Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Leah Nelson is HECUA’s student blogger for Media and Movements Fall 2021. Leah is a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in independent studies. Read on to hear Leah’s final reflections on their semester.
This is an open letter to anyone considering becoming a student of a HECUA program in the Twin Cities. As the semester is coming to a close, I am reflecting on the benefits of participating in a program that values experiential learning and community building.
Before starting college, I took two years off of my formal education. I wanted to make sure that earning a four year degree was actually what I needed in order to do the things I aspire to in life. During those two years I pursued my interest in childcare and education. I spent one year as a reading tutor for AmeriCorps and another year as a live-in nanny in Germany. Working these jobs was extremely formative in that I was able to develop social skills, discover my strengths and solidify my career choice. However, through the HECUA Media and Movements program, I have come to believe that experiential learning can be done effectively during college through intentional coursework, going on field trips, guest speaker visits, and, most importantly, individual internships. With HECUA, it is not necessary to take time off of college to experience what the “real world” has to offer. You will get an immersive experience as well as the skills and guidance you need to feel prepared and comfortable throughout the program.
When I transferred from Minneapolis Community and Technical College to the University of Minnesota (U of M), I was looking forward to all of the resources the U of M had to offer. With more money comes a bigger campus, bigger gyms, more course options, better rental equipment for filmmaking, and more scholarship opportunities and study abroad programs. However, when I started my semester as a transfer, I found it nearly impossible to make connections. In order to apply for most grad schools and other programs or jobs, it’s necessary to have letters of recommendation. In order to get letters of recommendation, your professors need to know who you are. Because of the large class sizes and hustle bustle culture, achieving first name basis with my professors at the U of M seemed nearly impossible, which made tracking them down after class just to have a conversation about my goals feel borderline intrusive. Lacking mentorship at the U of M, I learned that building professional relationships can be the most important resource provided by formal education.
Getting to know my professors and internship site supervisors this semester through HECUA has been easy and rewarding. My class size in the Media and Movements program is small with only six students. This has made class time much more personal and casual than at the U of M. My professor, Emily Oliver, has established herself as both an educator and mentor. She readily offers constructive feedback and career guidance. She is always reminding us that our projects for class can be used as part of a portfolio for job or grant applications. My internship at Open Eye Figure Theater has also given me role models to look up to and ask for advice. It has been extremely inspiring to work alongside artists that are already established in my community and working in their field. They give me hope that I can also make a career for myself doing the things that I am passionate about.
I have felt more at home in the classroom at HECUA than ever before because I have had ample opportunity to get to know my fellow classmates. Sharing our collective knowledge has been extremely special, as we all have different experiences and skills to offer. I have learned a lot from my classmates through group projects and regular class discussions. Our last project is a group project in which we produced our own short documentary. I was able to see the project come together from beginning to end but primarily took on the role of video editor. When I needed help understanding the editing software, my classmates were always ready to help me problem solve and learn something new together.
In high school, I was extremely angsty and rebellious regarding my education. I hated the American education system because it felt dedicated to persuading students to commit to doing busy work instead of committing to learning. In some ways, I am still raging against an American secondary education system that seems to emphasize this same ideology, all the while forcing an accumulation of student debt, which feels impossible to ever pay off. In order to survive this digging-myself-into-a-hole-doing-busy-work mentality, I found myself on autopilot for most of my educational career.
In contrast to other educational institutions, HECUA seems to actually prioritize a commitment to learning and practical application of knowledge. I call this investment learning, because you get out what you put into it. Investment learning depends on mindfulness, which is key to internalizing and remembering what you have learned so that you can apply it later on. Practicing mindfulness is a large part of our coursework, as we are assigned reflections every week. Mindful reflections help us to create meaning out of what we have learned throughout the course, instead of just reciting back information. Being a student blogger has also helped me be mindful of my education because I have had to consistently think about what I have found important to write about and share from my program. Mindfulness as a student also means understanding that committing to learning is a continuous choice that should be made consciously and with intentionality. In HECUA, this choice does not feel difficult, as there is no busy work and the classroom structure is more democratic than traditional instructor-student dynamics.
Even though a HECUA program is slightly more expensive than a regular semester at the U of M, I feel that is more valuable. I have made professional connections that have already helped me attain exciting career opportunities for the future. I feel more connected to my community through the relationships I have been able to develop with my professors, internship supervisors, classmates and guest speakers and the organizations that they represent. My internship has given me the opportunity to apply my knowledge and has solidified my commitment to my career interests. Going to school at a smaller organization that supports a democratic classroom has allowed me the autonomy to be personally invested in my education. I would recommend HECUA to anyone who feels that they want to more deeply engage with their learning and fully prepare for a future after graduation.