Times have changed. When it comes to learning, there are more options than ever available for your children. The problem is the exciting variety of choices are simply overwhelming! That’s one of the reasons we started the UnCollege Blog – to create a community and provide valuable resources for anyone interested in navigating the breadth of learning options available today, especially those related to self-directed learning. Below, we’ve collected several that you should read and share with your teen.
Click here to see the Parent Resource Guide PDF or view the plain text below.
A letter to parents and Hackdemics about communicating and decision making.
A guide to help teens determine their interests and build professional experience.
How your teen can make the most of their first year in college.
Understanding the hackademic mindset.
4 important skills you need to master as a self-directed learner.
Alternative education models for doers.
How one UnCollege fellow generated one million website views and made her mark on the fashion industry.
As a parent, you are faced with many challenges, none of which are more complicated than helping your children through the transition into adulthood. Teenagers have enough to worry about in their day-to-day lives, which makes thinking about the future extremely stressful. To help them through this process, your most valuable asset is your ability to listen.
Empathetic listening is one of the most powerful ways we have to demonstrate our love and support. It seems like such an easy thing to do, but it takes time, an open heart, and practice to become a great listener. You must learn to be patient and refrain from trying to jump in and fix things for your child when they seek space to think and fully express themselves.
Here are a few links to articles on communication and resources from other sites that we find helpful:
The first two resources are from the Challenge Day website. Even though the tips address helping a teen with a weight challenge, they provide useful techniques for supporting your teen in any circumstance. The chapter download describes an actual listening session between a parent and child. It is very powerful.
The following links are articles written by Kate Michi who presented two workshops to Gap Year Fellows about communicating across differences. There are exercises and links to further communication and listening resources within the articles.
Here are some questions that will help you establish a healthy dialogue with your teen about their future.
How do you define authentic success? A life well lived?
What does it mean to thrive? How can I help you to thrive?
What really matters? Why?
What do you care about? Why is that important to you?
What is your biggest dream?
What support do you want from us? What support do we feel we can give?
Have you ever participated in a workathon? Have you ever brought a complex idea to life in less than 36 hours? At UnCollege, we host a workathon every once in a while just to find out what the participants in our program (known as fellows) are capable of creating in such a short time. In fact, we hosted one last week and the results were astounding. Read on to find out what our 12 Gap Year fellows came up with during one sleepless night and an action-packed day.
After concepting their ideas around the dinner hour, some fellows took to their computers, clacking away on their keyboards while others stayed out all night working on physical project that one cannot find in the “cloud.” When motivation and energy slowed, the fellows encouraged each other and continued to work-work-work.
The next morning, the fellows were rewarded for their work with pancakes made by the UnCollege staff.
After a short break to refuel, the fellows returned to their work, this time along with the support of the UnCollege staff who chose to join in and work alongside the fellows in solidarity. As the fellows began to work on the finishing touches of their projects, we could feel the anticipation in the air. The whistle blew – time was up. It was time to see the results.
Before the presentation, Gabe, a Program Specialist at UnCollege, explained the purpose of the work marathon:
“The purpose is not only to challenge yourself and go from idea to product in two days, but also to have something to add to your portfolio. After the initial work marathon is over, the fellows can go back and tweak their projects – or not – and have something tangible to add to their portfolio. That’s also why the work marathon is so open-ended, because we want the fellows to have something they value and enjoy doing as a part of their portfolios.”
Here’s what the fellows came up with:
Keri coded her own website from scratch, going totally outside of her comfort zone and knowledge base. She taught herself everything she needed to know, having no prior knowledge of code, during the work marathon and still managed to build a functional website.
Nick Mares spent his workathon to further develop his startup – bonebroths. Bonebroths is a broth company catering to the popular Paleo lifestyle movement. Nick made hours of phone calls and sent endless emails trying to find a shipping solution for his products. He also spent time interacting with his customers, making sales and furthering his business development. Learn more about bonebroths here: http://bonebroths.com/
Justin created Thoughts In A Box – a web app that collects the 20 most recent tweets for two distinct hashtags and displays them randomly with each click of your mouse. The app also has an additional function that, for every click, adds a 1 in 100 chance of randomly landing on Justin’s personal website. Now that’s what we call good, fun marketing.
Daniel Carnduff and Jason Sachse
Daniel and Jason paired up to make a music video for a song Daniel had written previously. They went around town taking video clips and spent time editing them and syncing them with Daniel’s song. The final product will be available soon and we’ll be sure to share it.
Ilkin didn’t start from scratch, but instead used the 36 hours to further develop her site – The Overlooked City. IIkin worked tirelessly to set up, shoot and edit pictures for her site as well as refining its look and feel. The Overlooked City seeks to unveil the hidden beauty of metropolitan areas in an artistic, thought-provoking way.
Addie, who is developing Beats of the Streets – a diverse, fashion-forward website – took to the street to ask people about their personalized fashion and capture interesting photos to showcase on the site. Addy also sifted through thrift stores and put together five outfits for under $20. If you are looking for some trendy, inexpensive styles, check out the site.
Nick Sherinian made a professional lyric book for Daniel, handwriting all of his lyrics in cursive, as well as making two glass-blown pieces, one of a person and one of a bear.
Sharan made stylistic avatars of all the fellows and staff that can be used as profile pictures on Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites. He also turned these graphics into business cards for everyone.
Natalie made a fingerless glove with the Hyrule symbol, from the Legend of Zelda video game, on the back out of chainmail. She painstakingly weaved every single metal ring into a three-dimensional piece that fit her hand perfectly.
