Experiential learning programs encourage faculty discussion

As a liberal arts institution, the College supports curricula that reflects the diverse possibilities of education. While the College attempts to offer courses in a variety of subjects, professors have also embraced a diversity of instruction methods. To this end, the College currently offers experiential learning classes that attempt to instruct students through living and experiencing what they are studying.

History of Williams at Home

In the 1971-72 academic year, the College offered its most expansive experiential learning project to date: Williams at Home, sponsored by Robert Gaudino, professor of political science at the College from 1955-74. Williams at Home was a yearlong program that culminated in a series of four three-week home stays with families from four different cultures. According to the original proposal, the program was described as “a study that aims to clarify the grounds of authority, of law, of public order in the United States and of the major critiques made of them.”

The 17 sophomores and juniors selected for the program studied themes of American institutions such as education, public health and law enforcement. “Gaudino wanted us to think about how [these institutions] impacted people in their lives at home in different cultural settings in the U.S., and how the values of the bureaucracies or the institutions were different from or conflicted with the values of people,” said Jeffrey Thaler ’74, Williams at Home alumnus, founding member of the Gaudino board and creator of the Winter Study course “Resettling Refugees in Maine,” a course in which students live with refugees and work in schools and health clinics in Portland, Maine, for the purpose of experiencing the life and culture of a refugee.

During the fall of 1971, participants in Williams at Home took three regular classes on campus and a fourth class that investigated American institutions in an academic setting. The students’ home stays and experiential learning counted as academic credit for the spring of 1972.

While on campus, the students engaged in experiential learning that gave them firsthand experience with one of the three prescribed institutions. “We were to do something off-campus that had to do with police, healthcare or schools,” Thaler said. “I went over to the North Adams Police Department and connected with a police officer. I would go on his beat with him.”

In January 1972, the students left campus to complete four home stays in different cultures across the U.S. The program included stops in Waycross, Ga.; Detroit, Mich.; Iowa; and either Kentucky or Tennessee. While on home stays, participants became members of the communities in which they lived, working on a small farm in Iowa or grinding out days in an automobile factory in Detroit.

“We blended academic learning with field learning,” Thaler said. “My first home stay was in Waycross. My day job on a volunteer basis was with a black funeral home. I also took time to volunteer at a Head Start program and interview teachers and administrators at the schools because my focus was on educational institutions.”

“Williams at Home was a way for students to learn about who they are and about the various ways that people live in this world,” said Magnus Bernhardsson, professor of history and the current Gaudino scholar. “It’s great to read about other people’s experiences and cultures, but it’s a very different experience to actually live in such a place on a day-to-day basis and confront that. I think that can be a much more powerful learning experience than just learning from books or discussing it in class.”

“Resettling Refugees in Maine”

As an alumnus of the first and only Williams at Home program – which was terminated in part due to Gaudino’s illness and in part as a result of institutional dynamics – Thaler found his experiential education extremely valuable. “I came through the program a lot more motivated and a much better student than I had started,” Thaler said. “I believe in what the students get out of it as well as what the host families [and faculty] get out of it.”

While Thaler has not exactly revived the Williams at Home program, he has made several efforts to expand the experiential learning course offerings. To this end, Thaler developed “Resettling Refugees in Maine,” a Winter Study course “where students experience and explore the impact of over 30 years of refugee resettlement in the ‘whitest’ of the United States. Each student will live with a refugee family from one of the dozens of countries represented by the refugee communities of Portland,” according to the course description. The purpose of the course is to expose students to issues such as race, ethnicity and national identity through experiential learning.

“What I loved about ‘Resettling Refugees’ was how in Portland, no more than four or five hours from Williamstown, is this thriving refugee community that has seen waves of people from different regions of the world,” said Amy Nguyen ’12, who participated in the course during her 2012 Winter Study. “I gained a lot of insight into the importance of education, the complicated nature of immigration and race relations and the challenges of the U.S. asylum system.”

Jenny Tang ’12 spoke to the challenging self-reflection inspired by the course. “By placing us in Maine, the program asks us to think about identity in a way that is closely tied to our own identification as Americans,” she said. “In my case, my own family immigrated to Brooklyn from China when I was two years old. I grew up in a Polish-speaking immigrant neighborhood and went on to attend a prestigious high school on the Upper East Side. After that, I came to Williams, so I thought I was already familiar with what it meant to feel foreign or different in America. I thought that I understood the dynamics (and pains) of integration. The Winter Study [class] forced me to see my own experiences in a different light.”

After participating in the Winter Study class and studying abroad via the International Honors Program in  2011, Anh Nguyen ’13 has an acute sense of the relevance of her experiences outside the classroom. “What was really valuable in Maine was being able to broach those uncomfortable topics that no one else was willing to talk to me about,” she said. “I was raised Buddhist, and my host family was Christian. They’re the first people who ever sat me down and said, ‘This is what I believe, and you don’t necessarily have to believe what I believe.’ I really valued that.”

The future of experiential learning at Williams

Given the success of the Winter Study course, Thaler is exploring the expansion of experiential learning at the College and has begun conversations with Bernhardsson about implementing a similar program on a larger scale.

After their experiences in Maine, Tang, Anh Nguyen and Amy Nguyen have learned to appreciate experiential education as a component of the liberal arts curriculum. “Experiential learning is not just about having experiences, but using them,” Tang elaborated. “It was not an easy way out of an academically rigorous course, but it demanded rigor in a different sense: a rigor of self, an openness to new experiences and a self-aware sensitivity.”

Anh Nguyen expressed similar sentiments about the value of the approach. “At Williams, we tend to learn issues very academically,”  she said. “When you experience something, you see how history and politics come together and weave a narrative … I can bring back the details from my trips and the experiences I’ve had and apply that to what I’m learning.”

Bernhardsson also spoke to the importance of innovative techniques in instructing the liberal arts. “The liberal arts are an approach, and they are a specific philosophy and ideal,” he said. “I think the liberal arts are a broad concept that we should not just limit to the confines of the College.”

Thaler is currently seeking faculty support for a summer- or semester-long experiential learning program in which students would complete home stays that exposed them to different American cultures. He is investigating ways to incorporate the program with an academic course.

One of the main hurdles to revitalizing the Williams at Home concept is convincing the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) that experiential learning can be as rigorous as classroom learning. “One of the questions that we always talk about on the CEP is academic rigor and whether programs or content is rigorous,” Anh Nguyen said. “The Gaudino board on the other hand values experiential learning a lot more. Learning under Gaudino isn’t rigorous in the traditional way in that you’re hitting the books, but is rigorous in the way that it makes you reconsider everything and question everything you learn.”

Thaler believes in the power of experiential education. “There’s still a lot of the U.S. and a lot of the world … that students haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to,” he said. “At Williams, often students get very busy in their studies, their entries, their roommates, but there isn’t the time or opportunity to do a lot of cross-cultural sharing of ideas and experiences.”

One comment

  1. Thanks for covering this issue. Just to correct one thing– during Williams at Home, there were 4 home-stays over 5 months, each averaging 4-6 weeks in length. Also, to be clear, the Maine WSP and any future summer or semester experiential education programs have or will have an academic component. I want our programs to be not just academic, or just experiential, but a synergy of both. That is at a critical path to achieving valuable liberal arts skills that foster lifelong learning and success.

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