“I Learned How to Learn”*

PRIME 2011, NICT Keihanna Research Labs, Kyoto, Japan

PRIME combines the benefits of study abroad experiences in preparing students as global professionals with the practical skill sets offered by a research internship. The application process in itself requires proactivity on the student's part in establishing connections with local and overseas mentors and researching resources for developing a project he/ she has an interest in. In addition to receiving a single academic credit, being provided a stipend, the student's own interest in the project should be the main motivation that sees the project to completion. Students inevitably encounter instances that require strong self-management and heavy critical thinking. Beyond just the summer, it is a prime opportunity to build real and lasting relationships. In this paper, I address how my experience in PRIME allowed me to learn skills that are difficult to obtain in a standard university classroom setting.

My personal experience in PRIME attests to the efficacy of the program in experiential learning. My Gallery Interactive was the result of a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary collaboration between UCSD's PRIME program, the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) in San Diego, and the National Institute of Information and Communication Technology (NICT) in Kyoto, Japan. Discussing my interest in design and user-experience with Dr. Jason Haga of the Bioengineering Department, he set up a meeting between me, my colleague and fellow PRIME student Lance Castillo, the then Deputy Director of MOPA Vivian Haga, and several members of the MOPA staff. Throughout our meetings, we defined the details behind what would become a touch table exhibit that would showcase the artistic content of MOPA on NICT's touch table technology, also built by a PRIME alumnus. The project would contribute heavily in my understanding of interface design, product development, user-testing, and interdisciplinary collaboration. The experience of the project was immensely educational. Technical skills aside, arguably more universal were the soft skills that I gained from the experience.

The scale of the project was certainly intimidating, given how many stakeholders were involved and the amount of freedom and control my colleague and I had over the project's design. Crucial to my ability to take on a project of this scale was learning how to self-manage. Unlike in a college course, the prospect of earning a good grade could not serve as a motivator. This kind of environment much more resembled the reality in the industry, which is why it was important for me to become involved in a project I had a passion for. As undergraduates, too often students apply for programs or get involved in projects solely as an addition to their resume without thoroughly thinking about whether it is truly where their interests lie (as I once did). Using my resume as motivation would not have been enough to realize my project's completion. Instead, I needed a curiosity to drive me to discover the intricacies in user-interface design and a genuine desire to deliver a strong and polished product for the exhibition. The same mindset of taking on projects that draw my interest and invoke excitement is how I am approaching my professional career. The best way undergraduates can discover their passions is through direct experience in a field.

As in any large project, problems were encountered, and roadblocks were inevitable. Learning how to address these problems was what made this experience profoundly educational-there are no answer books, professors, or TAs. We had to find solutions, be it through research, consulting experts, or trial-and-error experimentation. I learned how to learn. Importantly, I learned to pace myself when tackling difficult problems. Putting a roadblock on the backburner to tackle a separate issue, then returning to it later, oftentimes made the problem easier to solve. Critical thinking is certainly a skill exercised in the classroom. However, application of critical thinking to a project with such high accountability resting on my and my colleague's shoulders was different. We had to meet a hard deadline, and there were obviously no retakes or withdrawals. Instead, we had to come up with creative solutions to difficult problems.

Networking is often heavily emphasized to undergraduates. The concept is simple enough to grasp, but the actual practice of networking can be absolutely intimidating for many undergraduates, including myself. The intimidation stems from undergraduates' general unfamiliarity with the professional world, with its formalities and mannerisms. Students are often unsure of where to draw the line when expressing their individual personality in a professional setting. Networking becomes almost rigid, and students are intimidated by how artificial it may seem. I believe that arguably the most valuable experience in a study abroad experience -- PRIME or otherwise -- is that oftentimes it will push you to communicate with people far different than anyone you may have encountered before. These interactions test the limits of one's ability to find connections with people. I began to realize in my time abroad that usually the best way to establish a connection is by displaying your individual personality. The best interactions I had with my mentors and my coworkers were in fact after the work was over, where we socialized in an informal setting. Without the pressure of work, we were able to openly bring our personal lives into the conversation. This is something campus career services centers under-emphasize. Networking is not just about shaking hands, exchanging business cards, and having good posture. Networking is about being able to establish real and personal connections that can oftentimes transcend professional formalities. These are the kind of relationships that actually last beyond a project's completion.

PRIME is an archetype of experiential learning. The study abroad experience not only nurtures an internationally competent individual, it is truly a hyper-meet-and-greet. The internship builds strong self-management and critical thinking skills, in addition to a strong set of technical skills. The differences of an experience in the field or in the industry can often differ vastly from a classroom setting of the same subject matter. Granted, it is very possible that industry or field experience is less enjoyable than theoretical study in the classroom. Indeed, there were students who were initially passionate about their project that eventually found themselves disinterested. However, the value in that experience is the individual has a clearer understanding of their preferences, which is a very accurate template for how the professional world can and will be. Only by experiencing and filtering can someone eventually find their passion. These are lessons that are virtually impossible to get in a standard classroom experience.

*Excerpt from Experiential Learning: PRIME in Japan in “Education in Action,” pp. 37-42