TechNext: A life-changing learning experience

Contact: Stacey Anderson

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—“An odyssey of experiential learning.”

That is how Western Michigan University senior Amanda Lim from Malaysia describes TechNext, an immersive experience that takes students outside their comfort zones and into technology hubs in California where they learn about tech, venture capital, entrepreneurship, the arts, and, most importantly, themselves. Through the program, students are introduced to meaningful career pathways and how they can design a life well-lived that is authentic to who they are.

The preparation for TechNext is intensive, as students engage with approximately 10 companies each year and connect with each other and many WMU alumni who serve as mentors to the group. The students get to meet with the founders of iconic startups, many of whom have worked with Y Combinator or Playground Global.

A transformative experience

“We had weekly meetings to go over important topics we would need to know for the company engagements,” says senior Anna Hagood from Battle Creek. “Based on each student’s major, our faculty mentor Barcley Johnson assigned us items to research and teach others in the group. “He would send us articles and videos to look at, as well. Once we had a general understanding of relevant topics, we split into groups based on the various companies we would be connecting with; our goal was to go into the company knowing as much as we could so that we could ask good questions and learn as much as possible. This was the most collaborative and comprehensive experience I have had as a student.”

Students learned about the topics at hand and so much more. “TechNext's mantra, 'Opening apertures, changing trajectories,' encapsulates the essence of my favorite aspects of the trip,” says Lim. “Meeting with alumni and industry professionals provided profound insights that transcended mere career advice. I gleaned invaluable wisdom on transitioning into the workforce, crafting a purpose-driven career and witnessed firsthand how technology and innovation converge to shape a better world.”

Bronco connections and curiosity

The ability for students to connect on a deep level with the alumni mentors and each other is one of the hallmarks of the TechNext experience. “A common phrase that I both said and heard was, ‘Once a Bronco, always a Bronco,’ recalls senior Madie Gracey from Ann Arbor. “My TechNext team is my family. I have never been around a group of students who are so eager and passionate about their fields of study but also intrigued and enthusiastic to gain new perspectives and continuously learn. Barcley Johnson changed the trajectory of my career by engaging me in this experience. Every day, he inspires students to be better, do better and think better.”

Students cite their interactions with the 50 active alumni in the Bay Area—many of whom landed in San Francisco as a result of TechNext themselves—as the high point of the trip in addition to the personal bonds they made with peers.

Staying curious is what Gracey says she will take from the trip, and that’s in large part the goal. “We create a journey of curiosity with a focus on deep tech,” says Barcley Johnson, TechNext faculty founder. “Our journey begins with students understanding that TechNext is not a tour of companies. Students are required to treat each company as a case study, asking detailed and tough questions, comparable to those of an investment analyst.” Johnson notes that the companies featured in TechNext are at the forefront of emerging technologies before they are common in the public consciousness, spanning areas such as AI, wireless electricity and breakthroughs in minimally invasive surgery, just to name a few.

This year, President Edward Montgomery joined the students for several of the company engagements during TechNext. “Our recent trip to Silicon Valley proved to be an incredibly rewarding experience as I got to witness our Broncos navigate the evolving world of tech,” says Montgomery. “Not only did it open their eyes to a new world, it left those corporate leaders we met in awe of the abilities of our students. I’m excited to watch the TechNext initiative continue to develop as it fully encapsulates the experience-driven lessons that we envision for every student. The opportunities that lie ahead exposing students to the constantly evolving landscape of the tech industry in California are endless and will benefit current and future generations of Broncos.”

Advice for future TechNext students

The students who participated in this year’s TechNext team have advice for students who are interested in this experience-driven learning journey.

“It’s hard to predict just how this experience might benefit you, but I guarantee it will. You will gain knowledge of multiple areas of business beyond what a class can teach you, valuable connections with peers and alumni, and grow as a student and a leader,” says Hagood.

“This program is a beacon of exploration, pushing boundaries and fostering a mindset of fearlessness. Each encounter and discussion within TechNext is a stepping stone to a more enriched understanding of the dynamic tech landscape,” adds Lim.

“Think outside the box and challenge everything. What you put into TechNext is what you get out of it. Lead with your drive to seek new information and continuously learn. No matter what, you will always be supported by a strong line of Broncos who are rooting for your success,” offers Gracey.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.