Warren Wilson College graduates don’t say they learned how to do it. They say they’ve already done it. Across their transitions from first-year students to graduates, students learn experientially. And this experiential education happens not only on work crews and community engagement opportunities, it is infused into every part of students’ time at Warren Wilson, from their First Year Seminars to their Capstone Projects.

By Mary Bates and Melissa Ray Davis ’02

This story was published in the 2022 Owl & Spade Magazine

Fishing for a Creative Writing Capstone

Carlyle Grundon ’23 stood knee-deep in the water of the Swannanoa River. She and Dr. Patrick Ciccotto, Instructor of Biology at Warren Wilson College, took turns holding a seine net and using their feet to flip stones and move sediment in order to displace fish on the river floor.

Once the fish were caught in the net, Grundon and Ciccotto placed them in a bucket to identify them and take their photos. They were trapping the fish as part of Grundon’s senior Capstone Project, a nonfiction story about fish in the Swannanoa River. On that particular day, they found six different species of fish, from warpaint shiner to fantail darter to largemouth bass.

Prior to coming to Warren Wilson, Grundon admitted, she had not had good experiences with science. She said that in high school, science just never “clicked” for her. She put off taking her General Education science requirement until her junior year at Warren Wilson, when she took Field and Natural History, taught by Dr. Ciccotto. In this highly experiential course, she learned to identify over 60 species of wildflowers, trees, insects, birds, and aquatic macroinvertebrates, all found on Warren Wilson’s 1,100 acre campus.

Grundon had suddenly discovered that she loved science after all. “I grew a sense of empowerment,” Grundon said. “I really fell in love with what we were doing. I was excited to go to class. We spent almost every day outside. I ended up doing really well in that class because I was able to contextualize what I was learning in a way I had never been able to before.”

As a result, she decided to combine her Creative Writing major with her newfound love of science, using writing to make science accessible for more people. She changed her minor to Science Communication and created a senior Capstone Project that would empower her to explore her new passion.

The Confidence That Comes With Doing

From work crew experiences to community engagement, First Year Seminar courses to Capstone Projects, experiential learning is one of the most unique and defining aspects of a Warren Wilson College education.

“There is ample evidence that experiential learning—often represented methodologically through active learning, service learning, project-based learning, study away, work-integrated learning, and undergraduate research—is more engaging and effective for students both in and out of the classroom. Students who experience these forms of teaching and learning are more likely to succeed academically and more likely to report career satisfaction after college,” said Dr. Jay Roberts, Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Warren Wilson College and an expert on experiential learning.

To illustrate his point, Dr. Roberts described his experience shadowing two students on the Auto Shop Crew who taught him how to check the brakes on a truck and to operate the power lift.

“It was incredibly inspiring to see them troubleshoot, problem-solve, and think their way through a variety of challenges as they did their work (not the least of which was teaching the Provost how to use a drill!),” Dr. Roberts said. “When I asked them about their majors, they talked passionately about them—Creative Writing and Philosophy.

“This is the best of Warren Wilson College. We are not always, or even often, directly linking experiences on work crews or community engagement with job skill training. Students do pick up skills, but, in the classic liberal arts way, the most powerful outcomes are often more about lifelong learning, teamwork, creativity, and self-confidence. And, it turns out, these are also some of the most in-demand attributes employers are looking for,” Dr. Roberts said.

According to the National Association of Career Education, critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork and collaboration, professionalism and work ethic, and oral and written communications are the top four career competencies that employers want—and are not generally finding—in graduates.

A recent survey of Warren Wilson College’s Class of 2018 found that 92 percent had a paying job within six months of graduation, while the national average is only 72 percent. 50 percent had a job lined up within a month (national average: 33 percent). But perhaps the most telling statistic is that, compared to only 63 percent nationally, a robust 91 percent of Warren Wilson graduates said that their job is work that they find meaningful.

“While every college or university in the country is working to improve career readiness, Warren Wilson develops these competencies in students from day one,” Dr. Roberts said. “To be a national leader in the experiential liberal arts combines the best of all worlds—a creative education, a practical education, a collaborative education, and, ultimately, a revolutionary education—the ability, in the words of educational philosopher Dr. Maxine Greene, to imagine things otherwise and the knowledge and skills to enact lasting and material change.”

A Foundation for Civic Identity: First Year Seminars

Students are introduced to experiential learning as soon as they arrive at Warren Wilson. In their first semester, every student is required to take a First Year Seminar course that introduces them to the academic rigor of the College in a way that is grounded in experiential learning, civic identity, and community engagement.

“I see a lot of students coming in with a lot of idealism, but also maybe a lot of anguish about what’s going on in the world,” said Dr. Annie Jonas, Professor and Chair of Education and former Director of the First Year Seminar experience. “To immediately have an opportunity to talk about that and find some skills and knowledge to help take action, that’s exciting to me, and I think it meets our students where they are when they come into Warren Wilson.”

