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Get Career Ready While in College - The Power of Experiential Learning

Dr. Ranjit Nair
Dr. Ranjit Nair Founder and CEO

“I thought this was an entry-level job?” exclaimed a recent college graduate. “Two years of experience required. This doesn’t make any sense - it’s an entry level job!” Suzanne, my student and also a Marketing major, lamented. While hiring managers may state that they prefer or require candidates to have experience for an entry-level job, new college graduates should still apply for positions even if they have little direct work experience. Often, having general skills like time management, organization, communication, and teamwork can make one a qualified applicant for an entry-level role. Additionally, if you have technical knowledge of the industry, whether through your experience in past roles or based on your educational credentials, you may highlight these qualifications in place of work experience. Many entry-level jobs express a preference for experienced candidates to encourage these types of professionals to apply. Typically, candidates with more experience in the field have more developed skill sets within their area of specialty. Hiring managers may prefer to hire these types of candidates because they may be more likely to have the qualifications needed to perform their duties.

So, how can college students gain this experience?

In today's rapidly evolving job market, employers seek graduates who possess a combination of technical expertise, soft skills, and the ability to adapt to changing workplace dynamics. To meet these expectations, college students must embrace opportunities that go beyond classroom learning. Experiential learning, a powerful educational approach, offers students the chance to develop real- world competencies, enhance soft skills, and cultivate transformative leadership qualities. Suzanne’s complaint is a common one nowadays among new college grad job applicants. That said, you can earn the experience employers demand — even for entry-level roles — while also getting your foot in the door of an industry that interests you. This article explores what experiential learning entails and how it can empower college students to become exceptional leaders in the modern workplace and, most importantly, maximize their chances of getting that coveted ‘dream job.'

So, what is experiential learning?

Experiential learning is an educational philosophy that emphasizes learning through action, reflection, and application. It moves beyond traditional lecture-based instruction, encouraging students to actively engage with real-world scenarios, challenges, and projects. Through experiential learning, students apply theoretical knowledge to practical situations, enhancing their understanding, skills, and critical thinking abilities. Experiential learning can take various forms, such as internships, cooperative education, service- learning, research projects, study abroad programs, simulations, and entrepreneurial ventures. These experiences immerse students in real or simulated workplace settings, fostering collaboration, problem-solving, and adaptability. So, how does experiential learning cultivate transformative learning and leadership? Here are some takeaways for college students to appreciate:

  • Bridging the Gap between Theory (College) and Practice (Real World of Work): Experiential learning bridges the gap between classroom theories and real-world applications. By working on projects, internships, or research initiatives, students gain hands-on experience that deepens their understanding of concepts. They learn to apply theoretical knowledge to practical situations, developing a holistic understanding of their field.
  • Developing Soft Skills and Emotional Intelligence: Employers value soft skills such as communication, teamwork, adaptability, and emotional intelligence. Experiential learning provides ample opportunities for students to cultivate these skills. Through collaborative projects, internships, and community engagement, students refine their ability to communicate effectively, navigate diverse teams, and adapt to dynamic work environments.
  • Nurturing Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Abilities: Experiential learning encourages students to think critically and solve real-world problems. By facing challenges in a practical setting, students develop analytical skills, learn to make informed decisions, and become resourceful problem-solvers. This nurtures their ability to handle complex situations and drive innovation.
  • Fostering Self-Awareness and Personal Growth: Experiential learning promotes self- reflection and self-awareness. Through feedback, evaluation, and guided reflection, students gain insight into their strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth. They develop a deeper understanding of their values, passions, and aspirations, enabling them to align their career choices with their personal and professional goals.
  • Cultivating Leadership and Initiative: Experiential learning encourages students to take initiative, assume leadership roles, and make independent decisions. Whether leading a team during a group project or initiating an entrepreneurial venture, students develop confidence, resilience, and the ability to inspire others. These experiences foster transformative leadership qualities that are highly valued in the workplace.

How can Experiential Learning be implemented

Experiential learning can take place in any academic program, including in Accounting, Creative Writing, Cyber Security, Data Analytics, Healthcare, Counseling, Human Resources, Nursing, Psychology, Marketing, and Sport Management. Experiential learning is not always nor necessarily tied to a program or discipline, though. Some opportunities offer learning outcomes and soft skill development that can benefit you no matter your career goals. One example of thi is a learning opportunity that allows you to engage in diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, an justice activities with classmates across our university. The opportunity is there for colleges and universities to integrate these types of competencies building within pedagogies and classroom learning.Experiential learning opportunities that build on skills and knowledge relevant to your academicprogram can help fulfill those qualifications you might encounter on the job boards. According to leaning business school deans, the opportunities are vast and broad. Experiential learning offerings are a solution to finding time to gain the experiential competencies and gain the confidence to speak to their accomplishments. They also say that projects within courses should include certificates or micro-credentials that students would include to spruce up their resumes and career search portfolio to make sure a potential employer understands what they’ve learned. Experiential learning projects through externships, internships, and within the courses themselves in the form of action-research projects help students stand out as job candidates. By participating in learning experiences, students position themselves for increased opportunities to prevail in a competitive interview process," she said. "A degree is a qualifier, but experience is a differentiator.

In today's competitive job market, college students must strive for a well-rounded education that goes beyond textbook knowledge. Experiential learning provides a transformative educational experience that equips students with the skills, competencies, and leadership qualities sought after by employers. By engaging in experiential learning opportunities, students bridge the gap between theory and practice, develop soft skills, nurture critical thinking abilities, foster self-awareness, and cultivate transformative leadership qualities. Embracing experiential learning throughout their college journey will empower students to excel in the modern workplace, become industry leaders, and embark on fulfilling careers.

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