STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 11/13/2015

Structure and Serendipity: How Experiential Learning Adds Up

The setting might be far from home and comfort zone: an orphanage in Sri Lanka, a boardroom in Beijing. It might be as close as a whiteboard in Ken Olsen, or a tiny art studio in Roosevelt. Or maybe it’s somewhere in between: a wetland edge in West Newbury, 15 miles from campus. The common denominator is a situation that encourages a student to bring book-learning to bear upon the actual world, in all its thorny complexity. Add mentors to guide, suggest, critique—and sometimes just stay out of the way. Read on for just a few accounts of the many research projects, internships, and humanitarian trips happening at Gordon all year round. 

Take a talented math student. Add a professor with an intriguing research interest. Stir well. 

Ethan Kang ’17 (pictured, top) arrived at Gordon with a keen interest in mathematics. A research fellowship this summer, after his freshman year, allowed Ethan to apply that natural interest and ability to a compelling application: the optimization (and trouble-shooting) of supply chains—complex mathematical systems that keep essential goods and services flowing. One hundred years after Erlang founded queueing theory, there still is no general method to compute the average time it takes a customer to move through a series of queues. 

One recent approach uses a worst-case analysis, cleverly adapted to the behavior of queues. Before beginning his summer research with Professor of Mathematics Mike Veatch, Ethan read Dr. Veatch’s unpublished paper on this approach; then, over the summer, he worked on some similar approximations. “The first time I saw the equations they kind of scared me,” Ethan reports. “But later on they got familiar and became useful tools for the research.”

“Ethan stepped into the world of mathematical abstractions and formulas, living there comfortably and demonstrating persistence and rigor,” Veatch says.

“As I worked with Dr. Veatch, I learned how to think creatively and formulate new ways of thinking,” Ethan says. “I think that was the biggest achievement. I want to be able to use what I learned in many different ways.”

Take an art major working long, solitary hours on her thesis project: pair her with a mentor who is also an artist, and understands the territory. 

Two summers ago, during Gordon’s annual British Theatre Summer Seminar, Becky Orcutt ’15 (second photo, right) visited London’s National Portrait Gallery with one of her Gordon College painting teachers, Jean Sbarra Jones (second photo, left). Hanging there that month were the winning entries in the museum’s National Portrait Competition—“the portraiture Oscars,” as London’s Daily Mail puts it. “We both noticed that many of the paintings were highly realistic and unique,” Jones recalls. “Having worked with Becky on a series of her paintings, I was very familiar with her interest in combining illogical or absurd relationships between the figure and ordinary objects. Her skill and subject matter seemed a winning combination.” 

During an independent study with Professor Bruce Herman, Becky completed the piece she would ultimately enter: What Now, a surprising image of a figure lying on the floor with his back to the viewer, a small toy top alongside. “The painting could evoke some of what daily life often brings, a sense of humor, and also despair, and not quite knowing which to embrace,” Becky says.

She didn’t consider What Now a portrait, but Jones did. At Jones’s urging, Becky entered it in the National Portrait Competition. (View What Now at

This spring, Becky was among 55 artists whose work was selected from a field of more than 2,700. What Now hung in the National Portrait Gallery in London from June to September. The exhibition has moved to Scotland. This fall Becky entered the New York Academy of Art’s M.F.A. program in figurative art, with the school’s top scholarship. 

Take a student with “M.B.A.” penciled into his five-year plan. Send him far from home to test that ambition. Provide support: just enough, not too much. 

The Hong Kong Summer Finance Seminar was a key experience for Dan Hurley ’15. But it was no walk in the park. Led by Alice Tsang (economics and business), the summer-long program thrust Dan and his classmates into the bustling business sphere of Hong Kong, and into the highly competitive classroom environment at the Hang Seng Management College, where Dan took two finance classes.

Alongside his classes, Dan worked full-time for the financial advisory firm Ernest Maude, where much of what he and the group learned in the classroom was put into practice. “Being able to work closely with the management director and be mentored by someone who is a professional in that field confirmed my interest in finance,” Dan says. Not only was it an opportunity to gain insight and find answers to tough questions; it was also a place that gave him self-confidence. “It made me realize I can handle the stress level and potentially get an M.B.A.”

