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Don’t let your education stop you from learning

| Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The week before fall break, I had the opportunity to participate in negotiations over a new treaty at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. I flew to New York with one of my classmates early Tuesday morning, and I returned to South Bend at midnight Thursday. I would be missing three full days of class, but this seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. Assist with the writing of a new human rights treaty or go to class? The choice seemed pretty clear. 

So, I went through all the motions that go along with a last minute cross-country school trip. I had to find funding, get approval to attend negotiations and turn in homework early. I sent my teachers an email with an official school excuse from the United Nations and started packing. 

My email got two very different responses. Two of my professors could not have been more excited and helped me make arrangements for the classes that I would miss. But my one professor had a very different reaction. 

He requested that I go to his office hours to discuss my email, and when I arrived, his first question was about whether or not I thought it was right to miss two days of class right before fall break. 

Suddenly, I was questioning my entire decision to travel to New York. Was it appropriate? Was I jeopardizing my grades? Was I really going to miss classes for which I was already paying so much money?

I was very taken aback by his question, and defended myself with claims of networking and getting “real world experience” instead of attending class. My professor accepted my reasoning and excused my absence, but his initial response made me think about what counted as an education.

I went to New York that next week, and truly had the time of my life. I learned more than I ever thought possible in three days, and I came away with some of the best experiences of my life. (Walking through the employee entrance of the United Nations really boosts your self esteem.)

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what my professor said. Was I prioritizing the wrong experiences in my education? 

The line between traditional education and learning is forever blurry and changing. A traditional education is a timeless tool in life, but I think everyone can agree that learning is so much more than just going to school. In my opinion, I learned more in my three days at the United Nations than I would have learned in three days at school. It was a different kind of education, and a type of education that is not found elsewhere.

Notre Dame always talks about providing students with a “Notre Dame education” and creating opportunities that would not be possible at other schools. And, while this might be a strong claim, I can confidently say that I am forever better for taking advantage of these out-of-classroom opportunities.

In my opinion, maybe a Notre Dame education means being okay with missing a class in the name of attending a lecture that you are really interested in, or shadowing a professor in their professional field. Maybe it means that maybe it’s okay to sacrifice a few percentage points of your participation grade to learn directly from the professionals in your intended field. I’m not trying to encourage anyone to miss class flippantly, but maybe traditional classroom learning isn’t always the best way to learn. Learning is so much more than just sitting in classrooms everyday, and it took me a while to realize that. Sometimes, learning means throwing caution to the wind and flying halfway across the country to assist on an international treaty that you really do not feel qualified to assist with. Or maybe learning is just going to a super interesting lecture on campus and using an unexcused absence in a class. All I know is, no matter what my next out-of-the-classroom learning experience is, I definitely know what my choice will be.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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