First Year Seminar courses partner with local community or nonprofit organizations and cover a wide range of subjects. Fall 2022’s course offerings include Fossil Fuels and Energy; The Disneyfication of American Culture; Music and Meaning; A Civil Right? From Math Anxiety to Math Literacy; and Gardens: Ecology, Cultural Identity, and Social Change.

Grundon—the student who captured fish in the Swannanoa River for her Creative Writing Capstone Project—took a First Year Seminar where she worked with third grade students at Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville to create a podcast called The Truth about Buncombe County’s Issues. The topics were based on Buncombe County’s strategic priorities, as identified by the County Commissioners: affordable housing, early childhood education, renewable energy, the criminal justice system, and opioid abuse prevention.

The third graders and college students worked together to research the topics, write interview questions, conduct interviews with some of the community’s top leaders, write and edit scripts, and produce the podcast. As with every First Year Seminar, the course explored what it means for students to be active and engaged citizens of their community.

“In the First Year Seminars, students are having these really concrete experiences that they’re able to connect to some of the more abstract ideas we teach in higher education,” said Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Writing Program Dr. Julie Wilson, who taught Grundon’s First Year Seminar. “It teaches Warren Wilson students that their college education is not just about individual learning, it’s also about learning within larger communities. Everything they do is preparing them to be more engaged in their community and to be involved in creating a more just, equitable, and sustainable world. They’re learning for a reason.”

Danika Moody ’22 said the desire to create meaningful change was exactly what she was looking for in a college experience, and through her First Year Seminar, that desire was satisfied immediately. She took Language Identity in Community, in which she worked with Spanish-speaking students at Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain.

“Coming into college, I wanted to make a connection and make a difference for younger students. It served that purpose immensely,” Moody said. “It showed me how, now that I was in college, I was getting these tools to make a difference—not only in my own community, but in reaching out to others.”

Dr. Jonas has witnessed how Warren Wilson’s experiential approach to first year programming empowers students to understand themselves in the context of their transition to college and to engage in community appropriately, effectively, and ethically.

“I think it’s a really beneficial way to set students up for success in finding their way and helping them with some of these foundational levels of civic identity,” Dr. Jonas said. “They’re directly seeing that what they’re learning is authentic and meaningful, and it’s not just moving them toward a major, it’s moving them toward effective action—the ability to be an agent for change.”

Holistic Integration of Experiential Learning

Experiential learning has been central to Warren Wilson College’s learning model since its founding in 1894 as the Asheville Farm School. And, since that founding, the College has innovated ways to fully integrate experiential learning into all student experiences, both in the classroom and out of it.

“While many schools and colleges have forms of experiential learning including active learning in the classroom, service learning, and project-based learning, at Warren Wilson, we integrate these forms of learning holistically for each student and throughout the four years,” Dr. Roberts said. “When these experiences are integrated into students’ academic or personal interests, it can be transformative.”

In order to further integrate experiential learning throughout students’ time at Warren Wilson, Dr. Roberts said, “the key is to create the structures and environment where it happens for every student by design and not by accident.”

Over the past several years, the College has moved more intentionally toward this ideal. One step was to create the Center for Integrated Advising and Careers, where Integrated Advising Coaches ensure that every student connects to the experiential learning opportunities that will best help them become who they want to be. In addition to shifting all First Year Seminar courses to an experiential, service-learning format, the General Education Requirements expanded to include Civic Identity Values and Social Justice designated courses.

Another recent change was the creation of the Center for Experiential Learning, which integrates the Work Program, Community Engagement, and Global Engagement into one collaborative space, all reporting to the Provost and housed in the historic Log Cabin.

“By combining these areas under one physical and metaphorical roof in an iconic campus building,” Dr. Roberts said when the Center was announced in May of 2021, “the new Center will take advantage of natural synergies and collaborations between community engagement, work, and off-campus study to help make the many experiential learning opportunities for students at Warren Wilson more accessible and more powerful.”

Capstone Research: The Culmination of Experiential Learning

The final culmination of a Warren Wilson student’s college experience is their Capstone Project. The research work for students’ Capstone Projects can sometimes take multiple semesters to finish. “Research” in this context includes the range of scholarship, creative work, and artistic performance that represents students’ deep and full engagement in their academic fields of study.

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of Undergraduate Research Dr. Cristina Reitz-Krueger said that at many larger undergraduate institutions, only the top honors students get to complete a capstone experience. But at Warren Wilson, every student must complete a Capstone Project—it is required to graduate.

The Capstone Carnival in May and the Winter Showcase in December were developed as an institution-wide celebration for students to share their Capstone Projects and research. Dr. Reitz-Krueger noted that these celebrations are also incredibly valuable for the students whose Capstone Projects are still ahead of them, “to see what’s possible, to see what they can do—not just what they have to do, but to see the opportunities that are available to them.”

