Experiential learning helps agricultural, leadership, and community education students find career passions
Experiential learning such as internships and field work look great on a resume. Ideally, they also clarify what the resume is for.
“We're helping students make a connection between the internship and their career goals," said Donna Westfall-Rudd, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education (ALCE) and a participant in Virginia Tech's Bridge Experience Program cohort. "They’re called bridge experiences because they’re supposed to link coursework with the student’s first destination after graduation."
To help more students find their career path, ALCE leaders have added new modules to the department’s required first-year leadership course to introduce expectations about bridge experiences early on. Students will plan their bridge experiences in a 3000-level course. “We're purposely adding structure to embed and connect the bridge experience in our existing classes,” said Westfall-Rudd.
With their own undergraduate experiential learning providing a stepping stone to later jobs, two ALCE alums share what they did and how it helped.
I interned at an outdoor education summer camp
Who: Lou Groundwater, 2022 alumna who earned a degre in agricultural sciences with a concentration in community leadership development
How it happened: When Groundwater was struggling to line up a summer internship as a junior, ALCE advisors pointed her toward Handshake, the online recruiting platform for students. “I guarantee you'll find something,” they told her. "Lo and behold, I did,” said Groundwater. She was hired for a paid internship with Point o’Pines, a sleepaway camp for girls 5 to 15 in Brant Lake, New York, after using the interview to talk about her own formative childhood experiences playing in the woods or by the creek.
What she did: Groundwater was hired to be a camp counselor, but her supervisors immediately noticed her ALCE-honed leadership skills and asked her to direct the camp’s outdoor education program. She coordinated hiking, camping, and canoeing trips throughout the Adirondacks. Particularly useful for her was an ALCE course she'd taken called Program and Curriculum Design. The principles guided her as she designed camp activities. Still, she said, "you'll come out of it [the internship] with more questions and more of an idea of what you want to know.
What came next: Groundwater loved Point o’Pines so much that she returned for another summer after graduation in spring 2022. Now she’s aiming for a long-term career in Cooperative Extension. “What I really want to do in my life is just help people,” she said.
I studied abroad in Costa Rica
Who: Rebekah Slabach, 2016 alumna with a degree in agricultural, leadership, and community education
How it happened: Slabach knew she wanted to learn more about international agriculture and travel beyond a quick vacation, so when she heard about a class called Global Issues in Sustainability and its culminating experience as a three-week trip to Costa Rica, she signed up.
What she did: In a country intent on becoming carbon neutral by 2025, Slabach and her 10 or 12 classmates toured, worked, and performed research at farms and agricultural businesses with recycling programs and alternative energy sources. “I'm a believer that the more you see and the more you travel, especially with the international ag sector, the more you see outside of yourself and understand how things connect and relate in the bigger world,” she said. Doing coursework for her Global Issues in Sustainability class amplified the trip’s impact. “It wasn't just a fun trip. We had done learning work beforehand. So when we were there, we could ask thoughtful questions. And we regrouped after the trip with lots of reflection and discussion. We walked away with new ideas and hopes for agriculture."
What came next: Slabach landed her dream job as an agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Halifax County, Virginia, near the family farm where she was born and raised. Looking back, she said experiential learning like study abroad and internships ultimately mattered far more to getting hired than a high GPA. “With how connected agriculture is with international trade and policy issues, you need to be able to relate with people and understand how the world works.”