Co-founder's Case for Experiential Learning

By Co-founder & CEO, Eric Schwarz

Just after lunch on a hot June day in 1980, I parked my beat up Chevy Chevette in front of Senator Gary Hart's campaign headquarters on Denver's High Street.  In just three days I had driven from my home in New York City, fresh off a fun but pretty unproductive freshman year in college.  I was excited and a little nervous about an internship on the re-election campaign of a U.S. Senator and I was happy to be re-united with my girlfriend, who was attending Colorado College. I tucked in my shirt, rang the doorbell and introduced myself. My first assignment: mowing the lawn behind the campaign's Victorian-era headquarters. My second assignment? Three full days of counting and rolling coins that had been dropped in donation cans at a recent political convention.

As the summer wore on, I started getting meatier assignments.  I drafted letters to the editor. Then I helped research and write a position paper on Gary Hart's views on supporting small businesses.  Linda Ronstadt and Steven Stills and Jimmy Buffett all volunteered to perform benefit concerts and I helped to organize ticket sales -- and got to attend the concerts. By mid-summer I was totally engaged in the campaign and I called my college, the University of Vermont, and said I planned to stay in Colorado through election day and would be withdrawing from college for the fall semester.  The next three months were amazing.  I went from organizing benefit concerts and helping with anything that needed doing around campaign HQ to organizing college students all across the state.  By election day in November I was in communication with hundreds of active college volunteers, all of us pulling voters to the polls at dozens of colleges, from the state's flagship university in Boulder to small colleges across Colorado's western slope.  And Gary Hart won, withstanding the Reagan landslide of 1980, and creating momentum for a later presidential run.  I discovered a sense of purpose and built a network for life.  

As I look back on that experience now, I can say with confidence that I learned more in those four months of organizing than I did across four years of college classes.  I learned more about myself and about working with people, but also more about writing and public speaking and analyzing numbers, like voter registration and turnout numbers.  I ended up majoring in history and political science, and as I learned more theory in the classroom I was able to connect it to my real-world experiences on the campaign trail.  

I also realize that I had an experience that was available to only small handful of my peers.  My internship was unpaid and uncredited. I as one of the fortunate few with family that could connect me to an US Senator and that could cover me financially as I volunteered for a cause I believed in. Most of friends back at UVM -- many of them the children of dairy farmers or small business people -- had no such opportunities.

College for Social Innovation, which I am helping to launch this summer, is motivated by a desire to make experiences like my Gary Hart experience broadly available.  Today gap years and unpaid and uncredited summer internships help drive a huge opportunity divide between upper and lower-income college students.  As wrote about in my book, The Opportunity Equation, the opportunity gap is already a chasm by the time kids get to college.   

The gap is going to keep getting bigger during the college year if we don't find a way to make great internships and fellowships a core part of the college experience for all students, not just a few.

I invite you to engage with College for Social Innovation and to help us get bigger and re-imagine the current college model -- making it less expensive, more relevant, and more experiential.  Check out our website and our plan.  Connect with us on social media. Encourage your college or alma mater to partner with us. Nominate an innovative social sector organization to host one of our "Social Innovation Fellows" (these are current college students who will be earning full credit for a semester of experiential learning).  Donate.  And spread the word.  And if you are in or near Boston on Sept. 16, please join us for a kick-off event at Boston City Hall ("front lawn") from 5 to 6:30pm.