And the possibilities for Capstone Projects are truly wide-ranging.

Biology major Bria Scott ’22 researched the correlation between tea brewing times and antioxidant levels for her Capstone. In particular, she looked at cerasee, an herb common to her home country of Jamaica. Her research showed that longer brewing times increased antioxidant levels, though an ANOVA test showed no significant correlation (possibly due to the small size of her sample). She wants to do additional research and study the antihypoglycemic agents in cerasee that could help people with diabetes.

For his Capstone Project, Art major Jeremy Epstein ’22 created a massive installation that filled up the entire back wall of the Holden Art Gallery, along with other wood, steel, and foam art pieces.

Epstein worked on the Fine Woodworking Crew, and he said wood stands apart from all other mediums for him. “Once a piece of a block of wood is removed, there is no going back,” he said. “I get satisfaction in subtractive methods of making.”

Capstone Projects and other research at Warren Wilson frequently involve working with a Community Partner. In one of her initiatives as Director of Undergraduate Research, Dr. Reitz-Krueger is expanding and organizing Warren Wilson’s capacity for community-engaged research.

“I teach Research Methods. And I love Research Methods—I’m super passionate about it. But I am also aware that it’s one of the most hated classes. I think that’s because students often don’t realize the potential for taking those skills and helping Community Partners, or solving real world problems,” Dr. Reitz-Krueger said.

“I want to help students see that there are exciting real-world applications for research as well, so that the whole concept of doing research isn’t as scary. It becomes this exciting prospect, and not something that you have to suffer through to graduate, or that is only for folks who are going on to get their Ph.D.s.”

As an example of community-engaged research in action, Dr. Reitz-Krueger explained a recent project that four students completed at Hinds’ Feet Farm, an organization dedicated to serving people living with traumatic brain injuries. Hinds’ Feet Farm had several years’ worth of data that they had collected in quarterly quality-of-life surveys of their participants. But it was boxes and boxes of paper surveys, with no way to organize the data or analyze it.

Thanks to a Bonner Grant that Associate Professor and Chair of Psychology Dr. Jen Mozolic wrote, Cara Bridgman ’22, Paula Castellanos ’24, Andres Escobar ’23, and Kenia Romero ’23 were each able to spend a semester working at Hinds’ Feet Farm, first entering all of the data into a database, and then organizing and analyzing the data while working with Hinds’ Feet Farm to determine what information would be most useful.

In the end, the organization was able to “show a stability in time of quality of life with these patients, some of whom had very severe traumatic brain injuries,” Dr. Reitz-Krueger said. “They said, ‘In many ways, quality of life tends to decline, but the perception of those folks is that it is staying stable while they’re in the program.’ That is exciting!”

Putting It All Together

Moody, the student who worked with Spanish-speaking high school students in her First Year Seminar, combined many different programs of study and experiential learning opportunities into a holistic, interdisciplinary educational experience at Warren Wilson. She double majored in Sociology/Anthropology and Art.

For her Sculpture and Ceramics Capstone Project, Moody created porcelain pottery using bones from Warren Wilson cattle. She was inspired by the farm-to-table movement, and the desire to eliminate waste and develop connectivity to the land. She had completed much of her Community Engagement requirements volunteering at Loving Food Resources, a food pantry in Asheville.

“I did a couple of different things before I found that I liked working at food pantries,” Moody said. “It’s that immediate connection, that immediate gratitude. I felt like I was making a difference rather than similar things, where I knew I was making a difference, but it wasn’t feeling very immediate or hands-on.”

But where did the bones come in? Moody had easy access to animal bones from her work on the Biology Research Assistant Crew, where she was responsible for collecting, cleaning, and prepping skeletons of animals for teaching aids. She applied these skills to her Art Major. Her process was research-oriented and experiential, from cleaning and documenting the bones, to firing them into finely powdered calcined bone ash, to testing different clay recipes.

Simultaneously, she used this hands-on knowledge of interdisciplinary work from two very different fields to inform her Capstone for her second major in Sociology/Anthropology, which examined interdisciplinary education at Warren Wilson.

Moody said that experiential learning at Warren Wilson helped her learn about herself and her capabilities. Sometimes that knowledge came from unexpected sources. She studied abroad twice in two different faculty-led courses: first in Italy, studying art history and ceramics, and then in France, studying climate resiliency.

“It was so encouraging,” Moody said of the course in France. “Talking about the climate crisis, it’s depressing: you either get enraged or get depressed. But it’s so encouraging to go to these places and see the people who are doing these things, fighting for the cause.”

From First Year Seminar through to Capstone, Warren Wilson College’s experiential learning model empowers students to become those people fighting for causes. Graduates leave the College with more than just a degree—they leave with the confidence that comes with experience. After graduation, they are ready to be change makers because they have already made change.

This story was published in the 2022 Owl & Spade Magazine