How the Experience Institute Is Transforming Higher Education

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Pursuing a master’s degree was a plan shoved aside when Victor Saad considered the variables: too expensive. Too many textbooks. Too many white walls.

But he didn’t exactly quit on school. Instead, he completed 12 different apprenticeships in the next 12 months. An endeavor he called “The Leap Year Project.”

In just one year, Saad documented a family-owned clothing company’s production process in China. Organized Thanksgiving dinner on Skid Row in L.A. Told positive stories of change during the Arab Spring. Led an artist-in-residency program at a farm in Costa Rica called La Choza del Mundo, a place founded by four NASA scientists with the goal of assisting and inspiring people to work toward human innovation and big ideas.

In a way, that’s what Victor Saad does now himself. After his 12 months of apprenticeships, Saad made it his mission to make sure other people could design their education through experience, too. He developed a program called the Experience Institute (EI)—a new form of higher education, and a new way to learn. Saad calls it a cross between “Harvard and the Amazing Race.”

Students enrolled in the Experience Institute—which focuses on design, business, and social change—are handed the tools to build their own futures, grow as individuals, and learn in an alternative educational environment. Rather than one professor at the front of the room, students are mentored by professionals and experts in different fields. The company runs with the mentality that the students should be the one thrown into the drivers seat with the tools they need to achieve their goals. “EI is not a placement school,” Saad says. “The coaches are not going to act like a parent holding little Johnny’s hand as they send him off to school.”

Students April Soetarman and Dane Johnson were among the first to hop on board.

Soetarman set out on a simple goal to improve her skills in design. In her one year with EI, she had four design and project-management apprenticeships that intertwined her interests in architecture, music, and art, too. On the other end of the spectrum, EI helped Johnson pursue his writing career. Although he was used to writing in a journalistic fashion, Johnson decided to live in a monastery, observe, and write about his experience there. He spent the first 40 days in complete silence but he left with much more than a notebook of thoughts.

Aside from Soetarman and Johnson, EI helped many other students achieve their career dreams. Saad has a running list of shout-outs: “Muffadal Saylawala helped to organize the building of a Typhoon-Proof Earthship during a relief project in the Phillipines,” he says. “Olenka Hand and Tuere Wiggins were commissioned by LAPIZ to conduct a research project around the future of workspaces in corporate environments. And Toph Carter traveled to Madrid to work with a design strategy firm servicing clients such as IKEA.”

The program’s hub is in Chicago, but in a few years Saad “dreams of having several bases around the States, almost like a gym.” Since Saad developed the program, he has had the opportunity to speak at a TEDx conference and has collaborated with Stanford. Now, Saad enjoys the “excitement, growth, and even the people trying to steal his idea.” Saad wants to start something, and more importantly, inspire. ”[The Experience Institute] builds on the idea that we can create a credible, valuable education through experience,” Saad said when he introduced EI during his TED talk. “That someone can piece together apprenticeships, conferences, workshops, and volunteer experiences to create an education that will give them the tools they need to transform this world with an inventive spirit.”

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