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Where Experience is the Teacher, Reality the Exam: The Class That Combines My Passion with Education

I watch as my physics professor draws a careful diagram of a block resting on a table, chalk smudging as he redraws force vectors to orient them precisely. The class copies the drawing, and a few moments later I hear backpacks unzipping and papers rustling as students hurriedly pull out calculators, punching in numbers and scribbling down answers. Looking around, it appears that more than half the class has found the solution; they sit back in their chairs or prop up their chins with airs of satisfaction. I glance down at my boxed answer, unsettled: something about the problem doesn’t feel complete. The class is ready to move on to the next concept, and yet I feel as if I am still waiting. Lecture slides blur together as my mind wanders to a week before, the day I conducted my first interview for an Academically Based Community Service Course (ABCS).

It was a cloudy Friday, and I headed into Center City anxiously, not sure if I could pull off the role of a reporter. I walked into a shiny building on JFK Boulevard and took the elevator up to the fourth floor, feeling like I’d left my stomach somewhere down in the lobby. I had been charged with a position of authority that I didn’t know how to accept. Finally, Jondhi Harrell, a very tall man wearing sunglasses, walked towards me and shook my hand. He showed me into a glassed-in conference room and looked at me expectantly. Whether I was ready or not, Mr. Harrell was. It struck me that this was the first time in my education that I wasn’t answering the questions, but asking them. There would be no time to second guess myself, to wonder if I was doing something wrong. I blinked and sat up straight, looked Mr. Harrell in the eye, and pushed “Start” on my recorder.

I asked Mr. Harrell, the director of The Center for Returning Citizens, about his voter registration work with the formerly incarcerated in Philadelphia. He told me that part of being a citizen is embracing democracy, which is why he insists that ex-prisoners vote. Formerly incarcerated himself, Mr. Harrell became an activist in the criminal justice system while he was behind bars. I learned about the importance of civic duty at any point in your life — even at a point when your freedom has been taken from you. His conviction impressed upon me that being a student doesn’t mean I have to put my passion for civic engagement on hold: I can act upon it now. I jotted down his words; something inside of me rejoiced at the new turn my education had taken.

I have always felt as if for the most part, my formal education spoon-fed me. Conditioned by the things like the study guides we’re given in middle school — the ones that list everything you have to study for the test — I had confused real learning for a memorization of processes. Everything was simple, structured. But as the processes became more tedious in high school, I began to question the way I was learning and even the content.

Especially in my culture, as the daughter of Indian parents, the well-educated are seen as inherently superior, an elite group that children are raised to aspire to. Good education marks success, so we are trained to excel academically. The problem for me was that my education was beginning to mean something else; I wanted to learn skills that I could actually apply to help people. I had begun to volunteer in villages in India as well as the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, and I often found myself wishing I had more time for my volunteering. I became frustrated that my passion and my formal education seemed to be mutually exclusive: why did I have to choose between the two to do what I loved?

I became an impatient learner, frustrated at having to wait. My first semester in college was turning out to be more of the same, and during my first week I sat in class after class of math, physics, and programming, with a sinking feeling that I would feel trapped all over again inside this next skills-building phase of my education. But then I had my first ABCS English class, which is not just about change in some distant future. This class, one of the university’s 200 Academically Based Community Service courses (ABCS), assumes that our skills are sharpened and developed in response to the community and causes we are working with, thus we are able to have direct impact now. The exam is reality; the teacher is our experience. Unlike in my physics class, I have never wondered about the application or relevance of what I am learning in ABCS, because the purpose of what we learn is defined by how it will impact people. It is here, where my impatience is welcomed and my frustration can be directed into something productive, that I have found the intersection of my passion for learning and social justice.

As youth, it is often thought that we are not ready to make change — that we haven’t experienced enough or lived long enough to decide our future. We are sometimes accused of a kind of incompetence, a product of our haste to join the world and make change. But I contend that we are the generation that is stepping up to take democracy into our own hands: we have demanded change. In a way, our impatience characterizes us, because it sustains our movements. We have a compelling vision of the future that we are unwilling to compromise on-this year, young adult voter turnout increased by 188% in midterm elections since four years ago. We are characterized by raw energy and an impassioned cry for justice- thousands of youth across the country joined the March for Our Lives to protest gun laws. Our fire is what will light the nation’s future: is it so wrong that I do not want my fire to be diminished in the classroom? The great irony of our perceived incompetence is that if time and experience are the greatest teachers, why is it that the overarching principle of education asks us to wait?

Sonali Deliwala is a first year engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania. She is passionate about writing memoir because she believes that through translating our identities on paper we can relive our stories through others. Deriving inspiration from her parents’ journey and life in America, she aims to capture the struggle of our upcoming bicultural generation in her writing.

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