Rayan spent countless hours interviewing Uber drivers in order to post their unique stories, rants, and interactions to a Facebook page he’s developed. For some solid entertainment, you can give them a read here: https://www.facebook.com/voicetopeople
Charles wrote a dubstep song using only his own knowledge of the program he was using and no additional tutorials or outside sources. If you want to get pumped up, you can listen to his song here.
All in all, our fellows came up with some very impressive stuff, and had a great time doing it.
What did you accomplish in the last 36 hours?
As hackademics, we often have the added task of self-motivation when it comes to directing our own education. While everyone has that task, we seem to feel its burden more in that we strive for more independence in our educational and professional lives. Self-motivation is a hard thing to achieve when you aren’t super pumped for something. But it definitely can be done.
Soon, the UnCollege fellows will be gearing up for their second work marathon. They will stay up all night working on a project of their choice, which will be unveiled at the end of the 36 hour marathon. Here at UnCollege, we have a few tricks that we use to keep ourselves motivated to do our work, not just during work marathons, but on a daily basis.
Remember that your lack of motivation isn’t permanent. Don’t stress yourself out by thinking about how you “should” be getting more done. That’s just going to distract you from getting anything done. Often times, our lack of motivation, and consequently our procrastination, comes from the fact that we’re not pumped. We’re not happy. We’re down, for whatever reason. And trying to ignore what we’re feeling will just make that thing more powerful and apparent in our minds. It’s like if I told you not to think about penguins. What do you think of first? Penguins. You can’t help it. That’s how our brains work. The more you try to not think about how you’re not motivated, you’re going to continue to be unmotivated.
Instead, acknowledge whatever you’re feeling, and then think about the fact that it’s temporary. Look for things that aren’t so bad. Take pride in every task you accomplish. Practice gratitude. Take a minute to make a list of five or ten things you’re grateful for. When you come back to your work after doing this, you’ll find that you don’t feel as “stuck” as you did before. Gratitude and optimism are great ways to get over your current reality, if even by a bit.
Set SMART Goals
In order to do this one, you need to know what SMART stands for:
If you use this criteria to set your goals for yourself, you will find that they will be more achievable. Since you will be able to see your progress, you will be able to be continuously motivated by that. In addition, you’ll have a deadline hanging over your head, pushing you to the finish when you don’t have motivation enough to do it yourself.
One other great part about setting SMART goals is that because they are specific, you can start acting on them right away. They aren’t vague, with no real place to start. Since they are specific, you will know exactly where to start and the certainty of that is a factor in motivation. You don’t have to spend time figuring it out, you just have to do that thing. It’s a little easier to be pumped for it. Even if you just want to get it over with.
During their coaching sessions, our fellows focus on setting SMART goals with their coaches, who keep them accountable for those goals, which leads us to another huge factor in motivation:
If you have someone who you are held accountable to when you make these goals, you are more likely to complete them. You won’t want to let that person down. So, whether or not you are motivated that day, you can motivate yourself to do that thing in order to not let that person down. When we are held accountable, we do better because being held accountable is motivation in itself. We don’t have to do so much of the work of motivating ourselves when we know that someone else has expectations of us.
In the same vein of accountability is peer pressure. If you spend a lot of time with people who are lazy, you’ll end up being lazy, or at least more lazy than you normally would be. Often, we don’t realize how much of an impact the people we surround ourselves with have on us until later, when we aren’t surrounded by them anymore and have time to reflect. If you want to be motivated, surround yourself with motivated people. If you want motivation to do a certain thing, like learn a new language, surround yourself with people who are doing the same.
When you’re surrounded by people you want to be like, you’ll find yourself becoming more and more like them. You are the sum of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Who are those people? What are they like? Should you reevaluate who you spend your time with?
Luckily, during their launch phase, the fellows spend a lot of time with like-minded, ambitious and motivated people. This makes work marathons run smoothly, even in the toughest time when everyone wants to be asleep. Since everyone is working through the night, it becomes easier to do the same. Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it can get a lot accomplished.
Celebrating what you’ve accomplished is a great way to keep yourself motivated over the course of the day. There are lots of ways to do this, but I would suggest not rewarding yourself with food (at least not every time). Eating is a part of self-care and shouldn’t be a part of motivation. Besides, you might gain weight and that would be bad, especially if you’re trying to motivate yourself to lose weight.
There are many ways to reward yourself, like reading an interesting article or watching a youtube video after you skyped in French with your language exchange partner for a half hour. Or you could take a short walk or buy yourself a book you’ve been wanting to read. Whatever will motivate you and whatever fits with the scale of what you’re doing. And remember to set this reward before you start the task, so you can motivate yourself with the reward.
Remember Your “Why”
If you keep your reason for doing what you’re doing in sight, the end goal will motivate you to continue. Write it down and keep it on your desk or wherever you work. Write it on a post-it and stick that to your laptop keyboard or the side of your screen. Keep it in sight so when you start to run out of juice, you can look at it and find a spark inside you to keep going. Even if your reason is something like getting out of a crappy job or to prove your friends wrong about your decision to drop out, that’s a better reason than none. Write it down and pursue it. When you start to feel your motivation being sapped, it will carry you through. You can do this for your SMART goals, too, for a reminder and for motivation.
Remember to Take Breaks
If you’re trying to work solidly for 8 hours without stopping, you might be insane. Taking breaks is beneficial to the work we do and to us as humans. Try using the Pomodoro technique to force yourself to take breaks if you struggle to know when you “should” take them. Breaks in your work day will help you to focus when it’s focus time. And, if you really hate what you’re doing, you can barrel through it just for the break that lies at the end.
