Experiences Are the Fabric of Our Identity

I was alone in the Appalachian mountains at age 16 when I first experienced the numinous. In a cocky display of its power, the sun was both a razor shredding through the latticework of treetops and a delicate spotlight creating a halo of fog on the empty path in front of me. As an agnostic, unruly teen with 10 years of catholic education behind me, it was the first time I experienced the sheer enormity, mystery, and interconnectedness of the world, a version of what my theology teacher called god. 

But access to that moment was only unlocked after a night, indeed several days, of what I experienced at the moment as abject misery. I was on a week long hiking trip with a program called Outward Bound, a program known for taking an odd mix of kids from varied backgrounds into the woods to learn how to make toilet paper out of leaves, eat your body weight in peanut butter, and confirm a lifelong terror of all things that move in the night. 

Hours before that magisterial morning tableau, I was crying in the rain with a torn tent, a soggy bag of almonds, and a pile of rocks to use as weapons against black bears or The Blair Witch. It was the dreaded “Solo”- one night where each of us was challenged to fend for ourselves using all of the skills and knowledge we had been developing. My night didn’t go as planned but I made it through. And while the experience didn’t turn me into Bear Grylls, it did have a lasting impact on my life. 

I believe the experiences that we have make up the fabric of who we are - they shape the view we have of ourselves, enable our sense of the possible, and activate connections that constitute our network and future opportunities. Unfortunately, the range and depth of those experiences are circumscribed in large part by the zip code into which we are born. I’ve dedicated my career to creating immersive learning experiences for young people with extraordinary potential but limited access. And I design these experiences with the aim of helping them unlock the things already inside- curiosity, empathy, innovation, agency - and challenging them to explore the potential futures they could pursue that they might not have known about before.

I've developed civic engagement programs that empower elementary school students to go out into their city and learn about the institutions that anchor their communities. I've led apprenticeship programs that ask caring professionals to open their doors to 7th + 8th graders and teach them about what an investor, lawyer, programmer, or marketing professional actually does. I've created service-learning experiences that invite high school students to learn from and work alongside adults with developmental disabilities. And most recently, I created a portfolio of programs that challenge students to solve problems they care about by creating viable ventures or social enterprises. 

I love the intellectual and creative challenge of designing authentic learning experiences in a range of different domains and industries. But the real joy in my work comes from watching students step off the bus and into these new environments to participate in this alchemical interaction between their emerging identities, the environment itself, the adult champions, and the challenge at hand. The result is a kind of emergent property that is fundamentally unpredictable and in the best of times, I see students (and adults!) realizing something about themselves or one another or the world. I see students step up and activate parts of their personality or skillset that have been stifled in other settings. I see volunteers embracing a vulnerability and learning mindset that they might not have embodied since their school own high school days. I've heard teachers saying "I've never seen him like this. He seems so engaged and in his element" about students who they typically see as a challenge in the classroom.  

There are mountains of research about the benefit of project-based or experiential learning. It's important to read and learn about the research, especially at a time where we are pressuring teachers to teach to the test and focus on getting through content in the classroom. I'll be writing more about that data in the future. But I don't think many people need studies to convince them of the power of real-world learning. It's intuitive- we learn best when we are actively engaged with things that matter - whether it’s surviving a night in the Appalachian mountains or developing a social venture to solve homelessness in your community. 

So while the research matters, I see the impact whenever the students take that first nervous step out off the school bus and we activate the city as our classroom.