MTSU EXL Program selects top students, faculty, administrator

MTSU’s Experiential Learning Program wrapped up the latest academic year by honoring the top students, faculty and administrator who demonstrated excellence through their participation in and support of the hands-on curriculum program.

EXL is designed to boost student learning through practical experiences in their fields of study beyond the traditional classroom and to engage the student directly in service. More than 200 courses are now approved as EXL courses universitywide.EXL color logo web

In addition to taking EXL courses, students can sign up to be EXL Scholars, which requires them to complete assessment activities, including an e-portfolio, and perform an MTSU service component to receive the designation as an EXL scholar upon graduation.

The program, which is in its ninth year, contributes an estimated $5 million-plus to the community each year through student volunteer efforts provided through their coursework.

Nominations are solicited each year for the EXL awards for students, faculty, administrator and community partner with “distinguished records of service/activity in the EXL Program.” The MTSU EXL Scholars Committee selects the winners. The Outstanding Community Partner winners will be announced at a later date.

Recipients of the Outstanding EXL Student Award are chosen based upon their EXL courses completed, samples of coursework from Experiential Learning projects and a reflective essay demonstrating vision and leadership in EXL projects and activities and the impact of those projects and activities on the community.

Outstanding EXL Student Awards

Brittany Gardner is scheduled to graduate with an art education degree in fall 2015, her second bachelor’s degree. In her nomination letter, EXL faculty member and art professor Debrah Sickler-Voigt praised Gardner for her efforts during a study-abroad trip last year to Scandinavia.

Brittany Gardner

Brittany Gardner

“Brittany served as a leader and mentor to her fellow classmates, Scandinavian teachers and Scandinavian schoolchildren,” said Sickler-Voigt, who noted that Gardner designed art lesson plans and taught photography lessons as well.

After three weeks of teaching in Scandinavia, Gardner returned to campus to develop an international art exhibition in the Todd Art Gallery based on her EXL experiences with her peers. The exhibition, entitled “Passport to Happiness,” received many community accolades.

Farah Hirani, who graduated in May with a nursing degree, was honored for her involvement with the School of Nursing and other campus organizations.

Farah Hirani

Farah Hirani

She served as president and fundraising chair of the Student Nursing Association and also served as a senator within the Student Government Association. As a nurse, Hirani has participated in work with Camp Hope, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Nissan flu shot clinic, Relay for Life and other local organizations.

“I love to volunteer and keep busy,” Hirani said. “Not only do I believe a leader is someone who makes good grades but gives back to their school and their community.”

Richard Dustin Parker

Richard Dustin Parker

Before graduating in May on the Dean’s List, Richard Dustin Parker completed 40 hours of EXL courses that he admitted “completely changed the way that I have thought about teaching and learning.”

“I have always been a hands-on learner, and once I found out about the Organizational Communication major courses being almost completely available in EXL, I knew I had found my home at MTSU,” he said.

Parker praised EXL for allowing students to not only learn material in class, but teaching them “how to apply it in the world outside of academia through research, volunteering, donation drives, and other service projects.”

While such projects can be challenging, he said, they “prove to be great learning experiences” by requiring students to use leadership skills and theories they learn in class while also helping the community through service projects.

Outstanding EXL Faculty Awards

Dr. Jackie Gilbert, professor of management in the Jennings A. Jones College of Business, was honored for incorporating community service into her courses, particularly in regard to her anti-bullying efforts.

Gilbert’s Principles of Management courses emphasize student teamwork in support of her belief that working with peers and producing viable products are invaluable skills. In fall 2013, Gilbert’s class used the “flipped classroom” approach in which students became the teachers of course concepts.

Dr. Jackie Gilbert

Dr. Jackie Gilbert

“Taking a proactive part in their learning (by teaching their peers) helps them to build confidence, and to develop skills they will need as managers,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert’s “anti-bullying” initiatives date back to 2011, and since then she has provided her students with hands-on opportunities to work with area high schools and executives with automaker Nissan North America for example while also enlisting the cooperation of area business professional in advisory and guest speaking capacities. Those efforts resulted in prominent coverage in area print and television media.

Dr. Janet McCormick, a professor in Organizational Communication, was honored again for her efforts to promote EXL. The first recipient of the MTSU EXL Outstanding Faculty Award in 2010, McCormick continues to be “adamant about including EXL activities in each of her courses,” the selection committee noted.

Dr. Janet McCormick

Dr. Janet McCormick

McCormick has been a pioneer in the EXL Scholars Program and has taught 16 unique courses offered in multiple EXL formats. Since the EXL program began in spring 2006, she has served as an EXL Faculty mentor as well.

In nominating McCormick for the award, student Richard Dustin Parker called her “a fantastic instructor” with “a positive attitude that is contagious to all those that she interacts with. There are several instructors that I have had over the course of my collegiate career, but Dr. McCormick has been one of the most impacting professors that I have ever had,” he said.

McCormick said that while her classes can be high energy and fun, she maintains high standards and expectations for students, particularly in regard to community involvement and developing relationships outsides of the classroom.

“I believe wholeheartedly in the mission of the EXL program, which encourages students to ‘learn by doing,’” she said.

Dr. Lisa Sheehan-Smith, associate professor in Nutrition and Food Science, considers both student growth and community service when designing her EXL courses, the selection committee noted. Sheehan-Smith has provided her students with opportunities in the community to perform nutrition workshops in local schools and organizations.

Dr. Lisa Sheehan-Smith

Dr. Lisa Sheehan-Smith

Dr. Tom Brinthaupt, director of faculty development, nominated Sheehan-Smith, stating, “Her mentoring of students and use of innovative experiences for them is exemplary. She is very worthy of this award.”

Sheehan-Smith has mentored Department of Human Sciences faculty in revising existing courses and developing new courses to meet the EXL criteria. In addition, after revising the Nutrition and Food Sciences-Dietetics curriculum to increase the number of required EXL courses, students can now graduate as EXL scholars.

“It was a proud moment to watch our first students presented as EXL Scholars at the May 2014 commencement,” Sheehan-Smith said. “Through the courses I teach, I feel MTSU students have made a tremendous impact in our community.”

Outstanding EXL Administrator Award

Carol Swayze, director of the EXL Scholars Program, was recognized for her tireless promotion and support of the EXL program.

Carol Swayze

Carol Swayze

Dr. Mary Evins, associate research professor in the Center for Historic Preservation, nominated Swayze.

“She has done a simply spectacular job and should be recognized for her excellence,” Evins said of Swayze. “She promotes the program at every opportunity. She works to insert engagement in every meaningful MTSU objective and document that she can impact.”

Evins noted that Swayze supports EXL classes, activities, students and faculty “in full measure.”

“Carol understands the worth of the work she’s been charged with and engages in it with vision, dedication, energy, and unparalleled commitment,” Evins said. “She applies herself to grow the program more with every semester she’s here.”

For more information about the MTSU Experiential Learning Program, visit www.mtsu.edu/exl.

— Jimmy Hart (jimmy.hart@mtsu.edu)