As an added benefit, it’s good for your brain and body to move around when you take breaks. Get off your butt and do a few jumping jacks to get the blood flowing. Just giving your body a bit of exercise will help get your brain in gear to re-focus when the time comes. If you do the same thing in the same place for too long, you’ll end up just staring, empty at some point. Don’t let yourself get to that point. Be proactive and keep it from happening instead of having to fix it when it does.
Even during work marathons, the fellows take breaks to chat, play video games, watch funny Youtube videos or cook food. These breaks are fundemental to them getting their projects done, and with the peer pressure around them, it is assured that their breaks won’t last too long.
This is something that really helps the fellows in the thick of their work marathons, during that stretch period sometime after 2 a.m. until their normal wake-up time. Listening to something to get yourself pumped up during your focus time is really great. Not only does it block out a lot of distractions, but when you’re listening to music, your brain is really active in a lot of places. This will help you get into “the zone” where you’re coming up with a lot of ideas or you’re focusing and getting a lot done. It also has a powerful effect on our emotions, and the right music can up your motivation a ton. You can go from totally unmotivated to in the zone and making progress in the space of one or two good songs. Take some time to figure out what kind of music and what artists work well for you, and keep a running list of the stuff that gets you pumped.
Trick your brain into thinking you don’t have a bunch to do. Tell yourself you’re going to only do one task, or only work for 5 minutes, one song or one pomodoro. Once you get started, you’re halfway there. Starting really is hard, and once you’ve done that, you can push ahead with more ease.
Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
All in all, it’s hard to motivate yourself sometimes. That’s part of being human. Don’t sit there and think about how you aren’t doing enough and you need to get more done. Don’t insult yourself in your head – admit it, we all do it – for not having the same output as yesterday. Today is a different day, and if you’d give yourself a chance you’d probably amaze yourself with how much you get done.
You’ll never know what you could do if you instead spend your time bashing yourself in your head. You’re brilliant. You’ve got this. You’re just in a rough spot. Take a second, take a deep breath, and then try out one – or all; I’d be really flattered if you did them all – of these methods.You’ll find that you really are brilliant and you can motivate yourself way better this way than by beating yourself up. And when you do find your motivation, savor it. Enjoy it. Because you got yourself there by being awesome.
The pressure to attend a four-year college or university right out of high school is intense, and it comes from everywhere. Unfortunately, even for those who choose that path, the pressure doesn’t stop there. Although college is a great option for many fresh-out-of-high-school students, the financial burden and academic stress of traditional higher education has many young people asking themselves if going straight to college is really worth it.
Choosing not to go to college is a gutsy decision in today’s world. Choosing to drop out of college is, arguably, even gutsier. The negative stigma that comes with dropping out of school has intimidated many students into staying in a four-year program despite the fact that college isn’t the right place for everyone. With freshmen dropout rates increasing across the country, it’s apparent that students are eager to find unique alternatives to traditional higher education. So what is keeping young people who seriously consider dropping out or taking a gap year from actually doing so?
Although many types of alternative education exist, they can be difficult for students to navigate while dealing with the pressure to stay in college. The UnCollege Gap Year program has provided a straightforward approach to pursuing a self-directed education instead of a traditional four year program; however, there are still many personal and financial stressors that make first-year college students hesitant to drop out or take a gap year. One of the biggest struggles these students face is the financial burden of their first-semester student loans. Brian Ly, a first-year film studies major at Temple University, illustrated this struggle by telling us “What stresses me out the most is that now the time I feel is wasted is also money that’s being wasted.”
Brian isn’t the only college freshman who feels that dropping out or taking a gap year would essentially be wasting the time and money that has already been spent on the first semester of school; John Vito Powell, a first-semester student at Pace University has conveyed these fears as well by explaining “…the loans have already been taken out, and I’m scared that I would regret it (dropping out at this point).” This is a mental roadblock for many young people who consider taking a gap year.
So, what is UnCollege doing to alleviate this issue?
We’ve launched the UnSpend Your Student Loans campaign, designed to help future UnCollege fellows take a gap year without the burden of having to pay off their first semester college loans. First-semester students who have dropped out to pursue our Gap Year program are eligible to participate in UnSpend if their UnCollege application is accepted by November 20, 2014 [deadline extended]. UnCollege will select two fellows to receive financial relief of their first-semester loans based on the information provided in their applications. UnCollege will aid these fellows in UnSpending their student loans by paying off up to $2,750 of their first-semester college loans. Eligible students include those who have active Federal Direct Student Loans and have completed fewer than 18 semester units or 24 quarter units. Recipients will be selected by December 1, 2014.
The UnSpend Your Student Loans campaign is an innovative way for UnCollege to make it even easier and more affordable to pursue a self-directed alternative to higher education. By participating in UnSpend, students who plan to take a Gap Year with UnCollege can do so without having to carry the financial burden of the loans they have already taken out for college; by implementing the UnSpend program, not only is UnCollege making it possible for a larger demographic of young people to have peace of mind while pursuing a Gap Year, we are allowing students to essentially “unwaste” the time they have already spent in college by helping them build 21st century skills that will equip them for the real world.
We know how difficult it is to decide whether or not dropping out is the right choice. Many of UnCollege’s previous and current fellows have had to face this choice, and students around the world are struggling with the decision as well. Any first-semester college students who have given any thought to dropping out or taking a gap year are all too aware of the stress that is caused by having to make such a seemingly momentous decision. By launching the UnSpend Your Student Loans campaign, UnCollege is providing relief for these students through community support, both personally and financially. UnCollege founder Dale Stephens summed up the program’s mission perfectly by explaining, “I was fortunate to have a supportive network that offered me couches to sleep on and jobs when I left college, but I know not everyone is that lucky. I hope this program can help those dropouts who don’t have that safety net follow their dreams.”
