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Where Education Meets Experience: Conference Showcases Experiential Learning

Students and alumni shared how hands-on learning experiences have helped them build real-world job skills during the second annual AU and Beyond conference, April 12.

Students on a panel at AU's second experiential learning conference.A panel of AU students discuss experiential learning through the prism of its integration with curriculum. (Jeffrey Watts/AU)

By Jonathan Heeter

Experiential learning takes many forms at American University. 

Stacia Tomlinson-Elliotte, Kogod/BA ’23, worked as a program leader and teaching assistant in a Complex Problems class taught by Kogod professor Michael Mass. Connor Murray, SIS/MA ’22, sought hands-on opportunities in the classroom and through a transatlantic partnership with international students. 

They shared their experience alongside 21 other students and two alumni on April 12 during AU and Beyond: Where Education Meets Experience, the second annual conference dedicated to hands-on learning at the university. 

“We have made experiential education a key piece of our strategic plan,” said Deputy Provost and Dean of Faculty Monica Jackson, who leads the plan’s imperative focused on learning for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. “We are committed to finding ways to expand experiential education, and this conference is the perfect way to highlight this work.” 

During the event, held at Bender Library, students on five different panels shared how they’ve participated in experiential learning at AU through research, international study, service-learning, in-course learning, and career-building opportunities. Alumni on the kickoff panel shared how skills garnered through experiential experiences at AU have helped them as professionals. 

Murray worked in DC after earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois. When he enrolled in SIS’s international affairs program, Murray had a full-time job. But he quit to focus on his graduate program and found the experiential education opportunities rich enough to replace the skills he would’ve gained if he had stayed in his career. 

During his practicum, Murray worked with a client that built a toolkit for countries in North Africa and the Middle East undergoing democratic transitions. 

In a different course, Murray drafted realistic security memos and practiced briefing decision-makers on complex issues. He also took a spring break trip to Belgium with nine other SIS graduate students for the Re-Imagining the Transatlantic Order course to engage with policymakers and build connections with international partners. 

“All of the experiential learning work in the classroom at AU absolutely had a direct impact on how I approach my career,” said Murray, who now works as a research analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “I found myself in scenarios that imitated real-world situations, and I apply what I learned daily in my job.” 

Tomlinson-Elliotte has developed organizational and leadership skills through her work as a program leader in Mass’s Legally Speaking seminar. She took the course during her first year at AU and connected with the inquiry-based classroom model. After she shifted to remote learning during the pandemic, Tomlinson-Elliotte said she felt like a freshman when returning to campus. She sought the familiarity of Complex Problems—she said it had a high school homeroom feel—and reconnected with Mass to return to Legally Speaking as his classroom assistant.  

“I’m in the classroom [while Mass teaches remotely] with the students, so they’re waiting for me to give them direction and get the ball rolling,” Tomlinson-Elliotte said. “I’m not only in a logistical planning role, but I’m developing soft skills by answering questions regarding academics. . . . I’ve gained management skills and [learned] how to run a classroom.” 

The inaugural conference was hosted by SOC professor Gemma Puglisi’s public relations students in connection with librarian Olivia Ivey and SOC professor Sarah Menke-Fish. The class took the summit on as a client, handling the planning, outreach, and execution and organized six panel discussions. Ivey, whose research includes learning outcomes of community-based and service-learning courses, planned and organized the 2023 conference. 

“It’s great to provide a platform where our students and alumni can share their experiences,” Ivey said. “The impact of experiential learning is clear when you listen to their stories.”