Challenge Day

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.

Posted by on October 29, 2014
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Is Dropping Out For Me?

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.

Posted by on October 25, 2014
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A Day in the Life of an UnCollege Fellow

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.

Posted by on October 17, 2014
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UnCollege Work Marathon

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.

Ring in Glass

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:

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.”

Posted by on October 16, 2014
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Public Speaking Workshop

An essential theme of the Gap Year curriculum has to do with going outside of one’s comfort zone and keeping that as a practice. Another component is constant improvement and feedback. This comes into play in many different ways, but one recent example of this is a workshop the fellows participated in the other week.

This workshop was about public speaking, one in a series of two, and was designed to help the fellows learn and improve quickly within the workshop, and also to give them the tools they need to improve on their own and prepare for the second workshop. It was lead by a guest workshop leader who has a lifetime of experience in acting and speaking, and later, a great deal of experience in teaching those things.

The workshop started off with basic introductions, but Lisa used even this as a way to give the fellows feedback about their public speaking. She also talked about the different parts of effective public speaking, such as articulation, pauses, posture, facial expression, volume, tone and hand gestures. Then, she gave the fellows another chance to speak using either quotes they picked out beforehand, or quotes she gave them. She worked with them individually in front of the rest of the fellows and provided instant feedback to help them improve right away. The other fellows were also a part of the feedback process, whether that meant giving a compliment or some constructive criticism after the speech, or letting people know when their volume was too low during a speech by gesturing from the audience.

The fellows learned not only how to take and adapt to feedback, but also how to give it in a respectful, constructive manner, which is a useful skill to have for anyone who interacts with people. It was really cool to get to see the evolution as the fellows went through and gave their speeches and then adapted them to the feedback they received. In some cases, the changes were very obvious and you could even see some of the fellows’ confidence increasing in just a few short minutes.

Public speaking is something that most people shy away from, but it is a useful way to learn to be mindful of your speech and communication in a way that you can’t in everyday conversations. It is also a way to stretch your comfort zone and learn about yourself and how we can all constantly improve. These lessons are what we strive for our Gap Year fellows to learn, not just the basic skills of the workshops, but the underlying skills and concepts that apply to a wider range of skills and life situations.

The most interesting thing Lisa did when she was helping people was that she said the words don’t matter. It’s how you say them that matters. This shows that most of our communication is centered around different physiological and tonal queues we give that, most of the time, we aren’t even aware of. When she brought attention to this, the fellows really began to monitor themselves as they spoke, and gained awareness of the things they had to improve.

Workshops are at the core of our launch phase, along with coaching. Combined, they are the backbone of what we do. We educate and challenge our fellows as a group and also on an individual basis. Through these, we empower them with the skills they need to carve their own path for the rest of the year. The rest of their time in the day is their own and they have free reign of it, to work on projects, network or attend events. But through workshops we make sure they all have the skills they need to use their time effectively and get their personal goals accomplished.

Now, the idea of having mandatory workshops seems a bit like school to some. And it is, in a way, but the workshops focus more on practice than theory, unlike traditional higher education, as well as giving the fellows a tangible skill that they can exercise during the rest of their time in the year, and even beyond their gap year.

When asked about the purpose of workshops, Jon, one of our program specialists, had this to say:


“It’s a way of getting people to learn relevant skills. We aren’t anti-education at all. Quite the opposite. In fact, the cornerstone of our belief at UnCollege is that life is about constant learning. We focus on skills and subject matter that we think are incredibly important for today’s world, and have a lot of resources in the form of materials and people with experience. It would be selfish of us not to share that with everyone in the program.”


As you can see, workshops are a very integral part of the way we do education at UnCollege. The difference, however, between a workshop and a lecture, is that workshops get the audience involved and is a more hands-on way of learning that immerses you in the experience. This was true for the public speaking workshop last Friday as well. The fellows got very involved in the process of public speaking instead of just being told about it, and they learned and adapted quickly because they were a part of the process.

At the end of the workshop, Lisa asked what one thing everyone was going to work on improving for the next workshop. Once everyone had a goal, she made it the job of all the fellows to watch for things like saying “um” or “like,” speaking louder in everyday conversations and using more articulation. This way, everyone is getting feedback from the time the workshop ends to the time the next one starts, and therefore, are having to constantly adjust and correct their normal speaking habits in order to improve their public speaking skills. Another component of this that is fascinating is that Lisa effectively made every fellow the accountability buddy fo every other fellow. In the context of everyday life. Since this has been established, now it will be easier for the fellows to stick to their goals because they have multiple people to keep them accountable at random moments in the day.