Why did you decide to do the UnCollege Gap Year?
I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew if I went the traditional route, I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted until my junior year of college. I didn’t want to wait that long. And I wanted to do it in an awesome environment, so when I found out about UnCollege, it was obvious to me that I should do it.
How did your parents respond?
They were all for it. They were super excited for me. My older brother is into the same stuff as me, so he blazed the path for me and my parents saw that being entrepreneurial and pursuing a startup is something where people can succeed. And even if you don’t, great things come out of it. You can learn a lot, even from failure.
What are you working on during the Launch phase?
I’m working on my own venture that is yet to be named. It’s an online learning site that teaches 21st century meta-skills through challenge-based learning. It’s a continuation of something I started in high school.I kind of failed at it back then. I’m looking to breathe new life into it with the help of UnCollege’s network and being in Silicon Valley around smart, like-minded people.
What do you think about coaching meetings? How have they impacted your progress during this phase?
Coaching is my favorite aspect of the program. Gabe is an awesome coach who really knows how to customize the program and set goals that are both challenging and achievable and make you go outside your comfort zone and stretch yourself to reach them. It has proven invaluable to me growing as a entrepreneur and restarting my venture
How do you think coaching will impact you in later phases?
Right now the hardest part of any startup is pushing the boulder up the hill. Once you reach a certain point, then you finally know what you have and what you’re doing. After that, the starting part is over and you can actually run the company. It doesn’t get easier, but it’s different than just starting up. That transition phase has different deliverables and coaching is helping me to set different goals as my business changes. I think the coaching will adapt as my venture evolves.
What do you plan to be working on in later phases?
I want to spend all my time working on my startup. I’m not taking a Voyage. I wish I could, but it’s not what’s best for me and my startup.
What’s it like living with all the other fellows in the Gap Year House?
It’s not a big transition for me because I come from a family of 9, so it’s always been chaotic in my household. I’ve learned to live with others no matter how much of a slob they are or how particular they are because I’ve lived with both sides of that spectrum. And it’s awesome living with a bunch of self-directed people who think and do things differently. It’s definitely making it easier to be away from home, being surrounded by a bunch of totally different people.
How has the Gap Year program equipped you for the real world so far?
It’s reinforcing the idea that I need to lean on and sharpen my instincts, not just rely on external knowledge. And it’s showing me that real world skills are what really matter. For example, the ability to communicate, collaborate, thinking critically – these are the skills that matter most in the global economy. A portfolio of your work speaks volumes about who you are as a person and what you can do. For me, personally, there’s more merit to a good portfolio than a degree from a university. I’m seeing it every day that I’m here. It’s great to know I’m putting myself in a better position with the skills I’m learning in the program. I’m confident that I’ll will find them useful no matter what I’m working on.
In what ways do you think you will continue to be prepared by your experiences during your gap year?
The connections I’ve made here with current fellows and past fellows will be something I lean on well after the program is over. There are so many resources that will be continue to be available to me. Whenever you need help or advice, someone from the past cohorts or the coaches or someone they connect you with has experienced the same thing as you, and they can help you along. UnCollege has an incredibly large network of professional contacts. And I’ll take with me the spirit of self-directed learning – that never leaves you. That will always be an integral part of me as I move forward.
Where are you going for your voyage phase? What do you plan on doing there?
The venture I started is about to take off. We have a product, customers, and orders to fill. And we’re making money. There are two things that govern every startup: growth and momentum. If you have that, you don’t stop. And right now, I have both. Even though I would love to do a voyage, at the moment it’s farther down on my list of priorities. The startup comes first and now that it’s in motion, no matter how much I want to go abroad, I have to stay here. But hopefully I can travel later on.
Would you recommend taking a year off to other people?
Oh yeah. It’s a year to really discover what you love and what you’re passionate about and what you want to do with your life. Going to college straight out of high school blindly is a waste of money and time, two of the most valuable things we have. It seems more logical to take a year off and figure out what you want to do with your life.
Where do you hope this year will lead you?
Definitely running a successful startup.That’s been my goal since day one and that’s what I’m working towards and will continue to work towards. By the end of the year, I want to say I’m running a successful startup or company.
What are your plans for after your gap year?
I’m still figuring that out. I’m not ruling out college just because I think it’s a great social experience, a place to make friends, make connections, have fun and learn. But I also see myself continuing my startup, renting a place with friends and enjoying life. But I’m still in that phase of trying to figure it out.
What is your favorite memory so far?
The first night we got here. Seeing the house and meeting the people I’d be living with for 10 weeks, getting to know each other. Seeing how different we are, but how we’re all alike in that we’re all motivated, self-directed people who wanted an alternative to the traditional route. It’s cool. Definitely a melting pot, but we all are united in that quality which we all have in common.
What one word would you use to describe your gap year experience?
Uncomfortable. In a good way.
What is your favorite quality/attribute about the program?
Coaching and being in San Francisco. The beautiful weather. *laughs* You can’t beat it. I love this city so much. It’s great that the program is based here.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve met in SF so far?
I met a guy at the party we were invited to at the LinkedIn offices. He went to Harvard, dropped out after two years, started a company, grew it and sold it to another company. He got the golden handcuffs, so he had to work for the company that bought his company, and then that company got bought by LinkedIn and he went to work for them. It was really cool to hear that story of his journey from student to founder to working inside a huge corporatation.
What is your favorite part of your weekly curriculum?
