Experiment in Authenticity: Lessons learned from a High School tour of a Cooperative Education University

November 11, 2019 at 9:50 PM
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Experiment in Authenticity: Lessons learned from a High School tour of a Cooperative Education University

Swapna Rao NU’02 and Jim Stellar


Oddly, I met Swapna after she graduated from Northeastern University when an alumna introduced us.  I was still Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.  We became friends and that lasted for years in her post-BS time in Boston and after she moved to New York, California, and back again to the New York City area. Perhaps a high point of that time was when she was first in NY and brought a bunch of her students to Northeastern to take a deep look at what it would be like to go to College.  As Dean, I helped arrange some visits and met with the group.  That lead to some serious conversations about how high school teaching could benefit from the same experiential learning.  For years, Swapna and I promised ourselves we would write something on this topic.  So, here it is. 

I want to begin by asking Swapna what she sees as the basic value in the kind of outside-class experience like she produced for her NYC high school students by bringing them to a university in Boston.

It’s common knowledge that exposing students to new experiences is critical to their growth. Our students, recent immigrants from different Latin American countries, were at varying stages of developing their English language skills and of figuring out what home would be. Our high school made it a point to take our students on outings to institutions around the five boroughs so they could extend academic concepts into real life and learn more about their new home beyond their immediate neighborhoods. I wanted to take this sort of exposure a step further – to Boston, in fact. My colleague and I selected a group of ten students who demonstrated intellectual curiosity, orientation toward achievement, and kindness of spirit. They were filled with the ‘ganas’ (or desire) to achieve, the deeply intrinsic desire to learn, create, and excel that the famous Stand and Deliver teacher, Jaime Escalante, sought to feed.

I was and continue to be proud of Northeastern University as my alma mater, and wanted these teenagers to see that they, too, belonged on the campus of a great university. I thought if I showed them where I came from, it would deepen my connection with them and encourage them to share their own visions of the future with me. I also thought that having them meet you, my own mentor, might help, because I was mentoring them – they could see the powerful links created by such a relationship. Northeastern was an ideal choice for this trip beyond personal reasons. I loved the way its renowned cooperative education program integrated the discovery of one’s career pathway after graduation by alternating periods of full-time academic study with periods of full-time paid work on internships.

I remember these students and their passion.  We met in the conference room of the Dean’s Office around a big conference table.  But the room felt small, intense, and exciting.  I was very glad you brought them, and if I remember correctly, we all walked out of that office suite together in deep conversation as you continued your tour.  At that time, Northeastern was rising up in its ranking because it had programs that illustrated how a college education could be turned into a career by showing them on an internship how it was done.  That real-world feel, sat right next to a call for intellectual excellence.  I may be wrong, but I thought your kids got it and I was hoping they would apply and attend as they were from the same spirit as this experiential program.  This seems to me to be a very good way to overcome self-doubt…show those students a vivid path to their own success.

They did get it! Our visit allowed them to witness the power of authentic connection: my connection with you and the connection of a college education with a ‘good’ job. First, in meeting you, they could understand that a strong relationship with one person could lead to more connections with others down the road. When these bonds are genuine, they help sculpt who you are. Second, I wanted them to get exposure to a university that applied theoretical learning to the real world, thereby providing a holistic educational experience. Some of them were already strongly planning their future career paths and I thought it would be important for them to see an example of how internships in college could inform those decisions.  Plus, what experiential education offers goes far beyond getting a taste of the actual work. It is a chance to truly understand how vital and valuable soft skills are, and to develop those skills further through each internship. All in all, I wanted them to feel the buzz of a college campus years before they would study at one. They could go home after this trip and visualize themselves enrolled somewhere just like Northeastern or doing internships at any college they might choose to attend. The act of imagining themselves there could place their dreams within reach and help keep their eyes realistically trained ‘on the prize’ even when the going got tough.

You opened with the words “authentic connection” above.  Why?

It’s the most grounding force there is. When you have real chemistry with someone, you build trust, which allows you to be receptive. This in turn engenders greater self-awareness and builds character in ways that serves a person throughout life. In the same vein, internships offer the opportunity for students to take note of the types of experiences and settings in which they feel like they are supported in taking professional risks. Those moments of flow, of deep focus and real camaraderie, signal resonance with one’s authentic self. It’s how experiential education can reach beyond skill development and empower students to discover a sense of purpose.

Let’s talk a little about why authentic is such a grounding force, particularly for people who are at risk because they are young, or from populations that are underserved even by K-12 education.  Why is it even more powerful there?

There’s so many competing forces vying for the attention of young people, and it’s tough for kids to know who they are in the midst of it all. Layer on the challenges of learning a new language and navigating an unfamiliar culture, of experiencing loss and trauma, or of living in transitional housing, and you can imagine just how susceptible a child might be to damaging influences. If that child has an authentic connection with a mentor who really pays attention, encourages free expression, and models integrity, he or she can develop a sense of identity rooted in core values. Development is an interactive process. A trusted relationship provides context for youth to see their inherent worth and to develop the resilience to stay grounded when life throws curveballs. It’s that much more powerful when the need for an advocate is that much stronger. The recent focus in K-12 schools on social emotional learning speaks to this.

As mentioned in almost every blog on this site, the brain seems to work at two levels at the same time with the unconscious brain circuits giving rise to the choices we make at the gut-level.  This is what Kahneman famously called “Thinking Fast” in decision-making and it comes out in direct experience, as in the classical paid internship that guides a college student toward their career.  It comes out again, as you point out, in mentoring where an authentic connection between a teacher and a student helps to shape that student’s development.  It is perhaps nowhere more important than in helping lift up students who might doubt their inherent worth and undersell themselves in the educational process, a more recent focus of blogs in this series.

Cortical subcortical integration and decisions: An amygdala-prefrontal cortex neural circuit case study

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