More than two-thirds of Virginia Tech students complete internships during their college careers, significantly increasing the likelihood that they’ll land successfully in a job after college or pursue graduate education. With the implementation of the Bridge Experience Program as the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan in 2020, Virginia Tech has continued to make work-based experiential learning, which include internships and similar co-op experiences, central to its hands-on, minds-on approach to undergraduate education.

“We want to make sure internships and other experiential learning opportunities are happening for all our students and that it helps them to be successful after graduation,” Kim Filer, associate vice provost for teaching and learning, told the Academic, Research and Student Affairs Committee at a panel discussion Monday highlighting issues of access to experiential learning.

During the panel discussion and board meetings, where the Board of Visitors examined access and affordability across the university, Filer indicated that barriers to experiential learning typically results from one of the “four Cs” — cost, communication, curricula, and capacity.

Panelist Donna Westfall-Rudd, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, agreed that “cost is a barrier” for many of her students from rural communities, adding, “They’re often limited in options they have for paid experiences.” Alumni from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences reported that financial assistance would have helped them pursue more experiential learning opportunities while at Virginia Tech.

According to research from Virginia Tech’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), in-state students from rural areas are the least likely to participate in a paid internship, deterred by housing and relocation costs or the summer tuition required to get curricular credit for an internship.

To overcome barriers related to communication and curricula and deliver on the university’s commitment to engage students in active learning outside the classroom, the Bridge Experience Program works to integrate experiential learning into departmental curricula so that students can identify desirable opportunities early on through guided exploration in class. Research indicates that students thrive when they can apply classroom learning in professional contexts.

Ann Brown, assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a participant in the Bridge Experience Program, shared with board members how her department “looked really deeply at where majors from biochemistry are going from Virginia Tech and around the country,” then created ways for them to explore internship and research opportunities, initially in the First-Year Experience (FYE) course and continuing in a second-semester biochemistry FYE course, which includes a course-embedded undergraduate research experience.

To help students effectively craft their bridge experience plan, an optional sophomore-year career prep course brings in guest speakers from a wide variety of biochemistry career paths. “Some students need more guidance about what you can do with a degree in biochemistry,” said Brown. “The experience is also important in helping students see that a certain path sometimes may not be best for them or fit their career interests. This is an important part of the experiential learning process as well.”

Though her years at Virginia Tech have been peppered with bridge experiences like internships, study abroad, and undergraduate research, panel member Madeline Eberhardt, a senior in English, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, with a pre-education option, said students in smaller majors like hers need additional support to find internships that might guide a career path.  

Currently, Eberhardt interns with CETL, one of several internships and undergraduate research assistantships she's completed. Yet she’s mindful of peers and alumni who lacked access to such work-based experiential learning. “We need to provide all students with a path forward,” she said.

Of the four Cs that inhibit experiential learning, capacity may be the most pervasive and is a support area of emphasis for Virginia Tech. “We need to develop more opportunities, and the university is committed to providing those for students,” Filer said. “Regardless of your discipline or major, we are working to create the capacity to give students these important and engaged learning experiences.”

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