How Experiential Learning Impacted My Life
By Jenna Davis, Senior in ACE
During my senior year of high school, I made a seemingly meaningless decision to stop by the study abroad booth at Explore ACES. While in the Morgan-Caterpillar Room, I picked up a normal flyer, without knowing that it would change my life. When I read through it later, I learned about freshman discovery courses that took students abroad for two weeks over winter break to learn about different agricultural systems.
This is how I found myself at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, for the first of five times in my college career (although I had no idea then), to catch a plane to Guatemala. I thought it would be a fun way to learn something new and see a different part of the world. I had no idea the amount of impact this program would have on my life.
Traveling to Guatemala was my first taste of international agriculture. Two weeks of hands-on experiential learning taught me about different cultures, economies, and agriculture systems, as well as personal growth and development. I was exposed to crops different from the corn and soybeans of Illinois, and saw the differences in agribusinesses outside the United States. I wasn’t sitting in a classroom, but I learned more than I ever thought possible.
After Guatemala, I participated in the Agricultural Policy and Leadership Program in Washington, D.C., over spring break, again, because it sounded intriguing. This time I was exposed to a more formal, behind-the-scenes approach to agriculture, as my class met with congressmen and policy makers at many different agriculture and government organizations. I had never really thought about this side of agriculture before, which made me wonder what other aspects I had yet to experience.
Experiential learning had impacted my life twice in only a year. But I wasn’t done there. In September, I received an email from my academic advisor, with a couple sentences at the bottom mentioning that spots were still available to go to Morocco over winter break. I had loved my previous experiential learning programs, and was eager to go abroad again, so I jumped at the opportunity. It was outside of my major, I didn’t know the professor, or anyone else going, but that didn’t stop me.
It was pretty amazing that I was able to fearlessly jump into the unknown, completely confident that it would be a great experience. I started to seek out opportunities, not only because they seemed interesting, but because I saw their potential to provide knowledge and growth. Had I not previously participated in experiential learning programs, I would not have been able to truly understand the value of international programs, and how impactful learning outside of the classroom really is.
After traveling to Morocco, I was also accepted into the International Business Immersion Program to New Zealand, which I had heard many great things about. After going abroad, and participating in a professional learning opportunity, I knew combining the two would make for a very impactful trip. I was right again, and learned an immense amount about yet another agriculture sector, research, and myself. In class, we studied different agribusinesses within New Zealand, and then traveled to visit with them in person. While the background knowledge that class provided was great, physically speaking to companies in person was a priceless opportunity that you can’t achieve in class.
All four (and soon to be five, as I head to Brazil this winter) of these experiential learning programs have impacted my life in more ways than I knew to be possible. I continue to be amazed at how much more there is to learn about the world. No matter how many times I go abroad, I still find new interests and admiration in other cultures. Experiential learning made me comfortable in challenging myself and seeking out opportunities for personal growth. I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide variety of agriculture sectors, conduct research, become a better public speaker, improve my leadership skills, and make valuable friendships along the way. Without participating in study abroad and experiential learning, I would have never had these opportunities. Through study abroad, I learned that not all classrooms have four walls, and that there is something to be learned in every opportunity, regardless of where you are.