The fellows came away from the workshop with a better understanding of public speaking, but also of communication in general. This is very important for the fellows, because at some point, no matter what your interests or career, communication will play a huge role in what you’re trying to accomplish. In many people’s cases, if they want to get a job or sell a product, this workshop would give them a giant advantage. Communication is key between employers and employees, as well as any relationship. Not only will the fellows now have better public speaking skills, but they will know their faults when it comes to communication, and they’ll work on improving them. This will make them more effective communicators as well as more effective people.

Posted by on October 6, 2014
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What I Learned About Self-Directed Learning In Tokyo

During my Gap Year with UnCollege, I spent 3 months in Tokyo, Japan teaching English, doing housekeeping, learning Japanese, touristing around and making connections with super cool people. While I was there, I learned a few valuable insights about self-directed learning, specifically self-directed learning in another culture as contrasted with the culture I’ve lived in my whole life.

Japan is a place where conformity is valued highly, especially in the school and work culture of fast-paced Tokyo. It is said in Japan that if everyone behaves in the same way, they keep the harmony of the country. That’s a heavy burden for anyone who is at all “different.”

I was working in an English conversation cafe teaching English in a more informal setting than most Japanese people were used to; using conversation instead of lessons to teach. The first thing I always heard from newcomers was that this was different than anything they had ever experienced. In school, they “learned” English by studying spelling and grammar lessons. Even though they studied English for the majority of their schooling (all of middle and high school), when they came out of school, they couldn’t speak a word. All those years, they never practiced actually speaking English. They could read and (kind of) understand English, but they had no idea what it sounded like or how it felt in their mouths as they said it. They didn’t know how to form the sounds of the alphabet or make words or sentences.

At the cafe I worked at, everything was based around speaking and listening. New, random vocabulary wasn’t dished out using worksheets that were due at a certain time on a certain day. Instead, when someone encountered a word they didn’t know, they asked a question, looked it up in an English-to-Japanese dictionary or googled it on their phone. After they understood the word and how it fit into the sentence, then we would continue our conversation. So, what if someone came in knowing no English whatsoever? I would get a third party to translate between us and talk really slowly and simply. A lot of people would just sit and listen, occasionally asking questions to someone in Japanese, until one day, they would venture into speaking a few sentences of broken English. I saw this happen many times, and it always seemed like a brilliant transformation of the student.

While I went through my 3 months there, learning, working and touristing, I made notes in my head about self-directed learners and what I learned about them that crossed all lines of culture. Though there was a lot that I learned, the following three points are, I think, the most important things I learned during my time there.

  1. Self-Directed Learners Are Different

While many people are equipped to become self-directed learners, not everyone who can will. That said, not everyone is equipped to do it. The people who have already crossed that line are different than the mainstream of people inside their culture. And they were probably already “weird” before they started educating themselves. Self-directed learners are different, we use our time differently than most, and are usually ambitious as fuck. I met students who wanted to learn up to 7 languages, were freelance translators, wanted to change the education system and even owned their own businesses. I also learned that it was often viewed as a bad thing in Japan to be different and that these people were taking a risk socially by learning to speak English and pursue the other things they were learning or doing.

Self-directed learners are viewed as different, no matter where they live, because they are learning outside the system. We’re usually always viewed as different to begin with, but the fact that we learn on our own definitely is another thing that sets us apart. Usually, self-directed learners are also very ambitious. And you have to be in order to teach yourself something and really follow through on that.

The best self-directed learners are proud of that which sets them apart. The students I had that did the best were the ones who would look to see if someone was listening and then say to me “I’m weird.” And smile. In Japan, this is a big thing to do because their culture is very centered around conformity and the idea of being “normal.” Some students would even go on short angry rants about how they hate this about Japan. But other students, usually the ones who didn’t try too hard and didn’t return often, whenever someone would point out that they might be weird or different, they would come back with “No I’m not. I’m normal!” And they would say it urgently, looking unsettled, an unspoken fear showing on their faces. The more they embraced their weirdness, the better they did. It was a really interesting correlation I found as I taught there over the course of 3 months.