Coaching sessions. Every Monday, I look forward to my coaching sessions. They are what I love most. Gabe is the man! He’s the perfect coach for me, since I can throw out a bunch of information and he responds with such clarity and insight. He listens and gives feedback and helps me set stretch goals. It’s been so helpful working with him to develop expectations, then I have to work my ass off during the week to meet those expectations because he keeps me accountable. Being pushed and challenged like that is something I didn’t get in high school, and I craved it. Now I’m getting full doses of that at UnCollege, and it’s great. Gabe’s the perfect coach for that.
What was the best event you’ve gone to during your launch phase?
We met two UC Berkeley students at an event about a coding language called meteor. We chatted them with about what we’re doing at UnCollege, then we listened to their stories and talked about coding languages. They were cool dudes. We all talked about what we are passionate about, and it was a nice mix between talking as friends and connecting. I wouldn’t even call it networking. That was the best event I went to.
Usually, at 5 am on any given Monday morning, the UnCollege fellows are fast asleep, and the house is still and dark. This Monday morning was different. One fellow was up and preparing for a day of volunteering that would change her life. This Monday, I went along with Ilkin to a volunteer opportunity called Challenge Day. We were on a bus heading away from the Gap Year House before 6 am, before the sun had begun to rise. It would be a long ride. We were going outside of the city and would have to catch three buses.
On the way there, we chatted about everything from homelessness to the state of the world to the sunrise as it came up over the horizon, but the conversation always came back to one thing: Challenge Day. The opportunity to volunteer at Challenge Day had come by way of recommendation to both of us from Jon, UnCollege Program Specialist and Ilkin’s coach. Jon worked for Challenge Day for 10 years, and using his experience from that setting, he developed the orientation program for UnCollege.
Challenge Day is a program designed to help students build empathy and compassion for each other by getting them to be vulnerable and real with one another.
As color started to come into the world with the slow ascent of the sun in the sky, on the second bus of the day, Ilkin told me that she was nervous. We anticipated that it would get emotional at some point and that we would be expected to share our personal stories with others, the way we had when Jon led us through the UnCollege orientation only a few weeks ago. We also knew this would be different. This would be deeper.
“I want to be there to help them, but I don’t really want to share my story. I just want to listen.” She said. “The idea of sharing makes me nervous.”
But she knew she would have to.
As the bus went over the Golden Gate Bridge and we left San Francisco behind us, the sun took its place in the sky, fully shining, the colors of sunrise dissipating. Ilkin snapped a quick picture using her phone and then returned to talking about how this was way outside of her comfort zone.
Before Ilkin could feel ready for it, we arrived at Mill Valley Middle School. We got there just in time to receive an abridged training session and prepare for the kids who were outside the gym, waiting to enter. We would be working with the middle school’s entire 8th grade class.
The day started out high-energy, with the adults and kids playing team-building games and doing improv with a partner or two. Then, after some time playing games and getting to know the kids, each adult volunteer was assigned 4-5 eighth graders. This became that volunteer’s “family group.”
There were two Challenge Day leaders, one male and one female, and they both took some time to share with all of us their personal stories.
The room went from buzzing to hushed as the stories began to touch on emotions we had all felt, or feared we would feel one day. Then, slowly, tears rolled down cheeks, and sniffles began to break the hushed silence around the kids and adult volunteers. The empathy the kids had for the leaders was palpable and incredible. I wanted most and deepest in my soul for none of them to lose that. For none of them to be hurt so badly or so many times or chided by the world for their feelings so much that they would let that flame die.
Once the leaders were done sharing, we got into our family groups again and were given two minutes to share our own stories, whatever we wanted to share. The kids in my group were relatively unscathed, or they didn’t share much. Across the room, I saw Ilkin’s family group exchanging a lot of hugs. There were tears on that side of the room, more tears than on my side. Ilkin seemed to be handling it well.
After we went around our family groups and everyone had shared, it was time to do an activity called “cross the line.” In this activity, there were two lines made on the ground with tape, and everyone stood on one of them. The leaders would say something, and if that thing had happened to you or affected your life in any way, you crossed the second line of tape and looked back at everyone still on the other side, and those people held up the “I love you” sign. The point of this is to get even more vulnerable. That way, their classmates could see how much they had been through, and that these eighth graders could know that no matter what they have gone through, they are not alone. This was the most emotional part of the day by far. The adult volunteers participated in this, as in every activity, but we were also there to support the kids who were dealing with a lot. Ilkin did a great job of reaching out with a hug or a hand for everyone who was hurting, even though she herself was being affected by the emotion of the exercise.
Then, we got back into our family groups and shared again. The kids were more open than before and cried more openly as they shared things they hadn’t felt comfortable sharing earlier. From there on out, after some comforting, the day became more upbeat again and ended on a lighter note. After a brief end-of-day volunteer meeting, Challenge Day was over and we embarked upon the trip home.
A few days later, I got coffee with Ilkin to ask her a few questions about her experience. Since the volunteers hadn’t been around each other much during the course of Challenge Day, I wanted to get her side of the experience as well.
Me: What was your first impression of what you would be doing?
Ilkin: My mindset going in was to volunteer and help out, I didn’t think I would get that affected by it. I walked in thinking it would just be a really long but nice day.
Me: What was the reality of the experience?
Ilkin: The truth was that I came out of there a changed person and it ended up being one of the best memories I have of UnCollege so far.
Me: Did your family group share a lot? How did you deal with it?
