How a summer internship can reshape the view of learning from college courses

August 8, 2022 at 4:50 PM
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By Rachel Orenstein UA ’24 and Jim Stellar

This blog is fundamentally about how experiential education activities reshape and enhance the classical college experience of courses and majors.  Recently, Jim had a business administration major, Rachel, take one of his psychology courses and become a mentee. Rachel found (Jim helped a little) a very interesting summer internship in the “Innovation Center,” also known as the Innovate 518 incubator, that encourages entrepreneurship and helps small businesses grow as part of UAlbany’s efforts to support the community as a public university. What triggered the actual writing of this blog was when, as part of an occasional check-in, Rachel wrote the following in an e-mail:

“I have learned a great deal more about the early stages of a business through this work than in any of my classes thus far. Being able to compare these businesses with an external perspective – evaluating the unique successes and failures of professionals much more experienced than I – is immensely enlightening. Before I began this work, I expected to simply apply previous school lessons to my work, testing my knowledge in a way. However, I think the businesses I worked with in this internship will serve as solid examples for me to better understand future lessons. I suppose that is the core benefit to experiential learning: not just application of studied material in a realistic situation, but rather exposure to the matters on which those studied materials are based.”

Obviously, I like this statement, but I want to you to go deeper on the last sentence about the “core benefit” from going beyond a “realistic situation” in the classroom to your “exposure to the matters” on which that classroom situation is based.

Certainly! I have found through my experience this summer that while my prior studies have helped me understand much of the encountered jargon and discussed business processes, the conversations I’ve held and the research I’ve done have given me a more thorough, realistic sense of their meanings. For example, one of my responsibilities in this internship was to interview early-stage companies in due diligence, thereby evaluating potential. A classroom lesson on the makings of a successful professional team is helpful, but meeting and comparing actual founding teams gives that lesson a much deeper sense. Suddenly it is evident how, for instance, a shared vision can be more valuable than professional experience: The less-experienced team prepared to efficiently apply their respective skills to a common goal makes much more progress than the over-qualified team seeking individual accreditation for success. Witnessing those dynamics in action offers a real-life example to a concept I’d previously only understood theoretically, which I believe is invaluable.

Thanks. But I am curious. The Innovation Center is based on campus. How did you get this more fundamental exposure without actually leaving campus?

This internship for entrepreneurial students was advertised in-class by an instructor of mine in the UAlbany business school. Since the Innovate 518 incubator is so focused on supporting the local community, it provided the perfect opportunity to intersect my academics with more fundamental exposure. An emphasis was put on me learning from this experience, as would be the nature of a university-located program, but it was still distant enough to introduce my fellow intern and I to the “real world,” so to speak. The companies we met had no connection to the university, nor did they care much about educating us in their pitches. They acted as genuine, independent business entities because that is what they are. They understood our positions as interns – we were usually introduced as business students – but it was never their concern. Being addressed as professionals in the business world rather than as students seeking to join that world is not something too often found in student experiences. In-class exposure through guest lecturers, co-teachers, real-world projects and so on are helpful for fundamental exposure while still on campus, but truer stakes teach students at a much deeper level.

The fact that you were addressed by these companies as professionals (not business students) seems to have made an impact on you. (It would on me.) As you know, in this blog we like to look for ways that such direct experience as a student affects the gut-logic as well as the intellectual-logic, which the classroom is good at. Can you talk a bit about how this gut-impact worked for you? Go beyond the first step about how it was to be introduced a professional and discuss how you and your fellow intern grew during this period of work.

I think the phrase “gut-logic” perfectly encapsulates the educational aspect of experiential learning. Developing gut-logic is exactly what these opportunities do; by experiencing the realities of a workplace, a sense of confidence is built in thoroughly understanding how it operates. At a gut level, the scary unknown crumbles to reveal mundanity. The start of this internship had my fellow intern and I feeling nervous and out-of-place. We wondered how we were at all qualified to oversee the responsibilities we had, especially when all our interactions were with people so much more experienced than us. However, as the end of summer nears, the most notable aspect of growth for my fellow intern and I is definitely this built-up confidence. We understand now, not just intellectually but instinctively, that people are just people, regardless of how impressive they are. Our communications, our professional demeanors, and even our evaluations of others have been positively impacted by this gut-confidence. We are more certain of ourselves: that is something that must be learned, it cannot be taught.

We close by commenting together in black typeface on the gut-level impact (and student benefits) of real-world experiential education, even when it occurs on-campus. Direct experience impacts emotional logic, which compliments the cognitive learning previously schooled by traditional academic classes. Developing this emotional logic comes from what Rachel refers to just above as the “scary unknown” that “crumbles to reveal mundanity.” Experiential education confers a sense of mastery on the student – a maturity that is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate in the well-defined and well-refined classroom, with its pre-set syllabus and predictable routine. The unpredictability of the real world and its unique social interactions particularly drive emotional logic learning. Some reflection (often ongoing) will then integrate the cognitive and emotional logic components. In this blog, we are guided by the broad saying that “the heart has reasons of which reason does not know.” While the head is always learning, it is through direct experience that the heart discovers its capabilities. Considering the interactions between the cognitive mind and the emotional heart only serves to further the powers of each. We maintain that it is heart-head integration that produces the maturity, confidence, and even the start of professional wisdom in a college student.

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