One Monday afternoon this spring, instead of studying for finals or stressing about an upcoming debate tournament, I was driving a boat called Reef Rat in the Exuma Sound.
I had spent the past 100 days in Eleuthera, Bahamas. I was studying abroad through the semester school network with a program called The Island School, an experiential learning school focused on marine conservation, research and sustainability. At The Island School, one of our final projects was a shark dive.
After a 30-minute drive, I stopped the boat, and someone dropped the anchor. The water was so clear that the sharks were visible 70 feet under.
The 11 other students in my group and I began quickly pulling our wetsuits up and getting ready. With GoPros in hand, we talked eagerly among ourselves.
We got into pairs and did buddy checks to ensure our gear was on correctly. Once the oxygen in our tanks was turned on, I stepped on the platform at the back of the boat, regulator in mouth and mask held in place. I lifted one leg, as if taking a giant step, and jumped into the water.
I spent the next 40 or so minutes surrounded by a species that once terrified me (though I’ve watched many shark movies just to freak myself out). I realized just how amazing the species was, and I was in awe of how gracefully they moved. Instead of being aggressive, they were curious and friendly, swimming right up to us.
Doing things I didn’t think were in the cards for me was a common theme at The Island School.
By the end of my time in The Bahamas, I had dived with more sharks than I could count, worked with scientific researchers on coral restoration, kayaked 33 miles around the island and run a half marathon that started at 4:00 in the morning. I got to experience a magical world through my mask under the ocean surface.
I learned what it meant to be part of a community where I lived, learned, loved, cried and explored alongside amazing people. I learned the value of finding a community that loved and supported me unconditionally while challenging me to be my best self.
Going to The Island School taught me that there is value in different types of learning. While some people assume my experience was just a 100-day vacation where I tanned and danced on the beach, that is far from the truth.
I learned more in those few months about myself and the limits I thought I possessed. Yes, calculus tests are hard, but so is a 48-hour solo trip on an island with no human contact.
Instead of hours in the classroom taking notes on a lecture, my classes were often outside. My marine biology class focused on field work. For class, we went freediving in the pelagic zone, waded with lemon sharks in mangroves and surveyed conch on local beaches.
I was able to do research with world-class scientists in coral restoration, which involved data collection and analysis in a laboratory and dives below the surface to outplant fragments in reefs.
However, my learning at The Island School didn’t just stop at academic lessons.
One of my favorite memories from The Island School was the three-day kayaking trip. We embarked on the expedition just a week into our semester. The first night there was a lightning storm, so at 5:00 a.m. I was crouched in my tent with two other girls who I had just met.
We were huddled together, half laughing, half crying for an hour while our tent flooded and the storm raged outside. In the moment, I learned how to be vulnerable, which is what makes bonds at The Island School so special.
Every student learns differently. Some students can learn well while sitting at a desk for eight hours a day, and others can’t. Experiential learning reaps unique benefits that the traditional education system does not access. These include a deep appreciation for the outdoors, direct connections between what we learn and how it applies to the world around us, and the opportunity to do hands-on work.
GDS pledges to give students “a comprehensive education designed to prepare them for a lifetime of learning and a healthy appreciation of their world and their opportunities.” In accordance with that statement, GDS should encourage kids to attend study abroad programs that highlight experiential learning, such as the one I attended, so they can explore the world that exists outside the doors of GDS.
It might seem strange to argue that GDS should encourage its students to choose something over its own offerings, but GDS already sends kids to School Year Abroad. Studying abroad gives students a chance to learn in new ways and come back as more intentional and worldly people. Learning doesn’t just have to happen while sitting at a desk. For me, it happened 60 feet below the ocean surface, surrounded by marine life.