Ilkin:Yes, they shared a lot for sure. It got really emotional fast. We had such a connection that it really felt like a family, and after sharing, we all hugged every time. I feel like my group was very strong. If I had done this in middle school there’s no way I would’ve opened up like that. I think these kids were really brave and I thought it was really awesome that they just shared with us like that.
Me: Did you connect with anyone on a personal/emotional level? What were they like? Why did you connect?
Ilkin: I did connect emotionally with one girl who I knew I would have been friends with if I were in 8th grade. There weren’t any words involved, but I just felt this connection. It’s hard to explain.
Me: How did you help your family group? How did they help you?
Ilkin: I just helped them by being there. Everyone told me how brave I was for coming there to help them. I helped them by being present there. They needed that presence of a young adult to help them with what they were going through.
Me: How did the “cross the line” activity affect you?
Ilkin: It was the hardest activity to do and it was all building up to that. It was big. Seeing the kids’ reactions was bigger than my own problems and how it affected me, and I sort of forgot that I had my own problems. I felt like it was a really useful thing for the kids, to see how the people they see every day have been through so much.
Me: How did they respond to you as an adult volunteer?
Ilkin: They responded to me well because there was enough of an age difference that I could understand them and we could relate to each other, but there was still an element of respect to it. Being honest and real also opened up my family group a lot because it made me just like one of them.
Me: What changes did you see in the entire room of kids that you also saw maybe within your own group?
Ilkin: Everyone seemed more connected to each other and making an atmosphere of acceptance. One girl wasn’t into it, didn’t want to do it and was just sitting and crossing her arms, and by the end she opened up so much and was so willing to help her classmates. It was really cool to see that transformation in her.
Me: What are your thoughts now that it’s over? What were your thoughts immediately afterwards? How are they different?
Ilkin: Immediately after, I didn’t think doing it again would help me. I could only think about how hungry and exhausted I was. But now that I see how it has been affecting me and changing me, I want to do it again. Why wouldn’t I? How many lives could I change? Waking up and going and doing something that matters for a day and being able to look back on that is just amazing. I can say I did something that mattered that day and was bigger than just me.
Me: Now, for the biggest one: What did you learn?
Ilkin: I learned that no matter what age you are, everyone has stuff going on in their life that they are struggling with. No one person’s problems are worse than any other person’s, and we’re all in this together.
Me: Is there anything else that you have to say about your Challenge Day experience?
Ilkin: I want to say how grateful I am that I have Jon as a coach because he knew me so well and knew that I would gain something from this and that it would be useful to me. Even though I wasn’t so sure about those things myself, he knew me that well, and now, this is one of my best memories of UnCollege so far, and I want to do it again.
College isn’t for everyone. But neither is dropping out of college. Dropping out isn’t a small decision, and you probably shouldn’t make that decision without evaluating whether or not it’s for you. There is a certain type of person that dropping out works for, and to figure out if that is you or not, you need to ask yourself some questions.
1. Am I miserable in college?
This may seem like an easy one to answer, but really, it’s deeper than it looks. If you’re feeling miserable, you should investigate why that is. Have you been miserable for a long time or is it a recent thing that might fade? Are you miserable because you don’t like your classes or because classes don’t work for you? There is a huge difference between those things. If you just hate your classes, that’s your fault for taking them. If you don’t like the idea of classes and think it’s a terrible way to learn, then you should probably consider dropping out.
Really think about why you’re miserable and if you’re really miserable. You might just not like certain things about college but like other things. Or, you really are miserable and you should get out. If you take some time to reflect and evaluate your situation, you’ll be able to come up with a better solution than deciding to drop out because you don’t like one of your professors.
2. Do I want to get into the real world faster?
If your immediate reaction to this question is yes, you might want to err on the side of dropping out. If the real world scares you, you might want to think on this one for a while. Dropping out may still be for you even if you’re scared. It all depends on whether or not you’re willing to tackle that fear head-on. If you are, then you’re ready to drop out.
3. Do I believe in myself?
Do you believe, truly, that you’ll be successful no matter what you do? Do you have confidence in yourself and your work? Are you confident in your skills and talents? If you are, then dropping out won’t affect your success, except perhaps speeding it up a bit. If you don’t have that confidence and belief in yourself and what you can do, then dropping out might not be the best idea. If you’re set on dropping out, go ahead and do it, but build that belief in yourself, because sometimes you’ll be surrounded by crappy people and you’ll need that self-worth to carry you through. If you don’t have that, you might end up fucking yourself over in the long run, so really focus on building that if you’re planning on dropping out.
4. Do I care about what other people think?
If you do, then dropping out is going to cause you some major headaches. People will be sure to tell you exactly what they think about your choice, whether or not you ask them to. If you don’t have the strength and self-confidence to brush off what people say and not worry about what they think, dropping out isn’t for you. The majority of people follow a traditional path, and that path often conditions them to think that the traditional path is right for everyone. Therefore, they will criticize you. Don’t choose a nontraditional path if you don’t have the strength to back yourself and your ideas up. You’ll get eaten alive by the things other people say. Find strength in knowing and owning your awesomeness and not caring what other people think. If you can’t do that, then maybe dropping out isn’t for you.
5. Am I determined to succeed?
And when I say determined, I mean determined against all odds. If you’re a fighter against all the forces that want to keep you pinned down and unsuccessful, then you’ve got what you need. If you will keep pushing and adapting when things don’t go your way, you’ll succeed no matter if you have a degree or not. And why waste time and money on a degree if you’re predisposed to be successful?
However, if you give up easily, maybe the reason you’re wanting to drop out isn’t really that you want to embrace the real world or actual challenges, but simply because you give up easily. If that’s the case, dropping out is an option, staying is an option, but trying to direct your own education will probably be hard for you.
