Education for real life: Williams in New York fulfills needs for hands-on experience

For five consecutive years between the ages of 15 and 20, my parents and I would have the same conversation about my summer plans. It would normally take place in April or May and, for a week following the exchange, words between my parents and me would be scarce.

My older sisters and brothers had warned me that there were two kinds of parents: those who would support their children backpacking around Europe for the summer or teaching tennis, and those who would not. Sadly, mine were of the latter breed. My parents firmly believed that summer vacation offered an opportunity for what my mom called “learning the value of a loonie,” my dad called “sociological and anthropological observation” and my siblings referred to (usually in the same monotone they employed in LSTs, my mom’s acronym for “little sex talks”) as “life learning.” And so, instead of immersing myself in the rich cultures of far-off countries or basking in the sun while hitting tennis balls, I learned how to make sidecars and espressos with the appropriate amount of cream.

While I despised the tedium of being both a barista and a bartender at the time, in retrospect I am grateful for my parents’ rigidity regarding my summer plans. Over those five summers, I learned many intricacies about people and values that my time spent ski racing and at school had not and could not have afforded me. Beyond the specifics of martini making (Do you know how FDR influenced martini lingo?) and the rules governing when one can drink a cappuccino (only before 10 a.m., according to my boss, Lorenzo), I discovered how to work with people that come from vastly different backgrounds than myself; I realized that reading Pericles’ funeral oration doesn’t necessarily prepare oneself for dealing with women who employ the same adjectives to modify their drinks that they use to describe their figures (skinny, hippy); I recognized how lucky I was. Also, I learned a lot about drugs – and not by experience.

My decision to participate in the Williams in New York (WinNY) program was largely informed by the epiphanies that those months of mixing and brewing motivated. After two and half years absorbed in a pastoral wonderland where there is a group devoted to imitating werewolves, I figured that an opportunity to observe the real world might do me good. Moreover, I knew that I would benefit from the infrastructure of the program, which would allow me to transform my daily observations into coherent ideas as I interned at ABC News Special Events. (For those readers who are unfamiliar with the WinNY program, one of the four courses offered is a “field placement:” students are placed at different organizations throughout the city and, once every two weeks, they write tutorial papers reflecting on their observations about the workplace.) The light would go on in my head on a weekly basis, rather than just going on every summer.

Not only did the light go on, but it flickered more brilliantly than the fluorescent beams that illuminate Paresky porch. With each day at ABC, my mental list of sociological observations expanded, providing a basis for papers on the democratic value of journalism, objective reporting, the death of the newspaper as we know it and the obstacles women still face in breaking the glass ceiling (in the Control Room at ABC, it is vertical, not horizontal). While I learned certain technical skills and more about Elliot Spitzer’s philandering tendencies than I ever desired to know, the value of my experience lies in the foundations my observations provided for developing opinions and, in doing so, broadening my scope.

Last week, we had our final panel presentation: I, along with my fellow Williams in New Yorkers, had to summarize my field placement and answer questions about it. One man asked us to compare our WinNY experience to the liberal arts education we are accustomed to and to answer critics who claim the program has a “careerist” emphasis. The use of such a word struck me as odd, as did the suggestion that the liberal arts might be antithetical to experiential learning. It may seem ironic that, living at 39th and Madison for the semester, I feel like I have achieved the goal of liberal arts schools like Williams (you know, not just learning about angels dancing on the heads of pins but actually being able to extrapolate a broader knowledge from that information) as or more successfully than I often do when I am reveling in the isolation of the Purple Bubble. I was not nestled in the middle of nowhere reading Robert Nozick and looking at sculptures by David Hammons, but the things I was learning were of no inferior intellectual merit. I was still obtaining knowledge through observation and experience, but my classroom was the real world and not Griffin Hall.

Just as I did not work at a bar because I aspired to become a lifelong bartender, I did not sign up for ABC News Special Events because I wanted to be like Charlie Gibson. Through my immersion in the real world I have ascertained that modifying “experiential learning” with the adjective “careerist” is like describing PBR with the word “sophisticated.”

Anouk Dey ’09 is a political science major from Toronto, Ontario.