Republished from University Affairs:

Almost a year ago, 10 Canadian postsecondary students were named 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada. The annual award honours up to 10 university and college students who have shown outstanding leadership in their lives and at school. The 2014 cohort chose, as a capstone project, to write a series to start a discussion on “the importance of adapting postsecondary [education] to the needs of learners in the 21st century.”

University Affairs was delighted to be asked by these student leaders to act as the forum to present their views to the broader postsecondary community. The opinion pieces, each by a 3M student fellow, will run in this space between February and April 2015.

By: Shwetha Chandrashekhar, 2014 3M National Student Fellow

This is my sixth year as an undergraduate student. Yet it is only my third year as a learner. My story is neither singular nor uncommon. In fact, I’m part of a heavy cohort of students across the nation, who extend well beyond the four years the Canadian undergraduate journey is structured to bid. From my years transitioning between learning inside and outside the classroom, here is my perspective on why our country has outlived its systems of formal postsecondary education.

University as we know it and live it, is a socially and culturally formative experience – it’s a given. It offers a platform for future leaders, pioneers, change-makers, workers and dreamers to grow, to question, to rebel and to flourish. However, despite this transient dynamic, the modern-day university continues to remain rooted in infrastructure insistently seeded into tradition. This is so much so that our constructs of curriculum today have outgrown the times we live and work in. And so, this idea of a higher education institution we are frantically clinging on to has become archaic and obsolete. This is mostly a reflection of the intent behind postsecondary education, which routinely embraces a mission to “educate” learners and consequently prepare “employees” for the real world.

Yet, we stand today at a turning point that rightfully questions: is this all we need as an ever-evolving society today? Book-bred employees? How do we reposition our systems of formal education to conceive, encourage and birth tomorrow’s leaders, entrepreneurs, social activists and conscious citizens? How do we provide our society with the human capital it urgently requires to move forward, to evolve and to adapt to times ahead that are changing more rapidly than we’ve ever been accustomed to?

We can only begin to answer these questions when we as both students and teachers, begin to readdress a few key matters to appropriately complement our 21st Century.

Firstly, what does successful learning mean to us?

Secondly, what is the inherent value of formal education today?

Thirdly, how much ownership is on students to maximize their time at university – and moreover how much of all this is effectively communicated to them?

The moment I was forced to answer all three of these questions, I was able to rebirth myself as a learner, and convey my postsecondary experience from opacity to a place of direction.

A few semesters into my undergraduate studies I fell into the daunting arms of failure. I was a product and aftermath of mediocre grades, a major I passionately despised (but felt coerced into), and thought processes that were euthanized to the reality of the real world. As a result, I fell into a common student trap: an assumption that my pursuit of an undergraduate degree was a means to an end – one which would guarantee me a job, earn me a living and provide me with happiness and self-worth.

Holding onto a demanding set of expectations from my postsecondary years, it is not surprising that I fell short of growth and success, as I had discounted myself, as a student, of responsibility and initiative.

This led me to actively search for answers to the three questions above. Through this pursuit, I enabled myself to form a self-pledge as a student in the form of the following answers:

First, successful learning entails caring – caring about the abundance of information you are exposed to. Caring beyond the extent of tangible grades, by sincerely attempting to understand how class material can add to your perspective and allow you to apply yourself wherever you are placed.

Second, the value of a formal education is entirely up to the student – it lies in exactly what you as a learner choose to make out of it, and how you decide to customize your structured postsecondary requirements around your interests and timelines.

Third, reclaiming ownership of your postsecondary education means accepting an inconvenient truth: the success of your journey as a student is dependent on you alone; to maximize and extract the most of your time at university – however many years, successes and failures that may be.

Understanding this is the first step to embarking on a learning journey that is conscious and rewarding in itself. It leaves us as students with a brilliant opportunity to unlearn what we have understood thus far about the pursuit of higher education. By discarding our old beliefs, we can ultimately start to change here and now – student to student, one story at a time – fluidly, effectively and immediately.

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