This post is from Dylan Butler, a friend of Prepify. Dylan lives in Washington D.C., where he designs international development programs that strengthen the food security of rural farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. He is an avid traveler and has visited over 30 countries around the world. When not traveling, he can be found roaming the forests of the Shenandoah Mountains with his wife Kirstin, and his dog, Porter.
I want you to ask yourself two questions:
1) Do you have a thirst for adventure and a desire to meet new people and experience exciting cultures different from your own?
2) Do you seek to apply the lessons you have learned in the classroom to solve real world problems?
If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you are probably like me: an experiential learner. From one experiential learner to another, let me give you a piece of advice: embrace it. Do your best to ignore negativity about the larger world, especially what you hear about developing nations; this world is a wonderful place to live and explore.
According to the University of Texas, experiential learning is “any learning that supports students in applying their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations where the instructor directs and facilitates learning.” Dr. John Dewey, widely considered the father of experiential education, argued that real learning required engagement with real-world scenarios that require students to think creatively and work collaboratively. I believe in Dr. Dewey’s theory of experience, and while I am not here to convince you of the need to become an experiential learner, I am asking that you understand how securing a high school and college education in whatever form that benefits your own learning is critical towards embracing a wider worldview.
Experiential learning is why I went to School Without Walls, a high school that believed in leveraging Washington D.C.’s greatest assets – its museums, zoos, and other public areas – as a classroom in itself. It’s why I spent a semester abroad at Payap University in Thailand (more on this later), and ultimately why I volunteered to serve in the United States Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Vermont. Experiential learning is why I continue to support U.S. international efforts to create sustainable agricultural market systems, relieve mal- and undernutrition, and build household resilience. I firmly believe that our engagement with the wider world is critical to United States leadership abroad.
My path to international development was not a straight one – and so few paths are. There are some individuals who are able to find their niche right away, and more power to them. But for others, it can take a lifetime. For me, a self-proclaimed failed physicist and mathematician, my passion came from spending a semester halfway across the world in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
My decision to travel to Thailand was based on a desire to see the world, rather than through a deeply analytical process. After struggling mightily in science and math classes for two years in college, I knew I wanted something completely new and different, and that meant seizing on a dream to study in Japan. Alas, nothing is ever that easy, and after being told that my grades were not competitive enough for the two spaces in the Japan program, I went with what I thought was the next best thing – Thailand. Of course, little did I know that Thailand, a country of nearly 70 million, is nearly as far from Japan (2,860 miles) as France is from Vermont (3,450 miles), and complete with a unique culture and language different from anything than I had ever experienced.
Adjusting to life in Thailand was not easy. Not a day went by in which I did not make a mistake. Learning a language and understanding a new culture can take years. Yet I embraced the spirit of experiential education, and did all I could to learn and adapt to my new and exciting surroundings. Every morning I would spend two hours learning new Thai words and phrases. Every afternoon I would practice those new words with vegetable sellers in the market, or with my Thai friends on the takraw court (Note: I was terrible, but that did not stop me from playing). I did not shy away from learning and trying new things; instead I embraced the embarrassing moments and learned from them.
Thailand gave me a newfound love for travel and cultural exchange, and one year after graduating from the University of Vermont, I began volunteering as a math teacher with the Peace Corps in Guinea and Burkina Faso. Though there is truth in these country profiles, I reference them to demonstrate that they are overwhelmingly negative, and do not give a full picture of the people and country. I am here to tell you that you will never meet nicer people than those who live in Guinea and Burkina Faso. Communities in West Africa will open their homes to you as a total stranger, and not a day passed by without someone inviting me to join them for a meal.
Your education can open doors that you never thought possible, but to get there you need to get through high school and college first. Without a grounded education, combined with out-of-the-classroom learning, none of these experiences would have happened. My education built my cognitive ability to live and cope in new, and sometimes extreme, situations; and it gave me a framework to understand how I could apply my experiences to bolster my personal and professional life. My advice to you is to study hard in high school and college, and embrace every opportunity that life gives you. If I could share words of wisdom that I did not receive until much later in my 20s: education is about the long game. The more you take advantage of your learning and the resources available to you, the more opportunities there will be.
So, go get that education, get that college degree. An entire world of experiences awaits!