  1. You can’t do it alone

This I found in my own experiences as I ventured around Tokyo. Without the help of other people, I would have not gotten much accomplished. I would’ve spent most of my time lost, probably would’ve gone broke and might not have been able to muster up the courage to face culture shock and the language barrier every day. Alone, I would’ve learned little to no Japanese. With help of friends and teachers in Japan, I learned enough to be able to survive any given day in Japan. With the help of friends, I found work and therefore money. I met friends of the friends I made while teaching and ended up making lasting friendships with people I still talk to.

One of my goals while I was in Japan was to keep a daily writing practice. Without Hisa, a friend I met at the cafe where I taught English, I wouldn’t have known where outside my house I could write and research on my computer (most coffee shops in Japan don’t have wifi), and I wouldn’t have had anyone to keep me accountable. After meeting him, we started hanging out at the library, writing together between the hours of my morning housekeeping job and my night English teaching job. He did all his writing freelance, so he made his hours fit with mine, which was awesome. He also made sure I wrote at least 1,000 words a day.

Just because you’re self-directed doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. If you want good results, you really shouldn’t. With other people to  help motivate and keep you accountable, you achieve a lot more than you would alone, not to mention that they can introduce you to new connections.

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself

When I was in Japan, I kept falling short of my goals in respect to language learning and writing. The more I tried, the more I failed. And when I failed, I was super hard on myself for it. I would get mad at myself and ruin my own day because of it.

In contrast, when I was teaching English and my students beat up on themselves even a little bit, I would call them out and tell them to stop. I would tell them that they’re learning and it’s okay to not be perfect, and that they needed to be nicer to themselves. It took me a while to realise what I hypocrite I was being. It took me even longer to take my own advice and put it into practice.

Often, we expect too much from ourselves, and when we don’t meet our goals, we become angry at ourselves. We go over all the reasons we failed. We beat ourselves down and that doesn’t help anything. This is probably the most important thing I learned in Japan. That I need to be kind and understanding to myself instead of expecting to succeed every time and getting mad over failures of any kind. I thought, if my students did this, I would call them out. And there was no one to call me out most of the time, so I didn’t catch on to this bad trend until a lot later than I should’ve. There’s a balance between completing goals, being held accountable and just letting up on all the pressure we put on ourselves.

In the end, we won’t get as much done, learn as much or be as awesome if we spend a ton of time being down on ourselves. Instead, if we let up on ourselves and treat ourselves like people, we’ll bounce back from failure faster and learn more than we could otherwise. We’ll be better at communicating with others and managing our stress, which leads to a higher awesomeness level and overall a better life.

So there you have it: embrace your weird, get buddies to learn alongside and be nice to yourself. I learned a lot during my three months in Japan, but I would say that these three things are the most important things I learned. And I’m not a prime example of someone who is a master of any of these. I struggle with them all the time. But I’m working towards something better every day. And that’s what matters. It’s the journey, not the destination. And if you keep that in mind, the journey will be ever more meaningful for you and you’ll grow way more than you would’ve otherwise.

Posted by on October 4, 2014
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Starting Your Application? Consider a Gap Year

Applying to colleges is an exhausting process. There’s the matter of deciding on the colleges you want to apply to, filling out the application, sending your transcript and test scores in and usually writing an essay. All that on top of normal senior year high school classes, homework, extracurriculars and/or part-time jobs. It’s stressful and hard and sometimes you wonder why you’re even doing it. Of course, it’s because you want to get into college, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the reason behind going to college.

For a lot of people, including myself, college is an automatic decision. “Of course I’m going to college. I’m an intelligent, hard-working individual. Why wouldn’t I go?” was a natural thought for me. But when it came to deciding where to apply to, an anxiety crept over me like the shadow of some dark cloud coming to wreck my day. When it came time to actually fill out applications, I was exhausted by the mere idea. I kept wondering why I hated it so much, this was what I wanted to do right? I wanted to go be a productive member of society, get an education, get a degree and have a better chance of a stable job after college.

But what was the real reason I was applying to college without any real thought? I felt pressure from my family, my counselors and friends to do it. I was supposed to. I never thought about what I actually wanted to do. I never asked myself the hard questions, and instead went along with what everyone was telling me to do. I went straight to college without thinking about it, and I regretted it because I went to a school that was easy to get into and overall just not for me. Then, I started asking myself the hard questions, but by then I had significantly less money than when I’d started. I wished I had taken a gap year before deciding where to go to college, or deciding on going to college at all. So after my first year, I took a gap year. It changed my life.