The path to Hong Kong was laid during the summer after Dan’s sophomore year, when he participated in Gordon’s China Seminar, a 19-day tour of the country that introduces students to China’s economic policies and history, business environment, political system and culture. “If I hadn’t gone on the China Seminar, I would never have gone on the Hong Kong Seminar,” says Dan, who is now an investment analyst at GE Capital in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Take a student who is a born leader. Provide opportunities, plus a small army of other students looking for adventure. Watch the energy multiply. 

In her first two years at Gordon, Michelle Waduacharige, a senior political science major from Sri Lanka, has been involved with the International Student Organization, Office of Community Engagement, and International Justice Mission. 

This past summer she led an eight-person team to the Ape Kedella orphanage in Sri Lanka’s capital city (and Michelle’s hometown), Colombo. Julia Glatfelter ’17, an art and early childhood education double major, planned daily English lessons. David Popa ’15 and Sara Golden ’17 held art lessons and art therapy sessions. Chapman Bettis ’16 designed a playground (third photo) for the orphanage, and worked with contractors and construction workers from a local church, who built the structure, mostly of concrete and clay.

Michelle’s work in Sri Lanka included facilitating vocational training and employment opportunities for women, and leading a campaign against the harassment of women in public spaces. “I drew from the multitude of skills and academic resources Gordon College has given me,” she says. The trip gave her a new perspective on “how I could take this Western education and experience and use it in my country without harming the communities I work with.” 

After graduating, Michelle plans to return to Sri Lanka, pursue a law degree and begin working on a truth-and-reconciliation program for women in the post-war zone.

That student with a background in Mandarin and a strong desire to travel? Put him in touch with Pam Lazarakis, Director of Career Services. 

That’s how Toussaint Williams ’18 landed an internship with Horizon Research Consultancy Group’s Institute of Global Development Power, a market-research company in Beijing. 

His responsibilities included small-scale research projects for new clients, editing and revising reports, designing PowerPoint presentations for weekly staff meetings, and transcribing recorded interviews. Most exciting of all was accompanying consultants to interviews with upper-level officials of big companies such as Boehringer Ingelheim, Bayer and Virbac, and new companies looking to expand in China. 

Before arriving in China, Toussaint had spent two weeks in May in Kingston, Jamaica, as part of a short-term service trip to support the work of the Caribbean Christian Center for the Deaf (CCCD). “I arrived with many assumptions about the students and the work we’d be doing,” he says. “I was proven wrong every single day. The kids were so bright. I had nothing but my helping hands to offer, but these kids offered me encouragement, motivation, humility and a new perspective on life.”

Toussaint recalls, one night during his time away, “meditating on all that I worried about before going overseas. I thought about all the people in my life who have constantly reminded me of my gifts, talents and potential. Although I doubted those encouragements sometimes, I realize those things were carrying me through. They were like tools for innovation, to bring me to the next level.”

Take two bird-loving biology students. Turn them loose on the North Shore’s forests, pastures and wetlands. 

Senior biology majors Catherine Schweitzer and Lauren Purdy (last photo) both love birds. This past summer, they translated love into action as they rose before dawn and sweated through hot summer days at a total of 36 North Shore “edge habitats”—zones that fall between distinct ecologies: between forests and wetlands, forests and pastures, and forests and residential areas. 

Directed by Professor of Biology Greg Keller, they were tracking the impact of habitat changes on eight species of birds that typically occur at forest edges: Baltimore orioles, common yellowthroats, warbling vireos, gray catbirds, yellow warblers, red-eyed vireos, great-crested flycatchers and eastern kingbirds. The students conducted “point-count” surveys, recording all birds of those species seen at each of the 36 sites. They also surveyed the vegetation at each site to determine the impacts of plant differences on the birds, and recorded the number of times that a male bird sang or called at their sites, a measure of breeding behavior. 

This research documented that several species are particularly dependent on wetland-edge habitats. Since wetlands are fragile and increasingly threatened, the study afforded Lauren and Catherine the time and space to research a phenomenon—habitat fragmentation—that affects wildlife not just on the North Shore but worldwide. 

“It was great being able to see the effects of different edge types firsthand,” Catherine says. “It really makes you appreciate that we impact other species—even if we don’t mean to.” 


Some material in this story was originally published in longer form in The Bell, the Gordon College blog. Student authors are Jimmy Sicord ’16, Michelle Waduacharige ’17 and Toussaint Williams ’18.




Ethan Kang ’17
Jean Sbarra Jones (left) and Becky Orcott ’15 (right)
sri lanka playground