It is spring break as of today and my students are getting their letters of recommendation lined up for summer programs such as internships and study abroad trips. I always encourage my students to go abroad and for the longest period possible. And an internship can literally change the trajectory of your life, and that is a good thing. These are two of the high impact practices that can inspire learning and success, both as an undergraduate and beyond. These include freshman seminars and senior capstones, undergraduate research, service learning, and various things that are specifically course related: learning communities (which can be courses that are grouped together and taken by the same people at the same time), writing enhanced courses, and collaborative learning. These can be grouped with projects in other categories (such as a capstone project that is an independent or group research paper that includes extensive revision of the written artefact that results.
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I have been involved in most of these types of thing, although not all of them. But I have seen how the experiences have changed students' lives, and in my twenty plus years of teaching I have become an even stronger advocate of undergraduate research and study abroad and internships, particularly. I know they can change lives. They have changed the lives of my students and they have changed mine.
I did an internship in a museum between my sophomore and junior year and I hated it. Partly it was because there was not any supervision -- I was just given a boring library job and left to work on my own for several hours at a time. It was not exciting or even interesting. I know I was a failure at it, because I could not convince myself of the value of my doing it even though I understood the necessity of it being done. And as the summer stretched out ahead of me doing nothing but identifying page numbers of printed illustrations, the originals of which had been donated to a museum, I panicked. And I quit. I decided then and there that I valued a much more sociable experience, the opportunity to take more control of where and why I did a project, and also that I was not interested in American art of the twentieth century (something I suspected beforehand, but an attitude that has changed since I have taught the material to undergraduates myself).
This unsuccessful internship (which lasted only half the summer) was actually a very successful experience. It taught me that my career path did not lead toward a library or museum job. Even though I have done extensive library and archival research for weeks at a time since, and even though I now teach museum studies, it was a very important thing for me to learn, and I have never regretted having done the practical experience, although I hated almost every minute of it.
The next year I went abroad (in and of itself not a new experience, as I had traveled extensively with my parents and brother when I was younger). It was a very different thing for me than the unsuccessful internship the previous year. I went to Cyprus to do a six week archaeological study abroad program. I loved it -- I loved being in a new place (and Cyprus was gorgeous), I loved digging and seeing how things became visible as the dirt was cleared from top to bottom, and reconstructing the processes that had led to the deposition of objects in the ground. I liked living in a school, sleeping on cots in a classroom (although the showers were pretty unpleasant), and dealt okay with mosquitoes who thought I was the best thing they had ever tasted. It was all absolutely worth it. That was what I wanted to do with my life. And my research has been archaeological since. I am an archaeologist, and I love doing the excavation as well as the research and reconstruction of society that started that summer as I kept my nose down in the dusty Cypriot soil under the pomegranate trees.
I had other good and bad experiences with the high impact practices identified by the AAC&U. But so have my students. As I tell them, these are activities and experiences that will make an impact, but it may not be a really pleasant one. Working in groups sometimes works wonderfully but it can lead to frustrations and the lessons you learn may not be the ones that you expect to learn. My freshman class that was orientation, etc., was not one I enjoyed. While freshman week was great, the freshman English class was terrible (mostly because of the teacher, but there were other things that frustrated me, including the fact that most of the books we read were pretty awful). But a bad teacher can allow you to learn some valuable coping lessons, and in my case I know what a bullying teacher can be like from the student side, and I hope I am a better teacher for having experienced that and knowing what not to do.
On the other hand my capstone and my research for a senior thesis were fantastic. Those confirmed for me that this was the direction I wanted my career to take, and it is a success I want to give my students the opportunity to experience. If they don't respond the way I did that is just fine (a successful experience doesn't mean one that works out well; it can be one that doesn't work). But I want to give the experience, and they can make of it what they want.
What high impact experiences from the AAC&U list did you do or are you doing as an undergraduate? How did they work for you? I would be curious what you think the most important opportunity was for you when you went through school. Please let me know in the comments section.