What does the ideal college experience look like for freshman students just twelve weeks into their first semester? How could colleges support that experience?
After eight weeks of self-reflection, metacognitive activities and creativity exercises, students in my Creativity seminar answered these questions with the final project. The goal of this project was to help students identify their needs, and articulate their dreams and vision (not those of their parents, friends or teachers!) for their remaining years in college. During five weeks, students looked inwards and applied class learnings to design their ideal college journey.
This post provides an overview of the project and main learnings.
To begin this project, students were tasked with responding to these two questions:
- If you could do anything you want, what would you do for today to be the best day of your life?
- What would your ideal week look like?
Interestingly, the outcomes of these short exercises weren’t what I was expecting after everyone in the class having shown excellent creative growth during the first half of the semester (based on the first project and weekly activities). But, the majority of the class shared conventional or socially accepted responses:
- Getting A+ in all courses
- Having loads of money
- Becoming a successful professional
And then creativity happened! One of only two students described a very different ideal: “drinking coffee with my favorite rapper”. Immediately, some of the students looked at me like asking: “Were we allowed to say something like that?” Shortly after, a second student described his ideal day as “waking up and discovering that Princeton Campus has been transformed into an amusement park in which each building was a different game, and students had to spend the day having fun and playing.” His enthusiasm and imagination helped spread the creativity seed: before he finished explaining his idea, the rest of the class was building on it and sharing ways to make Princeton the best amusement park.
These exercises were eye-opening for the students in two ways:
- Realize how hard it is to apply theory into practice: i.e. thinking creatively
- Understand the role that mental blocks play in creative thinking
Unlike at the beginning of the semester, now, the students were more aware of their own mental blocks, and had a wide toolkit of creativity techniques to help them reconnect with their creative self and consciously work around self-imposed constraints.
To help students imagine their ideal college experience, the project was structured around clearly defined steps:
- Reflect. What would your ideal next 3.5 years look like? How would your ideal relationships, success, family, job, etc. be? What future would you not want? To respond to these questions, consider how everything is connected: needs, future goals, academic choices, interactions with other students, the community, society, family, etc.
- Identify.Make a list of things, goals, and activities that you love about your life (socially and academically. Make a list of emotions, feelings, and values that are important for you. Make a list of things, obstacles, issues and behaviors that bug you (or you think could be improved) in your current life that are connected to your college experience or that could be affected by it not allowing you to achieve your goals.
- Envision. How could barriers, obstacles or behaviors be changed or improved? How could you challenge the way you engage with the world today, including social rules and constructs, technology, physical structures, services, interactions, academics, etc.? Create three radically different alternative visual journeys for the next 3.5 years representing three different possible college experiences. (This step was inspired by “Designing your Life” book).
- Build. Combine key aspects from the above journeys and/or add new ones to create your ideal journey. Build something to share it with the rest of the university (students, staff and professors) in an event setting on the last day of class. You are free to create whatever you want. Think about the senses to communicate more abstract dimensions (e.g. feelings, emotions, concepts) and connect with others. Think about physical artifacts to make parts of the journey tangible: create physical objects, develop experiential scenarios, create props, and build small-scale models. (This step was inspired by Speculative Design by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby).
Sharing ideal journeys
Students’ final presentations took the form of a “creative” science fair where no two journeys looked the same! Each student created a unique, dynamic and engaging way of sharing what they learned and discovered about themselves: games, experiences, sensorial exercises, 3D models, dances. Some students’ dreams included: liberation, freedom, traveling, expanded mental states, stress-free experiences, pursuing what they truly want, and understand their cultural roots.
During the event, the energy was contagious: everyone was laughing, sharing their journeys, dancing and playing. Activities that many higher education students don’t practice very often, but very much needed to live a happy life.
Overall, the project was more challenging than I thought: this was the first time for some of the students to self-reflect and think about their own needs, and to translate something abstract and that doesn’t exist into something tangible. Even after a semester reconnecting with creativity and thinking conceptually, it was quite hard for them to remove expected goals, think beyond traditional paths, and articulate their personal dreams. But, the resulting outcome demonstrates how much students have to say if they feel safe and have the space to express their true feelings.
These students’ ideas and journeys can help foster creativity in other students. And they can also serve as a roadmap for campus administrators of students’ needs and changes that they could consider implementing to improve college population well-being.