What in the world is a WTE

Ben Fitch

It’s an opportunity to some, a burden to others, but a graduation requirement for nearly everyone. Still, many people are asking just what exactly is the Washburn Transformational Experience?

Donna LaLonde, dean of honors program and director of the scholarly or creative transformational experience, worked on the assessment committee that originally implemented the graduation requirement. She said the goal is to help students develop a deeper sense of the world to see how they fit into the global environment.

Students can choose from four tracks to fulfill their experience: by completing a scholarly or creative activity, 150 hours of community service, by serving in a leadership role, or participating in international education.

“The four areas come from strengths that we witnessed already happening on campus,” LaLonde said. “We saw that faculty and staff [were] already doing this.”

Each of the transformational experiences has common requirements. As outlined on the transformational experience Web site, a student working to complete his or her transformational experience will first: identify a project and meet with a mentor in the area, typically an advisor or director. Then the student must make a declaration which can be done at my.washburn.edu. After the student has declared his or her transformational experience, he or she will complete an activity plan which includes a description of the project, goals, objectives, a budget and an estimated time line for completion. The student then completes the project according to their outline and submits a report about the experience in a formal public presentation.

Washburn approved the transformational experience as a requirement for graduation the fall semester of 2006, so some seniors graduating this semester are not required to complete the experience. However, students are generally advised by the directors to start thinking about their project during their freshman year.

“From my perspective, the most powerful experience would come from taking your freshman and sophomore year to ask questions and talk to your advisor,” said LaLonde. “Find out about the program. My rule of thumb would be to try to have the entire experience completed one semester before your intended semester of graduation.”

However, this suggestion may not be consistent with the other three tracks. Rick Ellis, director of LinC, the center for community service, civic engagement and the director of the community service transformational experience, said the experience of working with people has helped many students decide whether they want to pursue certain majors; a valuable insight during a student’s freshman or sophomore year.

“If you go to Let’s Help and all you do is stir peas for 150 hours, then you leave saying, ‘all I did was stir peas,'” said Ellis, “but if you know why you are stirring those peas and who they are feeding, the experience has a much greater impact.”

For international studies, Baili Zhang, director of international programs and director of the study abroad transformational experience, suggests students start thinking about their projects by deciding where they would like to go. Then, during the students’ sophomore or junior years they should begin planning their projects.

There are four options for students considering international education. Students can participate in an exchange program with a foreign “sister” university, which maintains an exchange agreement with Washburn, or students may participate in exchange programs offered by other accredited universities or consortiums. A student may also participate in a foreign internship, or, in some cases, complete a study with an international institution that is supervised but not approved by Washburn international programs.

“Some students may go for a few weeks, some for a semester or even a year,” said Zhang. During this time they would fulfill two major categories: taking classes and field studies.

“You learn how people live, behave and think, which is important today when the world economy is highly integrated,” said Zhang. “I think it is transformational in a sense where you learn about other people and more about yourself. There is no better way than to live it.”

Zhang said international studies may not be for all students. Some may choose not to study abroad because of financial reasons, or they may be anxious about traveling.

Students can complete scholarly or creative transformational experiences by completing a project which involves extensive research outside of a structured class setting. Then, students will present their findings in a public setting.

To complete a leadership transformational experience, students must take at least three hours of college course work consisting of the academic study of leadership, and pass with a “C” or better. They must also complete 150 hours of work in a leadership role.

Jeff Mott, director of the institute for the study and practice of leadership and director of the leadership transformational experience, said many of the options for transformational experience may converge.

“Leadership is in everything,” said Mott, adding that there are two prominent features of leadership: self awareness and the understanding of relatable systems, which are common facets to many of the projects that students complete for their transformational experience.

For example, the first year Rick Ellis took a group of students to Nicaragua, they dug trenches and laid pipe to 24 homes in a community that lacked running water. Ellis said he never got to see the water run because the pumps broke, but during a later visit he learned the problem was being worked out. The students who worked on the project had committed to community service, traveled internationally and served in leadership roles.

In fact, students have the opportunity to complete more than one transformational experience. While completing just one fulfills the requirement for graduation, Ellis said many students want to do more because they consider the experience valuable.

“It’s amazing the stories you hear,” said Mott. “If harnessed in the right way, the transformational experience can have a strong impact. I believe in it, we just need to smooth the rough edges. It is a continuous work in progress.”

Mott said communication will need to improve with the program, but otherwise he sees it as a great opportunity.

The program also offers funds for students seeking financial help with their projects. Students can formally apply for grants and scholarships, which are typical for completion of international studies and scholarly or creative projects.

Lalonde said she believed the transformation experience can be one of the most meaningful experiences an undergraduate has. The program distinguishes Washburn from other universities that do not have the same requirement.

“It is what you want it to be,” said Mott. “You get out what you put in.”