Redefining the Comfort Zone: Reflections on Experiential Learning

April 4, 2009 at 3:20 PM

Some time ago, Northeastern Professors Rick Porter and Jim Stellar, job shadowed a student, Amanda Marsden, on e-mail and later those three wrote a paper (posted below on 2/17/09) that points to the value of reflection in experiential learning, a frequent theme in experiential learning and in the various other postings in this blog.  That initial experience gave rise to a group of students, staff, and faculty, called REEL (Research on Experiential Education and Learning) of which Rebecca was a part.  Two students from REEL: Maria Graceffa and Amanda Parker joined Rick and Jim in a larger scale reflective job shadowing of Rebecca on her first cooperative education experience on the west coast.  At the urging of Rick and Jim, Rebecca wrote about it below and also shared with us her reflections coming from the e-mail  correspondence in that west coast experience and in two other major experiences.  Those reflections are given below as links in Rebecca’s text so that you would have access to the raw material edited to remove some names and personal references.


Again, we want to show the lessons learned from working with students and post Rebecca’s reflections and these archives so that others might mine them for insights into how to improve on-line reflection and mentoring.


-Shwen and Jim



Redefining the Comfort Zone: Reflections on Experiential Learning

By Rebecca Morton, ‘09


When people ask me about my co-op experience in San Francisco two years ago, I gush about how amazing it was, and proudly claim my love for the city and the organization I worked for.  But when I look back and remember those six months for all they were, there is so much more than can be explained in a few words.  I can still vividly remember the nervousness, excitement, and sometimes just plain fear I felt when I set off for my big adventure.  After a few months, I started to settle into my new lifestyle, made new friends, and really started to enjoy my time there.  However, expanding my comfort zone to include living on my own and negotiating my time and energy between two jobs in a new city was extremely difficult at times.


The first reflection that follows took place over the months I was in California.  Most of my writing took place in the first few months, a sign of my nervousness and need and want to revert back into what was familiar.  Checking in with Jim, Rick, Maria, and Amanda was like writing to a journal that spoke back.  They served as a sounding board for all of the moments of fear and sadness I felt in the beginning, the guiding voices that reminded me why I was there and to keep pushing forward.  As I started to succeed and grow into my new experiences, my reflection became more confident and less frequent, but they were still necessary at times.  When I hit a bump in the road, the research team was where I turned, and they became somewhat of a family to me over those six months. To read my reflection with them, click here.


I took the confidence that they had helped me to discover into my next adventure, a five-week trip to Tanzania volunteering in the community around a small town called Rau at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro.  The second reflection that follows is a slightly edited transcript of the personal journal that I kept during my time there.  I felt the same anxieties going into Tanzania as I had in California, but I was more prepared for it this time around.  I expected to feel alone for a while, knew how to get through the difficulties of the first few days, and settled into it all pretty quickly.  Just seven months after I had set off for California, I felt like an entirely new person.


At the conclusion of my Tanzania reflections, there is a sense of nervousness toward the future.  I was unsure of what it would be like to go back to Boston after both of my experiences.  Although it is not written down, I do remember that I had a lot of difficulty settling back into college life and friends that I had left eight months previously.  I had changed in inexplicable ways, most of which I don’t even know if I understood myself yet, and it was hard to fit back into the mold of who I once was.  As the months went on, I settled back in, but always kept my mind open and exploring ideas for my next adventure.


The fall of my fifth and final year at Northeastern was spent studying abroad in India and Nepal with the School for International Training’s Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Program.  The third and final reflection was the public blog I kept during the four months I was away.  The feelings of apprehension and uneasiness I had felt in my previous experiences were present in the last as well. With practice however, I have come to learn how to handle the nerves, how to use them to push me forward through the rough beginnings and build confidence in each new step.


I’ll be graduating in May, and as I reflect once again on all of the experiences that took me outside my comfort zone during college, I realize that it was really those moments that define who I am today.  Stepping outside what I knew, and forcing myself to become more comfortable in my new area, instead of running back to what I knew, taught me invaluable skills of independence.  As I turn to the world after college, I find solace in the moments that have echoed what I am feeling now: leaving my father at the airport and setting off for California, landing in Tanzania and finding my way to my volunteer placement, and the first apprehension filled night I stayed with my homestay family in India.  I find my own courage and strength in those moments, not only through memory, but by reading through the reflection process of each experience. 



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1 Comment

One Response to “Redefining the Comfort Zone: Reflections on Experiential Learning”

  1. Raquel says:

    That is amazing that you are graduating this May and you can add to your resume that you have experience working in India and Tanzania. Most people can’t say that. As a Northeastern alum, I can say that the co-op program is one of the best aspects of this school. It prepares you for life after college unlike other universities. Now when you enter the work world you will feel more prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Congratulations on your upcoming graduation!

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