learning?
Experiential learning is critical in demonstrating the value of the Liberal Arts in providing an effective application framework for newly acquired knowledge. In my previous years in architecture space, real-life, group-based learning was at the heart of everything I did. My assumption that experiential learning was present in all areas of higher education was quickly proved wrong. But here at DePaul, my colleagues and I work to create an atmosphere of interdisciplinary and inter-department collaboration for enhanced student learning.
I have always found that bringing an idea to the table and surrounding it with people who in true spirit want to create something new leads to so much creativity. Collaboration is an incubating space where authentic and sustainable creativity happens. For these reasons, I strive to inspire real collaboration in the curriculum and enhance the overall student experience.
How do your students benefit from experiential learning?
The students move beyond awareness and understanding and into action. They engage directly with their newly acquired knowledge. They also learn how to collaborate and be fully engaged—not only how to contribute. The student feedback from the Honors 350 course has been incredible. Students have told us that the “Honors 350 Capstone” was one of their most meaningful classes and ask for more courses taught in the same format.
What's the most challenging part of being an #ExperientialEducator? (coordinating/delivering an experiential learning curriculum to students)
Collaboration among members of multidisciplinary teams can be challenging in commuter universities like DePaul, where the students go in and out of classes on tight schedules and balance school and part-time ( and even full-time) employment. An additional challenge is the constraint of our quarter (10 week) system, which makes it difficult to have the time to translate from awareness and understanding to action. However, the key point is that we are doing it nonetheless, and doing it well! Our example offers even more impetus for all schools and departments to practice experiential learning in their classrooms.
We have found that it is critical to build the scaffolding for such faculty innovation, however. From the educator’s point-of-view, there is always concern about student reaction to new teaching formats (a belief that is usually expelled very fast). It certainly requires more time and effort in the beginning, and that effort needs to be supported. For example, DePaul fundraised and allocated $7000 for educators who want to implement co-taught community- and project-based courses. These funds can be used by “Lead Faculty,” for example, to compensate other educators, professionals, and collaborators, who provide subject-matter expertise relevant to the projects the class is undertaking. We have built upon this dynamic foundation in exciting ways. For instance, the College recently received a $750K grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in order to provide that kind of support in HumanitiesX, our experiential humanities collaborative.
What skills do your students use when engaged in experiential learning?
Students learn how their knowledge base can be applied in practical ways. Design thinking, the ability to collaborate, the development of empathy, and higher level of commitment are all skills either required or learned through the experiential learning process.
What advice do you have for faculty and institutions considering experiential learning?
You do not need to start big—it’s a dem anding process, but the result even from a small innovation is extremely rewarding. And small innovations can lead to larger ones, as you build confidence and expertise in this approach. Universities have the ability to provide many contacts and bridge the relationships between education, community-based organizations, and industry, so use this to your advantage. Also, when you do implement experiential learning, do not sacrifice any intended learning outcomes because the external partner wants to take it in a different direction. Learning outcomes are non-negotiable, as the students always come first. Just remember, as an educator you have the opportunity to build the transition between seminar rooms and internships so that students can excel and enjoy even more gratification when they l and that all-important internship that will further bridge them into their future professional lives.