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Virginia Commonwealth University: 100% Student Participation in Transformative Experiential Learning

In 2016, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) made a targeted effort to ensure that all students have access to experiential learning. Now, 100% of their student population participates in at least one experiential learning opportunity before they graduate. Learn how Dr. Erin Webster Garrett, VCU’s Associate Vice Provost mapped, launched, and scaled VCU’s initiative for Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning (REAL).




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Note: this article mentions Student Opportunity Center, or SOC, which became a PeopleGrove company in 2023.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and its academic health sciences center serve as one national urban public research institution dedicated to the success and well-being of students, patients, faculty, staff and community through:

  • Real-world learning that furthers civic engagement, inquiry, discovery and innovation
  • Research that expands the boundaries of new knowledge and creative expression and promotes translational applications to improve the quality of human life
  • Interdisciplinary collaborations and community partnerships that advance innovation, enhance cultural and economic vitality, and solve society’s most complex challenges
  • Health sciences that preserve and restore health for all people, seek the cause and cure of diseases through groundbreaking research and educate those who serve humanity
  • Deeply ingrained core values of diversity, inclusion and equity that provide a safe, trusting and supportive environment to explore, create, learn and serve

VCU’s REAL initiative ensures that all VCU students engage in transformative, career-building activities that connect classroom knowledge to real-world experience, that create novel approaches to complex problems, and that contribute actions that benefit our educational, professional, and civil communities.

What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential Learning (EL) is a way for students to “learn by doing.” Whether on or off campus, students experience EL through internships, capstone projects, studying abroad, volunteering, undergraduate research, student teaching, and more. Modern institutions believe that getting exposure to different types of learning environments will foster a more well-rounded, informed, and fulfilled student.

Filling Experiential Learning Gaps

There is an appetite for experiential learning from students; studying abroad and taking internships for academic credit are typically appealing. However, VCU started to notice gaps in their student experiential learning in 2016. They identified an unevenness in student participation with students from certain demographic groups and students from specific disciplines. The challenge was knowing which gaps were real and which were simply gaps in data and reporting. Following an intensive self-study, they identified three barriers to equitable student participation: gaps in information on how to find opportunities and why these experiences are important, gaps in the connection between the curriculum and co-curriculum, and gaps in access. VCU realized that there just wasn’t enough information around what experiential learning is, and how to take advantage of these opportunities as a student.

Their goal was lofty: 100% student participation within 3 years. But, a systematic increase in experiential learning was and still is top-of-mind for VCU President Michael Rao who shared that “VCU puts students and patients first and produces transformative innovation in education, research, and healthcare."

To fill these participation gaps and prepare students for the future of work, campus stakeholders including REAL, as well as VCU’s academic units and Student Success and Career Services Offices have partnered to take on three goals:

  • Expand the engagement of internal stakeholders and of business and industry leaders 
  • Establish student pathways and pipelines through a career counseling model 
  • Target technology investments to increase student access to employment, experiential learning activities, and employer engagement events and provide verifiable records of participation 
VCU’s REAL initiative ensures that all VCU students engage in transformative, career-building activities that connect classroom knowledge to real-world experience, that create novel approaches to complex problems, and that contribute actions that benefit our educational, professional, and civil communities.
Dr. Erin Webster Garrett
Associate Vice Provost for Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning (REAL)
Virginia Commonwealth University

Mapping the Experiential Learning Ecosystem

In 2018, Webster Garrett joined VCU to turn REAL into a reality. Along with other stakeholders and a strong task force, Webster Garrett led a team to assess experiential learning opportunities which defined signature characteristics of experiential learning at VCU. Through this process, a REAL taxonomy was developed. In 2019, this taxonomy was applied to the experiential learning ecosystem and documented in the student information system through a set of codes and processes collaboratively developed with the Office of Registrar. This enabled REAL to partner with Student Opportunity Center (now PeopleGrove) to track experiences on and off campus, and the participation rate of each. These experiential learning opportunities range from internships to study abroad, capstones, and others. 

One of the greatest challenges for experiential learning initiatives is connecting students with the right information at the right time. Students feel overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information they have to filter through, and the inequity in information is one of the problems we have been addressing during our partnership with SOC (now PeopleGrove).
Dr. Erin Webster Garrett
Experiential and Applied Learning (REAL)
Virginia Commonwealth University

Webster Garrett and her team then launched the REAL Council – a standing committee that serves as an advisory board and curriculum committee. The Council is made up of six groups tasked with diving deeper into focus areas of experiential learning – including the REAL Curriculum Committee responsible for evaluating applications for REAL classification. Trained reviewers apply each REAL taxonomic level–ranging from level 1 through level 4. These levels represent the type and intensity of each experiential learning opportunity:

  • Level one experiences are exposure opportunities like volunteering, joining a student club or organization, and or attending a research forum.
  • Level two experiences are often exploratory, involve a reflection or mentorship component and often include service-or work-based opportunities, such as career-shadowing, work study research assistantship, and being part of a mentoring program.
  • Level three experiences are both reflection and mentorship opportunities, and often include study abroad opportunities, leadership experiences, some work-study assistantships, and select internships.
  • Level four experiences engage mentorship, reflection, and are also focused on translation of experiences into new experiences. These activities include a generation of new knowledge such as theses and dissertations, advanced client-based projects and internships, and serving as a Super Mentor.

Mapping each experience in the opportunity ecosystem creates a comprehensive picture at VCU–helping to establish how to measure growth, identify which student populations have access to experiential learning, and which do not. 

As we have developed our infrastructure, SOC’s team (now PeopleGrove) has helped us think about strategy and operations at REAL. The platform introduces students to a wide variety of experiential learning activities and allows them to find opportunities, on their own time, that they might not have known about otherwise. On the other side of the equation, departments have been discovering how SOC removes many of the barriers for tracking experiential learning. SOC is an important part of our holistic approach to career readiness at VCU.
Dr. Erin Webster-Garrett
Associate Vice Provost for Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning (REAL)
Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU at 100% Participation

VCU’s vision of 100% experiential learning participation rate affects more than just students; faculty are now able to embed and manage REAL opportunities within their courses, and administration can centralize and report REAL opportunities on the academic transcript which has been modified to include approved REAL level 3 and 4 co-curricular experiences.

With the guidance of SOC experts, VCU promoted REAL with a newsletter announcement, email campaigns, advising sessions, events, and flyers. In Fall 2020, VCU began to strategically grow through centralized marketing–highlighting for students how REAL creates a one-stop-shop for experiential learning opportunities, how faculty can embed REAL into their curriculum, and how administrators can tag and centralize participation rates and target experiential learning “deserts.”

The research-based implementation process combined with the technological components of SOC have resulted in 22,908 opportunities and 91,456 participation data points from 2019-2023. As VCU continues to reach 100% participation rate, Webster Garrett and her team are working on connecting experiential learning to career access with PeopleGrove,

expanding the scope and richness of the participation data captured with the platform on the co-curricular side.

I am excited about the next phase of its development through partnership with People Grove. This will better help our students participate in meaningful learning activities and develop strong mentor relationships. Our goal is increased graduation and retention rates, and strong post-graduation outcomes for our students, and this partnership promises to be a great resource for us.
Dr. Erin Webster Garrett
Associate Vice Provost for Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning (REAL)
Virginia Commonwealth University