Studies show that students who take a gap year have a consistently higher GPA than those who don’t. They also have less of a chance of academic burnout and a heightened sense of purpose in their studies. Students who take a gap year also get a great chance to recharge after 13 years of schooling. It’s a chance for a fresh start before your college career begins. You’ll also have a lot of experiences that your peers who go straight to college are missing out on. You’ll learn skills, cultural intelligence and independence, all of which will help you whether you decide to go to college or not. Taking a gap year also adds a different perspective to your college application essays, and deeper self-knowledge that will show in how and what you write.

In addition, you’ll have a whole extra year to finish applying to colleges. Not that I’m supporting procrastination, but hey, extra time is pretty great, right?

There are a lot of options out there for taking a gap year, and different approaches work for different people, so make sure to do your research when it comes to what you want to do. You could sign up for a specific gap year program, or do your own thing, but you shouldn’t fall into the trap of just taking a year off. Your gap year is a time to grow and learn in ways you can’t inside a classroom. Whether that means gaining a new skill, travelling, volunteering or interning, there are programs that can help you and there are unlimited options of what you can do with your time and some creativity. Think of your gap year not as a year off, but a year “on.” A year where you’re investigating opportunities and learning in new ways before you head off to college (or whatever else you might want to do).

The benefit to a gap year that involves some time abroad (especially 3 months or more) is that, studies show, extended travel abroad makes workers more flexible. Having to adjust to a new location, language and culture is hard to do, but it benefits us in the long run, both professionally and personally. And it provides us with unique life experiences. That’s why the UnCollege Gap Year program starts with what we call a voyage phase, during which our fellows spend 3 months abroad. They have a number of options for placement during this time, and those options include what country they will go to, where they will stay and what they will be doing there. These options are structured so that fellows don’t end up wasting their precious time abroad, and spend the time learning a skill, interacting with people and learning from them. This phase is a life-changing time for the fellows and will give them experiences that will make them more employable and empathetic.

During the voyage phase, fellows are tasked with learning as much of the language of the country they’re in as they can. This is not only helpful in making the fellows bilingual (if they aren’t already) but also in a way of stretching their mind and comfort zones to see what they are really capable of. Learning a second language also is really great for your brain. It helps delay the onset of dementia and alzheimer’s. In addition to that, it makes you more employable and gives you a better understanding of the world, other perspectives and your own language.

After the Voyage phase, our program has what we call a Launch phase which is multi-faceted.  There are workshops about professional skills, personal effectiveness, learning and thinking and social capital. There is also has an emphasis on networking and going outside of one’s comfort zone. The fellows are assigned deliverables at some of the workshops and that can include anything from building a website for their professional portfolio or designing business cards to starting a blog or writing their resume. Here, they also gain connections to potential internships, pick up new skills, learn to live in a shared space and learn how to manage their time effectively.

The skills our fellows learn here are invaluable to their future employment. During this time, they also have the task of finding an internship for their next phase. Their internship phase will give them real-world work experience and teach them a lot about themselves. This will benefit them in whatever they choose to do after their gap year, whether that is college, a career or entrepreneurship. They will learn communication skills as well as hard skills that they couldn’t learn any way other than through experience.

The final phase of the UnCollege Gap Year program is a project phase, where the fellows have a chance to work on their own personal project for three months. Here, they combine the skills they’ve learned throughout the year and the connections they have made to produce a tangible product or service that they try to make a profit on. This not only teaches a lot of valuable lessons in life and entrepreneurship, but also provides a big project to add to their portfolios. This will be something that will set them apart if they are trying to get into college, a job or set out on their own path. The entire year will provide more real-world learning and self-knowledge than anyone would get just going straight to college out of high school, as is the case with any gap year program. Ours is different in that we focus on deliverables as well as experiences and personal growth. In addition to that, our program includes a year of individual coaching to help fellows achieve their personal, academic and professional goals, as well as stretch themselves in ways they didn’t think possible.

When you take a gap year, you have time to really think and learn about the world around you and yourself. You have the opportunity to call things into question, like how you work best, what kind of person you want to be, and what you want to do after your gap year. For some, that may involve calling college into question, or a certain major. For others, it may be rethinking their future career. Gap years are a personal experience, and everyone’s will be different, but they have been proven to have positive impacts, whether you want to go to college, start a career, start a company or just figure it out as you go. A gap year will give you confidence and independence, which are invaluable traits, especially at the age of 18 or 19.

Fall 2014 Reading List

Here’s a peek at what our UnCollege fellows and staff are reading this fall:



Jon Gordon photo

Jon is one of our coaches who specializes in non-violent communication and facilitation.


Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan. One of Google’s earliest engineers  breaks down  emotional intelligence in a google/science way.  Along the way providing evidence that mindfulness and vulnerability are not only important in life but key components to success and happiness



Morgan is a writer interning at UnCollege. He does content marketing and administration.



Shakespeare’s Sonnets. A challenging read for sure, but the imagery in his words  is unparalleled. Worth reading for anyone with any interest in poetry or english literature.

Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. If you want to know where a lot of America’s founders believed about government, you should know that many of them studied from this work. It influenced the government we’re in now so highly that many of the concepts – once you get past the Old English writing – are common sense to us now.

Sovereign by Ted Dekker. The third book in a trilogy about a medieval, dystopian future where people have no emotions. Dekker’s fast-paced style never bores and he writes plot twists like no other. Always a step ahead of his audience, he’s up there with Stephen King in quality.



Trevor is an UnCollege Fellow from a previous cohort who is interested in skill acquistion and is currently doing a sales internship.



The Social Animal by David Brooks. It’s a story of success told on a level deeper than the surface. It’s about the hidden qualities in us that can’t be measured, but in the end are what actually lead us to success and happiness.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Explores the science behind habits and how they affect our lives and businesses.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Why character, confidence, and curiosity are more important to your child’s success than academic results.



Caleb is a Felllow from a previous cohort who is skilled in videography and does videos for UnCollege.



The Art of Self-Directed Learning by Blake Boles. If you’re looking to learn more about self-directed learning, this one can’t be recommended enough. It’s a short read, but the content is jam-packed with advice and understanding about self-directed learning, how it really works, and how to make it work for you.



Sharan is a current UnCollege Fellow who has a variety of interests, but is especially interested in neuroscience.



Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It explores adventure but also questions imagination.



Charles is a current Fellow who is focusing on music production.



His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The story is about travelling, facing human cruelty, and finding inner beauty without dogmas. Science, witchcraft and religion become important parts as the books progress. The characters are amazing. These books helped me realize how great and important imagination is, and also how much human beings can be amazingly evil or beautiful.

Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The true story of a philosopher trying to come to terms with his solitude and find happiness in nature. It’s written in a really beautiful way while being autobiographical at the same time.



Natalie is a current Fellow who is working to start her own cosplay and chainmaille business.



Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. What I really like about it is that it’s not dumbed down. It’s written in a way that you can understand, but you still sometimes find yourself looking up words. The concepts aren’t dumbed down either, like most things these days are. I like it when authors treat their readers like intelligent human beings.



Nick is a current Fellow who is interested in technology.



Zero to One by Peter Theil and Blake Masters. About how to innovate in any industry, and why innovation and progress shouldn’t be limited to technology and Silicon Valley.



Keri is a current Fellow who is interested in writing in many different forms, including poetry and her blog.



Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. What I like about it is the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, so you know what the main character is thinking, but it is also a well-crafted narrative.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I like it because it’s anti war. It does a good job of mirroring our lives and talks about things that most people are afraid to address and is honest about them.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s narrated by death, which is awesome, and it gives a really honest account of of World War 2. What I really like about it is how it captures what it’s like to be going through adolescence on the brink of World War 2.

No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay. A book of poetry that really links together family, love and the importance of human connection.

Posted by on October 3, 2014
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We’re Hiring an Admissions Advisor!

We at UnCollege/Gap Year are seeking an advisor with previous experience in admissions to represent Gap Year’s growing global network of campuses to prospective fellows from a diverse range of backgrounds throughout the world. You have a unique opportunity to be part of an organization at the center of a revolution in higher education.

When you work at UnCollege/Gap Year, it’s more than just a job that awaits you. You are joining an exciting intellectual and cultural community, one where everyone is working together to make education less expensive and more meaningful. Most importantly, you should care deeply about creating a world where people have the freedom to learn how, where, when, and why they want.  The position could start right away for the right candidate.


