UCF’s new Director of Experiential Learning talks about helping students take learning outside the classroom, the importance of helping others and how internships fostered her own personal and professional growth.
With the help of her mom’s colleagues at the U.S. Embassy, Quynh Dang’s family was able to leave Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War, when she was just a baby. Though she doesn’t remember moving to the other side of the world, she recognized early on how just a little bit of help can make a huge difference in people’s lives.
“It’s been instilled in me that people helped us, so we should help people,” said Dang. “I just think that’s how the world goes around.”
Experiential learning helped Dang turn that recognition into a career that has garnered her numerous awards for her humanitarianism, leadership and volunteer work. She’s wasting no time in putting that award-winning experience to work at UCF.
What made you decide to come to UCF?
After 24 years in Texas, I was ready for a change of scenery, and when I saw the opening for the Director of Experiential Learning position at UCF, it just seemed like an amazing opportunity. UCF has six times as many students as my previous school, so that’s a big step up not only in responsibility, but also in the potential to help and reach more students. I loved my time at Texas A&M University-Commerce and will miss my colleagues and the many friends I made there, but I’m excited to be taking this next step in my career trajectory.
Is there anything about UCF that has surprised you so far?
I knew the school was going to be big but it’s even bigger than I imagined, not just the size of the campus but the number of people. I’m glad I came in the summer, so I can ramp up a little bit before we go full force, starting in the fall. This gives me time to meet with faculty and departments, so we can inform them about what we’re doing and how can we help them. As former faculty myself, I think that’ll help a lot to be able to talk to them and see how we can work together.
Why do you think that experiential learning is so important?
Academics are crucial, but from what I’ve seen, employers would rather hire somebody with who has real-world, outside-the-classroom experience. And I think a lot of students are seeking that kind of experience—to round out and supplement what they’re learning in class, to give them a different perspective, or simply to satisfy a desire to serve others. Students have told me that they had always wanted to do an internship or service learning, but they didn’t know where to get started. At my previous job, I developed the internship program and then built it up so that students could come to me and say, “This is what I want to do” and I could give them a list of choices and help them find the right fit.
That’s one of the things I love about this new role. With UCF being such a big school, we have all these opportunities for students. We just need to get the word out and connect the right students with the right experiences, so they can shine. My goal is to have every single UCF student graduate with some kind of experiential learning activity, whether it be an internship, a co-op, service-learning, or study abroad. Because employers are going to look at their resume and say, “So, what else did you do while you were there, besides just studying?”
At my last university, about 80% of the time, the intern would either get a job at the place they interned or with a competitor.
As you settle into your role, what are your top priorities in terms of experiential learning?
Dr. Berry’s (Vice Provost and Dean) already given me a few goals, one of which is that we need to be more involved in the Parramore district. So, I’m meeting with Parramore community leaders to set up more service-learning opportunities. They already have a community garden there but they need help maintaining it. The community needs nutrition workshops on what is healthy to grow and we are going to help get our students there to facilitate these workshops. We want to teach them not just to “grow to eat,” which is great, but how you can make that into a little mini business, such as selling their produce at a farmer’s market.
In Parramore, the community also has very limited laundry resources. There’s a mobile national laundromat but it’s only deployed for disasters, so we want to see how we can increase access to laundry facilities on a regular basis.
The other big project will be the Knights of Distinction. We’re going to revamp it a little bit so it’s more accessible to students. Although some people are interested in it, students get intimidated or confused by the point system. When it comes to applying, some students are thinking, “I don’t really have time for this. Is it worth it?” We’re going to do a big marketing and social media push. With how big this school is, we need to get the information out there and get more students completing the program.
What advice would you give undergraduate students who are on the fence about doing experiential learning?
I would say that, although a college degree will open lots of doors for you, experiential learning will help you walk through those doors. You have to have some kind of experience, even if it’s just volunteering. We understand everybody’s busy, and everybody feels like they can’t take on anything else. But it doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment. People think that once they start, they have to do it all the time, but that’s not the case. At my last university, the students would serve the homeless. And they would involve other groups they were part of – “I’m going to bring my volleyball team here” or “I’m going to bring my church here.” And there were so many times where they would add that volunteer experience to their resume and that would be the thing the interviewer would pick up on. Employers want to see benevolent people. They can pick up a 4.0 student, but experiential learning shows that the candidate is more likely to be a team player, someone who gets along well with others, which are essential skills in a work environment.
What are you looking forward to seeing or doing in Florida?
Well, I’d like to see a gator cross my path at the supermarket. Other than that, I’m just very excited to be here. Everybody’s been very welcoming. I laugh when people complain about the temperatures because it’s pretty similar in Texas, just a little bit more humid.