6. How do I react to failure?
Do you crumble? Do you adapt quickly and bounce back? How do you respond when you fail? Knowing the answer to this is valuable because it is self-knowledge that will help you choose a path that is more suited to you at many different intersections in your life. If you don’t respond well to failure, maybe you need to fail more. Maybe you should expose yourself to failure so you can learn to deal with it more effectively. Maybe you shouldn’t. It’s all up to you. If you’re thinking of dropping out, you should be confident that if you fail, you will be able to bounce back eventually. If you don’t have that confidence, take some time to learn how to fail.
If you bounce back fast and adapt your strategies and life to the demands failure places on you, you’re definitely suited to drop out and pursue whatever it is you want to pursue. This is real life, and you’re ready to face it head on. If you keep practicing and learning from failure, it will eventually take you to success.
7. Do I have a firm grasp of who I am and what I want?
This question is one of the most important you can ask, no matter if you’re planning on dropping out or not. It’s integral to your future success that you know who you are and what it is you want. If you don’t, you will strive with no end in sight. If you can see what you want, you can set goals to achieve it, and by the time you’re done you’ll probably want something else. And without a base of self-knowledge, you won’t know if dropping out (or college) is right for you. If you aren’t self-aware, you can’t be self-directed enough to drop out and have a successful life. Get to know yourself and decide on what you want.
Self-knowledge and self-confidence go hand in hand, and you need both to make a life as a successful drop out. If you have those, you’re ready to jump in. If you have those, you can probably answer the rest of these questions, and, because you’re reading this, have decided that dropping out is for you. If not, that’s fine as well. College isn’t for everyone. Neither is dropping out. But it’s up to you to find out what works best for you.
To get an authentic day-in-the life Gap Year experience, I got permission from, Keri, one of the current fellows in the launch phase, to follow her around for the day. It was a pretty awesome experience to be a witness to.
At 7:00am at the UnCollege Gap Year house the fellows slowly began filtering into the kitchen from their bedrooms. The sounds and smells of breakfast filled the room as cereal and milk were poured into bowls, oatmeal was made and eggs and bacon sizzled in pans on the stove. Some of the fellows grabbed fruit from their cupboards and added it to their breakfasts. Soon, most of them were sitting around the table eating and chatting. The conversation turned to where the fellows want to go for their voyages. They will be spending 3 months scattered across the world, in countries of their choice. Some of them know exactly where they want to go, others are still narrowing it down.
“I’m not sure where I’m going to go, but I’ve been thinking about a lot of places.” Keri said. “Italy, Ecuador and Romania are at the top of my list.”
The fellows talked about their voyages and then began to talk about all the countries they want to visit in their lifetimes. Everywhere from Brazil to Switzerland to Israel were mentioned.
After doing their dishes at the kitchen sink, they headed out in groups to go to that day’s workshop. As they walked down 24th street they passed coffee shops, bakeries, Mexican restaurants and street murals. On their other side, they passed Indian laurel fig trees that add even more color to the street around them. They made their way to the bart station chatting with each other as they boarded the subway. Once they got off the subway and out of the station, they were surrounded by a new scene. There were tall, old buildings made of brick and stone that have been repurposed several times over, along with glass buildings that stretched into the sky. Some buildings around the area were still being constructed.
The group of fellows walked to Galvanize, a co-working space that UnCollege staff members work at and do workshops out of. This space provides two things for the fellows: First, a view inside of startup office culture. Since so many startups are working out of this space, they get to see not only UnCollege’s progress and operations, but that of other startups. This also provides opportunities for our fellows to work at these startups, which two fellows in the current cohort are doing. Secondly, it provides a private space for workshops on a different floor than the floor with the offices. Here, there is a calm atmosphere for conversation and for workshops to be lead.
Once they got to the workshop space, they settled in.This workshop was about speed reading. The workshop began in a different way than usual. Since a few fellows were late to the workshop, everyone hid in a room connected to the main workshop room so they would be confused when they got there. Needless to say, it worked. After that, we started the workshop, albeit a few minutes behind schedule. Everyone was given books and given 2 minutes to gain as much information from it as possible, then summarize it for everyone. After that, we were told about the different methods of speed reading and why speed reading is important. One method that was mentioned was following along with a finger to turn off the inner “voice” in our head that we read in. Keri, as someone who is a voracious reader as well as a writer, had some trouble with this.
Jon explained that she had a lot more resistance to learning this because she had reinforced the neural pathways of reading in her inner “voice” more than most people. Then, he introduced everyone in the workshop to a website called spreeder, where you can copy and paste text and set the words-per-minute pace you want to read at, and it fires them off to you at that speed, whether you can keep up or not. It is used to help people train themselves read at higher speeds. The purpose of this is to be able to process information quickly and to have a deeper understanding of what one is reading at a faster rate. That way, when reading at a “normal” pace, their normal pace is slightly faster and they have deeper understanding in less time.
As Keri used spreeder, she began to more easily distinguish the difference between her inner “voice” and her understanding of what she was reading. She noticed that they were completely different things and they weren’t actually attached at all. This helped her train herself to speed read in a more effective way.
When asked what she took away from the workshop, Keri had this to say:
“I learned that speed reading isn’t a tool you use all the time, like you shouldn’t speed read a whole book and you shouldn’t speed read all the time. It’s something you should practice so that when you read normally, you have a deeper understanding of what you’re reading.”
By the time the workshop was over, she has speed read 3 articles and explained one to everyone at the workshop. Then, Keri and a few other fellows went to Noah’s bagels nearby to get some work done before their coaching meetings.There, she shot off a few emails, edited her resume and began drafting a blog post. After about an hour of work, she left for her coaching meeting with Gabe, one of our Program Specialists.
