MURFREESBORO — MTSU’s Experiential Learning Program honored its top students, faculty and community partner recently in an awards ceremony to conclude the 2013-14 academic year.
Now in its eighth year, the EXL program at MTSU is designed to enhance student learning through practical experiences in their fields of study beyond the traditional classroom and to engage the student directly in service. More than 200 courses are now approved as EXL courses universitywide.
In addition to taking EXL courses, students can sign up to be EXL Scholars, which requires them to complete assessment activities, including an e-portfolio, and perform an MTSU service component to receive the designation as an EXL scholar upon graduation.
“EXL students make a substantial contribution to the Middle Tennessee area,” said EXL Director Carol Swayze. “In addition to the beneficial experience that the students receive, the value of the students’ contributions to the community is estimated to be more than $5 million per year.”
Nominations are solicited each year for the EXL awards for students, faculty, community partner and administrator with “distinguished records of service/activity in the EXL Program.” The MTSU EXL Scholars Committee selects the winners.
Recipients of the Outstanding EXL Student Award are chosen based upon their EXL courses completed, samples of coursework from Experiential Learning projects and a reflective essay demonstrating vision and leadership in EXL projects and activities and the impact of those projects and activities on the community.
This year, three students were chosen to receive the award.
Outstanding EXL Student Award winner Sara Elizabeth Croft, of Columbia, Tennessee, graduated from MTSU May 10 with a degree in university studies.
Nominator and fellow student Lori Wheeler wrote of Croft: “Creative and compassionate, she truly desires to learn, help others, and make a difference, both on campus and within the larger community. Sara is a dynamic presenter with a unique ability to fully engage her audience and allow for maximum understanding and retention of the chosen subject matter.”
In her essay, Croft wrote that the “family environment that EXL courses offer helps me take the information that is given to me in class and apply it, not to a given textbook situation, but to my actual life. This semester I started an internship to go with the EXL Internship course. On the first day of my internship I thought to myself, ‘I’m really glad I took those courses,’ because my boss asked me to give an hourlong presentation in a few weeks. That right there showed me that the things we do in EXL courses actually are a part of life.”
Outstanding EXL Student Award winner Kelsey N. Muskin of Memphis graduated this spring with a degree in organizational communication.
Nominator Dr. Janet McCormick, who wrote that she’s known Muskin for more than two years, added, “She is my advisee (an ORCO) major, has a strong GPA and is highly involved on campus. She does exceptional work in our major. (Every course is EXL). Kelsey is dedicated to the EXL program, is assisting with the ORCO peer mentoring program, is active in Greek Life and is a member of Blue Elite.”
Muskin wrote in her essay that when she was younger, “leadership was not my strongest skill. I was shy and felt that I needed to stay in the background. The ORCO major and the EXL program helped me break out of my shell, and I became an extrovert.
“I am glad that I chose to complete the Experiential Learning program, because it gave me a better insight to what I will experience after graduation. I am looking forward to continuing my experience with leadership as well as learning new skills for the workforce.”
Outstanding EXL Student Award winner Joseph Davis Thompson of Alamo, Tennessee, is a political science major scheduled to graduate in May 2015.
His nominator, Dr. Judith Iriarte-Gross, professor of chemistry, wrote: “He is a serious and confident student with a strong potential for continued academic success. … He is proactive and provides thoughtful comments about global issues such as climate change, energy sustainability and water resources. It was his leadership on the global water project in our class, and his solid convictions that MTSU students can make a difference for the global community, that led him to start the United Nations Student Alliance of MTSU during his first year at MTSU.”
Thompson wrote that he signed up for his first EXL course in his very first semester at MTSU “when I registered for Dr. Judith Iriarte-Gross's Contemporary Issues in Physical Science Program. When signing up for classes the previous summer, I didn't really understand what the ‘EXL’ in front of the course name meant, (and) little did I know that the EXL program of MTSU would shape my academic career in such an insightful way.”
The program’s Outstanding EXL Faculty Award recognizes educators each year for their leadership and excellence in the field of experiential learning. Nominees are judged on a number of criteria, including their teaching philosophy about the value of experiential learning.
This year’s winner is Dr. Kim Cleary Sadler, a biology professor at MTSU.
Student Shoira Shamsieva, who nominated Sadler after taking Sadler’s EXL Biology 1030 course, “Exploring Life,” wrote that she “is a wonderful professor and did her best to arrange as many (community) cleanup opportunities as she could. Our main cleanup location was Stones River National Battlefield. Dr. Sadler participated in some of the EXL meetings, and during that time she worked very hard and explained why it is important to pull unwanted plants to help the forest. EXL projects take up a lot of her time scheduling, rescheduling (and) grading our feedback papers, but she likes helping the environment, and she is very good at it.”
Sadler wrote that adding “participation in the EXL program has formalized the outreach component to the (EXL BIOL 1030) course and provided students with opportunities to think about not only biological concepts but also their contribution to the environment within the community in which they live; they reflect and write about their understanding of the value of their contributions.
“Another positive outcome from participation in the EXL program has been the partnerships I have forged with natural resource agencies, such as the National Park Service at Stones River National Battlefield and Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation,” Sadler noted.
The Outstanding EXL Community Partner Award recognizes organizations that welcome MTSU EXL students and provide them with hands-on opportunities for service learning via internships, special projects and even jobs that benefit both the students and the organization.
The year’s Community Partner Award winner is VSA Tennessee and Executive Director Lori Kissinger, who teaches organizational communication courses at MTSU.
VSA Tennessee is a statewide nonprofit organization that provides resources, tools and opportunities for arts programming for people with disabilities. It’s also an affiliate of VSA, the international organization on arts and disabilities founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and formerly known as Very Special Arts.
Nominator Kathryn Calahan, a student, wrote that Kissinger “is truly an outstanding speech teacher. She goes above and beyond to teach her students and help them be the most prepared they can be to give a speech. She is also the director of VSA … (and) is currently having her speech classes do a project for VSA to get us more familiar with the different opportunities available for us to help them, too. Mrs. Kissinger is overall one of the most selfless and nicest people I have ever met. She truly knows how to teach and take care of her students.”
Kissinger wrote that VSA Tennessee has been involved with MTSU’s EXL program since the semester after the program was implemented.
“The organization has allowed the students to step in and assist in coordination of projects so that they could network and have real world experience in project development,” Kissinger wrote. “The organization went to the Tennessee Arts Commission in order to get them to open an online grant so that the ORCO students could write a ‘real grant’ each semester and have hands-on experience. The organization has also paid to send students to conference in Washington, D.C., and Knoxville to represent VSA TN.
“Through the numerous activities that VSA has offered, a student has received a job or an internship every semester since this partnership began. In addition, VSA Tennessee has created programs and found grant funds specifically for projects for MTSU EXL students to manage.”
For more information about MTSU’s EXL program and how you can get involved, visit http://www.mtsu.edu/exl.