Experiential Learning Opens a World of Opportunity

“Allegheny College gave me the opportunity not only to have my first experience outside of the United States, but outside of my comfort zone, too,” says Kelsey McNary ’13.

As an Allegheny student, McNary joined an Experiential Learning seminar that toured Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden during the summer of 2011, following her sophomore year.

Experiential Learning seminars (known as ‘ELs’) are led by Allegheny faculty and administrators and take place each year, just after the spring semester. The trips are coordinated by the International Education Office, part of the Allegheny Gateway. The seminars provide students with the opportunity for international education in a more contained and condensed environment than semester- or year-long study abroad opportunities. The programs typically last two to three weeks and are worth two to four “experiential learning credits” that count toward the number of required credits for graduation. Several unique programs are offered each year and involve travel to places such as Kenya, Austria, England, Sri Lanka and Peru.

On the trip McNary attended, the students traveled through the four featured countries studying public transportation. McNary, an environmental studies major and geology minor from Albany, N.Y., had neither studied nor even used any form of public transportation before this seminar, so the material her group was studying was completely foreign to her.

“I didn’t really expect the material to translate directly back to my Allegheny experience, but it wasn’t necessarily about what I was learning anyways,” she says. “What mattered was where I was learning it – being out of the country was the most important part. It doesn’t even matter where you go, just that you go.”

“The trip made me more aware, and more conscious of the world around me. In a sense, it really grounded me,” says Lexi Cammarata ’17, biochemistry major and Spanish minor from Greensburg, Pa., who traveled to Nicaragua in Central America in 2014, after her freshmen year.

“Being in the second poorest country in the Northern Hemisphere, I witnessed a kind of poverty in Nicaragua that I had never seen in the United States. The people there didn’t have a lot – but what they did have, was a huge sense of community that really affected the way I’d view the values of family and community when I returned home.”

This trip that Cammarata attended is a service-based trip where the team from Allegheny completes roughly 80 hours of service each in the few weeks they are there. Cammarata was on a trip that focused on predominantly homeless families who were living in a refuse facility. The community relied on the garbage in the dump for food and other basic necessities. The program helped to move these families out of the dump, construct homes, teach adults a trade, and establish a school for their children.

“While I come from a wealthier community then these people, I could still share those values of community and family, but it was just so different to experience and see these values in a place where that’s most of what they have,” Cammarata says. “It was very eye-opening, and in coming home, I found that those values became more important to me, too. Family has always been important to me; don’t get me wrong – but my experience on this EL made me so much more appreciative of my family and my community when I came home.”

While the Experiential Learning Program offered by Allegheny is one that continuously makes an impact on students due to the nature of a foreign environment becoming a place of learning, there are still some challenges.

McNary says that her struggles included more than just being outside the country: “I didn’t know anyone else in the program, so it wasn’t even just that I was going to a new country, but that I also felt alone going into it. On top of having to adjust to the new cultures around me, I needed to make new friends. So, coming home after having done that – having been by myself and having found that I could adapt to my surroundings – I experienced a huge confidence boost.

“My experience on the EL trip strengthened my application to jobs,” she says. “While abroad, I conducted a journal that would assist in my writing the overall project paper after our return. I was then able to include these documents in my portfolio, and to talk about my travel experience on my resume,” says McNary. “What I didn’t know before the EL was just how much experience with traveling would strengthen my application.”

Immediately following graduation, McNary was offered a job in environmental consulting as a GIS Analyst for the city of Columbia, Sc.

As Cammarata finishes her Allegheny education, she, too, is thankful for her EL experience.

“As a pre-med student, I was particularly interested in the health of the people in Nicaragua, and when I was there I was able to see the quality of their health care, firsthand. After a day of work, our bus pulled to the side of the road after seeing a motorcycle accident. Since I’m an EMT, I assisted the resident doctor in responding to the scene and calling for assistance. While we stabilized the woman’s broken leg, we then waited 30-minutes for the ambulance to arrive even though we were right outside the center of the town. The people there aren’t getting the access they deserve – and that’s when I realized then that there are places all over the world like that.”

This experience helped to confirm Cammarata’s passion for emergency medicine. “There’s no question that I’d love to take my future in medicine abroad once again to help in communities like this one. The idea had crossed my mind before going to Nicaragua, but this trip really solidified those goals.”

Experiential Learning trips cost from $3,000 to $7,000 per student, and while the College can make some funding available, students are asked to pay the cost in full.  For information about how you can help to make this opportunity more affordable for students, please contact the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs at (814) 332-2843.

Photo Caption: Lexi Cammarata ’17 of Greensburg, Pa., traveled to Nicaragua after her freshman year.