We experience so that we may learn.
Jungyo Kim QC’13 and Jim Stellar
From my perspective (JS) the story begins when JK took a class I co-taught last spring (PSY282) and we connected over an idea for a new club she is starting to promote emotional, mental, and physical health, on the Queens College campus. But that led to conversations about learning from experience and that led to her joining a small group I run that explores the intersection of experiential learning in higher education and what might be called social neuroscience. As part of that group, we had a conversation recently about how passion for a field or a project develops in a college setting. We agree that passionately committed students do better in college as they put more time into their studies and may even just think more deeply about the subject matter in and out of class because they are so committed. But the question is how one develops that passion in a student.
From my perspective (JK), the story begins with the day back in last spring, when I first approached JS after a PSY282 lecture on eating behaviors and disorders. I had a growing inclination to talk to JS as the lecture came to an end; the information from the lecture struck me right through the heart. I had overcome an eating disorder myself, and it had always been my interest to raise awareness and help with this issue. After some hesitation on whether approaching him and his co-teacher was even a sane idea or not (after all, I was about to tell my professor that I was a recovered anorexic and that isn’t something you just yell out simply because you’re bored), I had made up my mind to take this on. And it’s interestingly one of best things I’ve ever done.
So, let’s talk about experience. What do you think that teaches you as a college student and as a person?
I think one of the most beautiful things about life is that we as human beings have the stunning ability to take from all of our experiences from every moment of every day and learn, no matter how small, big, joyful, or painful these events may be to us. It’s just a matter of being aware of those events and their effect on us, and choosing to extract the good from them. I’m a firm believer in the idea that experiences are crucial to our growth, happiness, and health. My personal struggle with anorexia nervosa and its aftermaths was undoubtedly a painful experience, but one of the most rewarding events of my life that I am very thankful for.
I’m grateful that I have learned. I no longer take myself or my health for granted. I truly appreciate even the silliest sounding things (like the existence of organic rose oil fragrance- it is heavenly) to the greater things we would all agree upon (like family). I’ve learned what it means to be truly happy. I am the healthiest, and happiest I’ve ever been. And I continue to grow.
What is learning to you?
Learning is a gift and a privilege. We start learning from the moment we take in our first breath of air. We also learn in school- as we try to write down our ABCs on a sheet of paper that seems too small to hold all that we want to scribble. We grow up to decipher the logic of chi squares statistics in college and the reasons to why the human brain feels pleasure when seeing a piece of chocolate cake. But we should never forget that we learn some of our most memorable, treasurable lessons through our personal experiences- whether it be the argument you had with your boyfriend over the true meaning of a love song, whether it be the first time you realized how thankful you are for your mother and all of her silly scolding, whether it be the old friendships you had chosen to end when you saw that the pain you were giving each other was too much too soon, whether it be the eating disorder that taught you to do all that you can to not have another soul go through the pain you went through.
Your story reminds me of a book I read by Chopra on leadership and the soul and another by Schwarz and Sharpe on the origins of practical wisdom. It will not surprise you that these books, to me, emphasize learning from experience.
It is my plan and goal to apply my knowledge from experience to the process of leading an organization. My idea of a good leader has, among other traits, the willingness to understand the point of views of the people around her, whether those views agree or disagree with his/her own. Compassion and the ability to understand others are qualities that I felt lacked in eating disorder treatment centers of my personal experience. When I do start my organization, one of my goals would be to promote a clearer understanding of the “how” and “why” behind such important issues as eating disorders. I think one of our greatest strengths as human beings, is our ability to feel what other people feel; we are able to understand others if we try.
What other ideas do you have for your organization, and how do they relate to experiential learning?
I plan to connect the many different interests of studies on the QC campus such as psychology, history, literature, and art, with the importance of total health. Making connections is crucial to learning. I want this organization to sparkle and ooze experiential learning from within- with members taking part in fun, memorable activities and events that spark thinking, questioning, understanding, appreciation, and awareness. Student organizations are one way of strengthening what the students learn in class, all in an enjoyable and a refreshing way. In the long run, experiential learning as such would give students invaluable qualities and skills to be cherished for life.
So, in conclusion, why are you passionate about experiential learning? Why is it important to you?
Learning is a big part of my happiness. Learning is a big part of my life. Someone wise once told me: “Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.” Sounds ludicrous to do something just for the heck of it- with nothing material to gain, doesn’t it? But I give the world the best I’ve got anyway, simply because I want to, simply because I know it makes me happy, simply because it gives me strength. I will continue to give the world my best by being true to all that is around me, and by taking what I have learned, learn, and will learn, to help those around me. I experience so that I may learn and as the Queens College motto says, “I learn so that I may serve.”
This conversation between us, illustrates where passion in learning comes from. It seems to us both that it comes from personal experience. In this case, it started with JK’s health condition, refracted through a class in which professors and student connected as people, and then went to something JK is building on her own (the club) outside of any curriculum. This real-world (“every day”) aspect of the experience is what gives it sustaining power when coupled with the student being in charge, when it is personal, and when it matters. By contrast, a classroom can be a place where the student is not in charge, just watches a very nice display of knowledge, and is left in only a few minutes of question in or out of class to touch the material personally. But in a service-learning project or even in an internship or abroad experience, the student is engaged because they cannot just watch. They must participate and, in many cases, even lead and thus take that leadership responsibility. These traits engage the Hidden Brain (another book we suggest you read), pump up the limbic/motivational system, and otherwise stimulate what we are calling the “other lobe of the brain.” Then with a connection to the content area (after all this is college), we have the most effective higher education possible because we have a passionate student learner.