Experiential Education

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The Romania Semester has been unique compared to my other semesters at Northwestern.  I’m not saying this in terms of studying in another country, while that has been the source of many wonderful and different encounters and challenges.  This semester is unique in its emphasis on experiential education and service learning.  The incorporation of these techniques of learning makes sense as the New Horizons Foundation strongly endorses and uses this in their youth programs, working to shape the youth of the area to become future leaders and advocators for change.

For us as students, it means we don’t have all of our classes in the typical setting.  While we do have some in-class time, it is not uncommon for us to be going on visits elsewhere, such as churches or even other towns in the country. 

The first experiential education class we had was during the first week of our time in Romania.  After being in Romania for only a few days, we all packed up and went out to Retezat National Park for a five-day backpacking trip. 

This was a new and challenging experience for me.  While I absolutely loved being in nature, I believe it was one of the things that helped me adapt to being in Romania – every day was challenging, both physically and mentally.  The first day was probably the hardest for me.  It was a day of getting used to my backpack as well as figuring out my pace.

That first day I was far too concerned with keeping up.  I did not want to fall behind and be the reason we had to slow down, so I pushed myself to stay toward the front.  While I maintained that pace most of the day, it was not enjoyable.  When we made it to our first campsite, I was excited I made it that day, exhausted from all the work, and concerned about how I was going to survive the next.  I was nervous about the unknown, for the next day, the next week, and looking back on it now, I was nervous about the unknown of the upcoming semester.  We were told that the next day was probably going to be one of the most difficult days in terms of the incline ahead, and I was not looking forward to it. 

It turns out that the second day was one of my favorites and the one that taught me the most.  The day started out slow.  There was only a slight incline and I felt like I was getting used to my backpack.  We stopped for a short break and then we were warned the difficult portion of the day was next.  We had to climb up a sharp incline to get over the lip of a peak.  It took time, and I learned it was just fine to go at my own pace.  I took my time and rested when I needed to. 

While I hiked that day, I would often look up to the group ahead of me and think there was no way I’d make it to where they were.  I would then just focus on the next few feet in front of me, enough that I knew where I was going, and before I knew it, I stood where I didn’t think I’d make it to.  Getting over the lip to overlook the lake below felt like a huge accomplishment in that moment.  That afternoon I became comfortable with the unknown in that trip, and even a little more comfortable with the unknown in my life.  Living in the present and doing what I can in that moment to move forward instead of worrying about what is ahead was a big lesson I learned that day. 

The rest of the trip still had difficult moments, but it was also filled with bonding with others and taking in the beautiful sights of Romania’s national park.