The Anchor: Experiential Learning at HDS

December 1, 2015
Amanda Napior
MDiv candidate Amanda Napior

In 2013, Harvard Divinity School student Amanda Napior spent the summer working at the Berkshire County House of Correction (BCHC).

"I taught an American religious history course and a course on creative writing for personal development. I also started a meditation program when I was there and taught yoga for a group of women during the first three weeks."

Napior's work at the BCHC was part of HDS's master of divinity program.

"Experiential learning anchors everything MDiv students do at HDS," says Emily Click, assistant dean for ministry studies. "In the classroom, they study ancient faith traditions that encourage them to listen to people on the margins of society, and then do just that in the world beyond campus. It’s a transformative experience that you don’t get in another educational environment."

Click says that students combine learning in field experiences with more traditional classroom studies. This combination proves enriching to developing theoretical understandings, and enlivens practice. The School's field education program offers students over 100 accredited sites for hands-on learning, including parishes; colleges, universities, and schools; hospitals and clinics; and dozens of nonprofits and community-based organizations.

Moreover, the program often allows students to initiate new and innovative placements of their own in order to “cultivate theological imagination.”

"A student will come in and say, 'I'd really like to work with homeless people in Guatemala,' " Click says. "So I push them to think about what that would look like: 'I want to work on education for the children living in garbage dumps.' I never overpromise that we can fund it, but most of the time, we make it happen."

The program made it happen for Nick Zehner last summer. The second-year MDiv student traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to improve nutrition and health education through IMA World Health's Access to Primary Care Initiative. As an intern at the Good Shepherd Hospital in Tshikaji, Zehner visited families to help collect data on child malnutrition, analyze the information, and establish a database for interventions.

"You can intellectually know how the majority of the world lives, but you don't really understand until you experience it."

"Experiences like these reorganize my worldview and remind me of what's truly important," he says.

"You can intellectually know how the majority of the world lives, but you don't really understand until you experience it. It enables you to integrate ministry in the real world of pain, brokenness, and sorrow with theological reflection and classroom exploration."

HDS not only brings students out of the classroom, it often brings the classroom itself into the field. Last March, 15 students in Professor Diane Moore's course, "Border Crossings: Immigration in America," traveled from the Boston area to Tucson, Arizona, where they spent part of their spring break engaging with all sides of the immigration issue. Moore says that the trip was "an opportunity for students to have discussions with all different kinds of players in this challenging situation."

"This is a question about what it means to be an American," she explains, "to say that we are, and to take pride in our multicultural, multireligious diversity, yet have policies that are so profoundly discordant with that value. Bringing HDS students to Tuscon helped them think about how to facilitate better conversations about these really challenging questions, which we have very little experience doing in public discourse today."

HDS's field education program is one of the most rigorous aspects of the School's curriculum. Each unit requires at least 350 hours, which includes weekly supervision, preparation, and travel. Many students devote 12 to 15 hours a week to their field placement throughout the academic year. Some, like Napior, work full time at a placement. All must take at least two units while at HDS. Students often want to do more—and Click encourages them, but with a word of caution.

"I always say to students, 'Think of the hardest course that you've taken, either in college or at HDS,' " says Click. " 'Did you really spend 12 to 15 hours on that course every week?' Sometimes a student can think of one, but it's usually not the case."

Napior's schedule during the summer of 2013 was hectic. She was onsite Monday through Friday by 7:45 am to teach daily meditation. She taught American religious history Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; creative writing Tuesday and Thursday. In between, she met with students, planned and prepared for classes, and reviewed assignments.

"I was onsite at the facility well over 20 hours every week, but that didn't include preparation and work outside of class," she says. "The first couple of weeks I worked over 60 hours, but by the end of the summer I had gotten down to an average of 42 or 43 hours a week."

A main reason for the transformative impact of the HDS field education experience is "Meaning Making," an innovative course designed specifically to accompany placement. Supervised by Click and Associate Dean for Ministry Studies Dudley Rose, "Meaning Making" is taught in multifaith sections by Buddhist, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and other leaders. The course encourages engagement across religions and develops the skill of reflection, as well as the ability to communicate fluently and powerfully at life's most difficult moments.

"When you're in an intensive care unit with a 24-year-old with end-stage melanoma, you have to be able to speak in the moment," Click explains. "In the context of a vibrant academic program and practical experiences, 'Meaning Making' equips students to engage with challenges and generate knowledge within real-life situations."

According to Click, who left sunny southern California to come to Cambridge in 2006, experiential learning is one of the main reasons why HDS stands out among peer institutions. She says that the School commits resources to provide students with opportunities that are "unparalleled" in theological education.

"Money makes a difference," Click says. "If you're underfunded, it's like driving an old car with bad tires on a road with potholes: every quarter mile you have to get out and change the tire. HDS gives me the resources to empower students whose imaginations exceed my own."

The field education program enabled Amanda Napior to make her vision of academic ministry a reality. Last summer, she returned to the BCHC to teach a class called "Letters from Prison." The course combined close readings of imprisoned social and religious leaders with creative writing and mindfulness. She says that, through her placement, HDS has provided her with "the most life-giving experience I've ever had."

"There’s something about being in service that serves oneself," she says. "I had such an incredible experience of empowerment last summer teaching religious studies to incarcerated people. I just loved working with them. It really was the best three months of my life."

by Paul Massari