Experiential learning creates student opportunities

Laura Hallas

Her freshman year, radio-television-film and journalism sophomore Krystal Cruz walked into one of her first journalism classes. The professor, gauging the room, asked the class who had previously worked on their high school newspaper.

Cruz, remembering the poorly-structured newspaper in her hometown, sat unmoving while the rest of the class shot their hands up.

“I thought I was really behind because I didn’t have that background in journalism,” Cruz said.  “Media students are so pressured to start their work now so that they won’t be behind when they graduate, you want your degree to count.”

Not all learning happens inside the classroom. At the cusp of professional life, students (and their future employers) measure undergraduate success not only by GPA, but by relevant experience and professional connections gained. Undergraduate courses — especially in the first two years of a degree program — can feel more like a high school style checklist of prerequisites than valuable career prep. 

Experiential learning offers a place for students to make (and recover from) critical mistakes, build portfolios and form friendships and mentorships that can evolve into first professional networks. To commit to the professional skill sets colleges purport to give its graduates, university entities must leverage existing resources while opening doors for students. 

University Leadership Network (ULN), a nationally recognized incentive scholarship, recognizes this need. The program pairs students with outstanding academics with professional experiences they might not otherwise be exposed to, along with a four-year renewable scholarship to help fund the experiences. 

A common problem here at the Texan, as well as elsewhere in the University, stems from the students’ inability to continually justify the cost of their volunteered time on staff. Even editorships and leadership roles, despite their immense career importance, become secondary concerns to rent and textbooks. Scholarships and federal work study help cover costs but the impetus is on organizations to propose their respective jobs as legitimate experiential learning. 

This is where University leaders must step forward. Texas Student Media recently partnered with ULN to add seven job openings across seven media entities and office support, and we at the Texan hope to explore more funding and credit options to provide students as much involvement as possible. 

Cruz, a ULN scholar, hand-crafted one of these experiences with BurntX. She was volunteering her time as a staffer at BurntX and TSTV when, as a part of a ULN requirement, she needed to find an on-campus internship. Recognizing the mentorship and relevant professional skills she was gaining, she worked with ULN to exercise an option in which students craft their own internships.  

Cruz said that students even beyond ULN program could benefit from university entities taking the extra step of opening up their opportunities. 

“I feel like a lot of (impactful internships) are hidden, the bigger opportunities,” Cruz said. “Many people will have to make copies or just sitting for hours whereas mine is collaborating with a team and doing creative things, and pitching, and all of this other stuff — I was able to see the difference.”

More departments, on-campus programs and even individual professionals should think deeply and sincerely about what professional internships they can publicize. Some of our biggest challenges at the University, from the Top 10 Percent Rule to budget cuts, come down to identifying ways to better serve deserving students. Innumerable opportunities exist on campus, and ULN cannot be the only program to tackle the issue. On-campus professionals must leverage the deserving students waiting to build their professional experience. 

Hallas is an economics, health and society and Plan II sophomore from Allen.