First, they checked in on how she’d done with her goals from the previous week. She had finished almost all of them, and Gabe concluded that they had found the right amount of work for her, after adding more goals with every passing week thus far. As a writer, Keri’s goals involve a lot of reading, writing and contacting other writers, as well as some focus on planning her voyage and internship phases of her gap year. They talked about what she was reading, and Gabe suggested future books for her to read, as well as talking about connecting her to a writer he knows.
“I want to learn so much.” Keri said. It was a common theme throughout their meeting, and judging by their conversation, they had talked about it before. Gabe pushed her to identify the things she wanted to learn about, and when she couldn’t place all the things she wanted to learn, he asked her what she didn’t want to learn about. These were more clear, because it’s hard to know what you don’t know, but easier to identify the things you don’t want to learn more about. her answers to this question were immediate and confident.
Upon revisiting the question “what do you want to learn about?” after answering with what she didn’t want to learn about, the things she wanted to pursue became more clear. As an environmentalist, she said she wanted to learn more about environmentalism, fracking and climate change. As a writer, she wanted to understand different writing styles and learn how to write in several different styles and formats. Gabe gave her a goal of writing two pieces every week in different styles, doing things like a fake advice column, an essay, a content marketing piece and an opinion piece. After that, they talked about possible internships and people she could contact about those. The possibilities mentioned were mostly humanitarian or environmentalism based internships, which she was very interested in. Gabe made a note to send emails to connections and gave Keri a few email addresses as well.
After the coaching meeting, Keri went straight to a coffee shop to hammer out some blog post ideas and send more emails. Later, she went to meet another writer for coffee, who helped her edit a blog post she’d written. At 6pm she arrived back at the Gap Year house to eat dinner as a community with the other fellows. Jesse, the chef, had just left and the soup he had made was already being ladled into bowls. Around the dinner table, they joked, discussed their coaching meetings and upcoming events they would go to, and checked in on each other’s days. After dinner, Keri and a few others went to a park nearby the house to chat and wind down after an event-filled day. They talked until the sun began to set and then Keri returned to the house to end her day by writing some poetry.
Last week, our fellows were given 36 hours in which to come up with an idea and complete their project and present it to the other fellows. This was dubbed the UnCollege work marathon. The fellows started their projects in our workshop space on the lower level of Galvanize, a coworking space we operate out of. Some of them worked alone, and some worked in groups, and the room was buzzing with energy. The fellows worked in Galvanize for six hours before returning to the house or venturing elsewhere to continue their projects. They worked through the night, clacking on computer keys, strumming guitars and writing poetry by hand until the next morning.
The UnCollege staff came by the house for a late-morning pancake party around 10. There was dancing, pancakes and just plain fun to be had. The fellows worked on and off between enjoying pancakes and joining in on the silly antics of the staff.
That evening at five, it was presentation time. The things the fellows came up with were quite impressive, especially for the amount of time they had to complete them in. First up to present was Nick Sherinian. He spent most of his time during the work marathon at Public Glass, where he works as the executive assistant to a professional glass blower and is currently learning how to blow glass. His project was to learn as many techniques to make marbles and pendants with mushroom like structures inside of them. They came in all shapes and sizes and were incredible to look at.
Next up was Nick Mares, who spent his work marathon writing a vision paper for a startup he’s working on. He shared his business idea with us, explaining it in layman’s terms and answering questions about it. He’s currently working on 2 startups.
After him was Justin, who coded a whole web app that was centered around the sharing and endorsing of ideas. On this app, you can follow idea groups and get updates on them, as well as add ideas to the group and endorse ideas you like. It was complete with a login page and was fully functioning by the time of presentation.
Natalie worked on making 3D printable models using a program called Blender. She made three models, one of a ring, one of a glass bowl and one of a cloth and used them to make still life images which she showed to the group, as well as giving us an in-person tutorial on how to make the models, place them and render them.
Charles went through tutorials and used what he learned from them to make some awesome dubstep music that he showed everyone. He explained how the program he was using worked and walked us through each individual synthesized part of the music.
Addie walked 12 miles for her work marathon project. She walked to all of her favorite tucked away spots in SF and took some amazing photographs that she showed us all.
For his work marathon project, Daniel wrote an EP that he performed for us. He wrote a song about each place he has lived, Idaho, Georgia and San Francisco. Each song had its own style and feel to it and he performed them very well.
To finish off the work marathon presentations, we had two groups of two.
The first group of two was Keri and Sharan who made a zine. It was a long poem that was hand illustrated and focused on our perception of time. They read it aloud and then passed it around for people to look at the illustrations.
The second group was Jason and Ilkin, who did a blog project modeled after Humans of New York. They went around San Francisco and took pictures and interviewed random people and go to know their stories. They shared with us some of the most interesting interviews they did during their presentation, while also showing us the site. You can see the site they made here: http://overlookedcity.squarespace.com
The work marathon challenged and brought out the best in the creative minds of our fellows. During the launch phase, we challenge our fellows in many different ways to go above and beyond what they believe they are capable of. The work marathon is just one example of that. We do this in our coaching, in our workshops and in the requirements of the entire year-long program.
When asked about why we do the work marathon, Jon, one of our Program Specialists, had this to say:
“One of the best and most important things about the Gap Year program is letting your work speak for you. In a way it’s a microcosm of our whole program, because we’re giving them a short amount of time to work incredibly hard & make something they’re proud of; a physical, tangible example of what it is they can do.”