Transformational experience receives mixed reviews from students

Ben Fitch

Student opinions about the Washburn Transformational Experience are varied and rarely absolute. Some who have completed the experience said they were pleased with the outcome and some said they weren’t. But no one said they thought it should be a requirement to graduate.

Travis Byers, a senior German and management major, was not required to complete the transformational experience because of his catalogue year, but he did it anyway.

“Any activity that helps students finance study abroad is worth it,” he said.

Byers has traveled to Germany three times during his academic career. All trips were school related, and the modern languages department awarded Byers $3,500 for his most recent trip: studying in Osnabrück, Germany. Now, Byers is completing the transformational experience by traveling to China, where he will meet with one of Washburn’s sister schools to work on a business project. The transformational experience scholarship fund awarded Byers $900 to go.

“All I did was write one paper, filled out the paper work, and got some references,” he said. “It was a good way to convert my work into cash.”

But because the transformational experience is a requirement, more students will study abroad, which means there is less money available for each individual.

“The smaller the group is, the more generous the pool,” said Tina Williams, coordinator of international studies. “But so far it hasn’t been a problem to send students overseas.”

The direct exchange programs, offered by the international studies department, are the most affordable. There are 25 different programs which award anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 to students studying internationally. The 12 faculty-led or departmental programs typically award less money for studying abroad because financing is left up to the leader of the trip. For example, Rick Ellis conducts fund raising each year with the group he takes to Nicaragua. The money raised helps fund the trip in addition to money awarded by the international studies department.

The transformational experience scholarship fund also helps finance scholarly or creative projects.

John Barry traveled to Ledyard, Conn. to conduct primary document research on the Pequot Tribe’s Reservation. The trip cost about $1,200 and the transformational experience fund covered almost all of it.

“I would not have been able to do it without the WTE program,” said Barry. “The paperwork was a bit irritating. I think that the staff could benefit from completing mock WTE paperwork, so they could see the work that students have to put into it.”

Byers said international studies were worth the work, but that the transformational experience program still has some problems.

“The problem doesn’t lie within the WTE, but in the departments of the WTE,” he said. “I didn’t need a required program to show me that I had been transformed. What student who goes through college doesn’t get transformed?”

Mark Bigler, a senior economics major, would not have otherwise been required to complete the transformational experience, but it was necessary because he transferred to Washburn in the fall of 2007. Bigler went to McAllen, Texas, and worked with an organization called Women United, a shelter for battered women to complete a community service transformational experience.

“The experience itself was rewarding,” said Bigler, “but the WTE program is completely useless. I wouldn’t have come to Washburn if I’d known I had to do this thing. I didn’t find out about it until after a year in.”

Bigler said completing 150 hours of community service was an opportunity cost because it was time spent that could have been spent earning money. Bigler graduates in May and he said having the experience as an addition to his resume has not been beneficial. He has talked to eight employers, none of whom brought up the experience during interviews. In fact, employers tend to be more impressed with experiences students have had at paid internships.

“A solution would be to include internships as a way to fulfill the TE,” said Bigler. “Students have bills to pay. I can’t spend that much time doing un-paid work.”

Bigler made $1,500 this semester through paid internships.

“I think that if Washburn does not get rid of this program soon, that they will be out of business,” said Bigler. “Washburn enrollment is down, and it could be that people don’t want to go to Washburn because of the WTE.”

Jessica Avers, junior, has not yet completed a transformational experience, but she will be traveling to Nicaragua in January. She said she thinks the transformational experience could have made a difference in her decision to come to Washburn.

“I’m not a big fan of it being required,” said Avers. “I’m really excited about the trip, but I think it should be something that’s optional.”

Byers said the program should try to be flexible with students.

“Washburn isn’t trying to attack the students,” said Byers. “They are doing it because they know it is important. This is an excellent way, if used properly, to make career networks. I’d let Washburn pay me any day to go to Germany.”