Learning Through Experience

Gaudino Fund founder Jeff Thaler ’74 reflects on his experience with the Williams-at-Home program and the continued relevance of such experiences for students today

In the spring of 1971, having already conducted a successful Williams-in-India program, Robert Gaudino submitted a proposal to establish a program that would become known as “Williams at Home.” It would send students to live for several weeks with families in unfamiliar environments in other parts of the United States. In the proposal, Gaudino spelled out his vision of what he called “experience as education.”

“This experience is other than the student,” he wrote. “It is not the personal experience which the student has grown up with, what has identified him, what he considers especially his own. Rather it involves other people, contemporary issues, public institutions which are different, even alien, to the students…

“It is assumed that the ordinary Willliams student has been raised in the restricted life setting of a suburban community and in an exclusive family situation which have not stressed either encounters or conflicts with people of contrasting backgrounds, opinions, sensibilities,” the proposal continued. “This program is intended to correct this restricted quality of the student’s background through the experience of public institutions and contemporary issues as seen from families in the four different life and work situations… It is hoped the student will go beyond insight into these different kinds of experience to reflection upon them with the aid of the various analytical resources Williams provides.”

It is central to the Gaudino Fund’s mission to keep alive this unique vision of experience-based learning, in which uncomfortable encounters in the wider world challenge students to reflect upon their own assumptions, and deepen their understanding of others.

In practice, this commitment has evolved into a number of distinct programs over the years, impelled by the individual visions of the Gaudino scholars. A service-learning program in the early 1980’s was titled Williams-in-Williamstown; a Williams-in-Cairo program also started in the early 1980’s and continued for more than a decade, touching the lives of more than 200 students. One winter study in 1998, a Williams-in-India program took 33 students to examine women’s issues and modernist architecture there. A prototype Williams-in-New-York course, in which students immersed themselves in different corners of the world of affairs there, was organized over the 2004 winter study, and was incorporated into the curriculum in the current academic year as a full fall course. And, from 2008-2015, Gaudino Fund founder and 3-time board chair Jeff Thaler ’74 organized a Williams-in-Maine Winter Study Program, in which students lived with Portland refugee and immigrant families and volunteered in the community, primarily in local schools.

Since the early 1990’s, the fund has also supported a regular fellowship program in which individual and small groups of students, under the oversight of the Gaudino Scholar, devise winter study projects that aim for “uncomfortable learning” in unfamiliar settings close to Williams as well as around the globe.

For Professor Gaudino, the role of the teacher in experiential programs like Williams at Home was to work with the whole student, and be something of a guide during a student’s personal intellectual journey outside the classroom. Professor David Booth, a contemporary who was a good friend of Professor Gaudino, said that in both the Williams-in-India and Williams-at-Home programs, “What Bob did was in effect to become an academic coach. And the intense interaction among the students over a period of months, in the two programs, produced a group solidarity that is long lasting. I don’t know how to put a value on that experience, but it clearly means a lot to those who experience it.”

Professor Sam Fleischacker, who organized the Williams-in-India program in 1998, described its impact this way: “Students who were originally afraid of practically everything warmed up to India. I was delighted and moved by the way in which many students developed a more respectful and much more nuanced appreciation of life in the developing world than they had when we started out.”