Activities, outside of academics and internship open up opportunities and expand one’s horizon of learning.

A group of students from my department just finished a project that had no direct relationship with their academic programme. Working in small groups, they had made a set of short documentaries at the request of a local consortium working on civic issues in the city. As media students, the project was in line with their skills and training. They had the opportunity to generate ideas and defend them, create a product for a specific purpose, and exhibit this to an audience. The entire task called for a concentrated amount of work over a very short period. No marks, of course, but a lot of appreciation, and the opening up of opportunities to showcase their talents in a new and purposeful way.

Most professional schools offer opportunities to students to get involved in projects outside the classroom. However, I find that a very small percentage of students actually respond to announcements or calls for participation in such projects. By and large, these projects do not come with payment; in the few cases that remuneration is offered, it is just a token amount that covers the cost of transportation and incidentals. Perhaps this is what discourages young people from taking part. Many of them see it as taking time away from their main studies, and as no marks are awarded for such “outside” projects, it is seen as a wasted effort. Worse, it is seen as “real work” without pay!

Something meaningful

After the film screenings, one of the students observed that it felt really good to have done “something meaningful” for a “real” purpose. The work was not judged by the kind (or impatient) eye of a teacher who wants to ensure that learning had taken place, but by a critical and unforgiving audience whose only interest was its intrinsic merit. Of course, responses may also be laced with politeness at times, but this doesn’t last very long, and honesty usually surfaces.

For those pursuing professional degrees — or programmes that have a strong skills component — much of the real learning happens outside the lecture class: in the laboratory or studio, for instance, where one applies the principles discussed. The “practicals” give us a good sense of how much we have learned and understood, and whether we will be able to handle the requirements of a job that calls for those skills. But the truth is, these practical exercises that we do within the framework of a course often just turn into assignments done for no other purpose than getting those marks. I’m sure you’ll agree that you end up doing them just to complete the requirements, with little or no focus on the product itself.

Getting involved in projects that carry no credit may seem like a lot of extra work with no reward, but they offer opportunities for unexpected and different kinds of learning. They provide a taste of how well prepared we are for the job market, for one. They also allow us to experience a different sort of team dynamic, calling for a more focused and goal-oriented interaction within the group than is usually possible in a course assignment. And of course, they also give us a way to make connections with the outside world that could come in useful when looking for a job.

Watch your teachers at work

Most colleges and universities offer plenty of opportunities to get involved in work related closely to the subject of study. Some departments and schools bring out a newsletter, for instance, or host a web site or blog, to which students are the main contributors. Science departments are often involved in funded projects in which faculty sometimes involve students at the level of data collection, data entry or laboratory management. While such projects may carry some funding for student assistants, many do not. Getting involved in such projects not only adds to your resume, but also helps build close relationships with the faculty. You can actually watch your teachers at work (instead of only listening to them talk) and learn many lessons that do not find their way into lectures, including such soft skills as negotiating the boundaries of a project, setting timelines and planning work schedules to meet commitments. You’ll also find that often there’s a certain informality about interacting in such spaces that is different from the interaction in the classroom.

Working on professional or academic projects outside the coursework is different from volunteering or participating in community activities. The former is linked to your specific disciplinary training and generally calls for some level of academic or professional skill, while the latter usually demands interest and maybe, social commitment. And unlike an internship, it is not required or built into your degree programme. Generally, potential employers (or graduate schools in foreign universities) view these as examples of different skill sets — the first provides evidence of your ability to apply the principles of a discipline, while the second gives a sense of how you engage with the world in a wider sense.

As the students and I sat winding down over ice cream cones after the screening, it struck me that these projects also offer important lessons for me. Just as the students see a different side of me in my engagement with the outside world, I am able to see them as who they are — young people trying to find a place in that world. And that’s an important lesson that I carry back into the classroom with me.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus magazine. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com