I was at the bedside of a Nicaraguan newborn. Suddenly, his hand clenched around my finger as he burst into tears. When I saw purple patches of blood engulfing his tiny belly, I began to recognize the true fragility of human life. His desperate cry for help paralyzed my body as it made me understand the excruciating pain of a devastating illness. I was with one of the country’s top pediatricians as he searched through the medical literature trying to find a solution, or even a glimmer of hope for the new life in front of us. The newborn fought and struggled until the end, when the disease extinguished his last flame of life.
Over the past four years, my experience as a volunteer therapist for elderly cancer patients has exposed me to the same fragility of human life at the other end of the spectrum. These encounters are by far my most significant experiences in the classroom.
No, this is not the traditional lecture theatre filled with 300 postsecondary students memorizing every minuscule detail mentioned by the prof, so they can ace a midterm. This is a classroom called life: a classroom where collaboration matters, diversity counts and innovation lives.
The role of postsecondary education is to prepare students for careers that they wish to pursue. However, classrooms traditionally confined students within a box, both physically and intellectually. The knowledge taught might be foundational, but its purpose often remains unclear. At some point in their education, most of my peers in the sciences probably have asked: Why does it matter if we know regression equations? When are we ever going to use stoichiometry in real life? The cell’s receptors are cool but how does it apply to me? Without a purpose, we learn for the sake of exams, not for the sake of learning.
A distinguishing trait of the classroom called life is its purpose. Regardless of our field of study, we have picked it for a reason and are driven by an innate interest to learn more. Regardless of our choice of career, we will be working with diverse teams and will contribute to building our society. As a result, it is critical that postsecondary institutions implement initiatives that help define the purpose of students’ education and promote a multidisciplinary approach. These should not be viewed as extracurricular activities because they are not “extra.” They are pivotal experiences for students to apply our learning in the real world. If education is meant to prepare students for life, then what can be a better classroom than life itself?
Our infrastructures might be set in stone but our education does not have to be. Postsecondary institutions need to provide service learning initiatives, trans-faculty collaborative projects, and diverse internship opportunities so that students can contextualize their education while learning to collaborate with others from unique fields to achieve a common goal. Furthermore, classroom learning should provide ample hands-on opportunities and emphasize the purpose of the information being taught in the real world. This is the bilateral structure that will define postsecondary education in the 21st century.
My experiences working with cancer patients, teaching in the Global Health Program with professors, and implementing social justice projects with peers from diverse backgrounds shaped the purpose of my education. In the classroom called life, I saw the devastation of diseases but I was also shown the miracles that knowledge and teamwork create. My education has served its purpose because it granted me the capacity to create miracles. Fueled by this purpose, my research over the past three years allowed me to apply my education in parallel, to bring medical innovation to patients. As a scientist, I rely on regression equations to test new cancer therapies, I count on stoichiometry to establish a safe dose of drug, and those cell receptors establish the foundation to unravel novel treatment targets and rekindle the flame of life.
The newborn’s image stays with me until this day because patients like him are my purpose in the classroom called life. I am learning to heal, to innovate, and to provide hope. As we embark on a new age of human history in the 21st century, the classroom called life will become the hallmark of postsecondary education.
This is the seventh installment of our series Student Voices written by the 10 Canadian postsecondary students who were named 2014 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada.