Experiential learning is baked into the Hokie DNA. According to a recent Virginia Tech survey, more than 75 percent of 2020–21 graduates did some kind of career-related experiential learning during college, such as an internship, undergraduate research, field study, study abroad, or work co-op. 

To expand meaningful, place-based experiential learning opportunities to all undergraduates, the university has announced the Bridge Experience Program as the focus of its newest five-year Quality Enhancement Plan, a required part of its accreditation renewal with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on College.

A Quality Enhancement Plan is an initiative designed to enhance overall institutional effectivess and improve student learning outcomes and succes. The Bridge Experience Program fulfills that mission by helping academic departments make career-related experiential learning opportunities more accessible, meaningful, and educational for students. 

"There is good evidence based on reliable research that adult learners benefit from an experiential learning approach that places them in learning environments where they’re engaged, where they’re connected to their particular interests and passions, and where they can identify learning goals that are personally meaningful to them," said Cyril Clarke, executive vice president and provost. "It's important that we continue to advance and promote a commitment to experiential learning across every academic unit of the university." 

Bridge experiences, so named for the way they help students successfully transition to a professional path after graduation, allow undergraduates to apply academic learning in real-world settings and build the skills and knowledge to serve others, their community, or their professional field. 

Currently, 14 academic departments are working to implement bridge experiences into their curricula. They receive support from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) for program design as well as membership in a community of practice with other bridge experience teams. The center aims to add at least 12 more academic units to the Bridge Experience Program in the next two years.

“When I learned about the Bridge Experience Program during a Faculty Senate meeting in 2020, it felt like a path had been cleared for this work,” said Evan Lavender-Smith, assistant professor in the Department of English. “With guidance and support from CETL and CLAHS [the College of Liberal Arts and Human Science] — and through information-sharing and collaboration with faculty on Bridge Experience Program teams in other units — the Bridge Experience Program team in the Department of English is moving full steam ahead. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Whether students' post-graduation aspirations lead them to careers, military service, or further education, experiential learning opportunities are key to a successful transition. Bridge experiences elevate the impact of an internship, research assistantship, field study, or study abroad as students reflect on how they applied their academic learning in professional contexts, articulate their personal and professional development, and commit to using their knowledge, skills, and talents as a means to serve.

Susan Sumner, associate dean for academic programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the word “bridge” enticed the college to participate in the Bridge Experience Program. “The reflective component of bridge experiences adds meaning to the opportunities many students were already doing. Sharing their experiences with other students across the college adds meaning to their academic careers.”

Students who value bridge experiences as a resume builder may have already been seeking out opportunities. When the Department of Food Science and Technology joined the Bridge Experience Program, faculty members surveyed students and discovered that 93 percent of graduating seniors already had an internship, undergraduate research, or study abroad experience under their belts. 

Faculty, however, are key to developing bridge experiences for more students. “Those numbers were very encouraging, but now we will be much more intentional about creating that experience to fit our students’ goals,” said Herbert Bruce, assistant professor of food science and technology. “We are focused this semester on developing an experiential learning menu for our students and creating the courses to support our students to integrate these learning opportunities into the curriculum.”

As the experiential learning coordinator for the Department of Computer Science, Collegiate Assistant Professor Mohammed Seyam noted the value of joining the Bridge Experience Program cohort. “Sharing our experience with others and hearing from different departments help us know more about potential opportunities as well as receive constructive feedback about our own work.”

Making bridge experiences the focus of the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan reflects Virginia Tech’s commitment to student success and to its land grant mission of global impact. “With this program, we’re living our mission of helping our students think about their next steps for giving back to their community,” said Kim Filer, associate vice provost for teaching and learning.

More details about the Bridge Experience Program, including information for academic units interested in joining the program, can be found at the Bridge Experience Program website.

By Melody Warnick