Admissions (70%)

Evaluate and recommend applicants for admission
Manage the application system and ensure all forms have been collected
Assist in further implementation of a CRM system
Report on the admissions funnel
Build relationships with applicants as their primary point of contact
Respond to inquiries
Advise applicants, families, and school officials on our programs, admissions policies,and financial support opportunities

Marketing (15%)

Plan, write and edit content for the website, blog, and external sites
Manage Adwords campaigns
Provide design support
Update and maintain the website (WordPress)

Budget and Account Management (10%)

Assist with payment planning
Track tuition payments made
Explore and recommend payment planning solutions
Track marketing budget and expenditures

Events (5%)

Represent the Gap Year program at recruitment events, school visits, and information sessions
Make presentations to parents, students, and educational professionals in venues ranging from small groups to conferences
Assist with events involving Gap Year fellows, such as orientation

Direct admissions experience

Required Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Outstanding communication, interpersonal, and public speaking skills.
Ability to represent and promote UnCollege/Gap Year independently.
High degree of organizational and management skills.
Ability to handle a large workload to peak periods.
Some travel and weekend hours required.

Preferred Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Experience evaluating international credentials.
Experience recruiting students for highly selective programs.
Experience producing publications.
Editorial writing.

To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to [email protected] with Admissions + Your Name in the subject line.

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3 Ways to Be a Leader

By Nelson David Bassey

For many years society has imposed certain myths about leadership on us, which sadly, we have accepted unquestionably. Many of us have been taught that leadership is about position, roles, job description, politics, greed or manipulation. Some of us have even been lured to believe that leadership is about personality types, or that there is a genetic factor to leadership. But is that really what leadership is about?

In January 2011, as a young college student, I set out to explore and find the true meaning of leadership. I started out by reading lots of books. Many of them emphasized management practices. Some of them introduced complex systems and definitions of terms that left me even more confused. Nonetheless, I kept on learning. What I didn’t know at the time was that leadership doesn’t have to be learnt or sourced through elitist education, expensive seminars and privileged programs. But I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn experientially as well. I joined clubs, started one, managed teams, pioneered programs, failed terribly and succeeded remarkably too.

After three years of my personal journey in leadership, I came to understand what truly leadership is about.

  • It’s not about having or holding a position.
  • It’s not about having connections or high social standing in society.
  • It’s not about being born with a special leadership microchip in your left brain. (Just if you’re wondering, I certainly was not born with one)
  • It’s not even about having charisma or possessing certain personality traits (introversion or extroversion).

I learned that “The real secret about being a leader is finding yourself, discovering your purpose, believing in your abilities and living it every day of your life – thereby growing your value and influence, and impacting the lives of other people in different ways.”

My life exploded. Today, through writing, speaking and training, I help students understand the true meaning of leadership, embrace it wholeheartedly and increase their value and influence through it. Because of what I learned and the change I made in my own life, at age 23 I authored my first book, and have since had the privilege of speaking at conferences, conduct training and workshops for institutions across Malaysia and internationally.

People ask me, “What is leadership?”

Leadership is not a strategy. It is not a role or a responsibility. It is a way of life. “[It] is first an attitude and belief, followed by the ability to stand up and take ownership in walking taller and stronger on a new path or an improved current path.” – Rhae Duttagupta [paraphrased].

The next question is, “How can I become a leader today?”

Well, the answer is – you already are! We all have the seed or conviction of leadership within us. It can either be active, emergent or dormant. So, the right question is “How can I become a great leader?”, “How can I become a leader that will leave a positive impact for generations?”

Here are three (3) ways – not all the ways – of becoming that kind of leader:

  1. Become “Leaderless.”

There are four kinds of people in our society today. There are people who do the right thing without being asked to do so. There are other people who do the right thing after been told once. There are also people who do the right thing after been told twice. And lastly, there are people who will not do anything even if you told them to. These people do not get any reward. The people who get the most rewards in life are the first kind. Which one are you?

True leaders are people who do the right thing without being told to. These are initiative takers. They take initiative to solve problems by asking the right questions (quoted from my book, “The New Generation of Leadership” page 51-52):

“…What can I do for my country today? What can I do for my community today? What can I do for my institution today?”

  1. Create ladders for other people to climb higher.

Less than two weeks ago, I was blessed with a humbling privilege to share stage with Professor Muhammad Yunus (the ‘father of social entrepreneurship and microfinance’), in Jakarta, Indonesia. There I addressed 2,000+ ASEAN youths and social entrepreneurs on leadership and social entrepreneurship. The impact was remarkable, beyond words. However, that would not have been possible without a lady I truly love and respect. I call her “Ms. Chong.” She is the CEO of a non-profit in Malaysia. Ms. Chong got me on what became my biggest platform without any prior request from me. I received a call one bright morning, and was presented with one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I accepted the opportunity which turned out to be a game changer for the Indonesian youths and for me personally.

Just like Ms. Chong, great leaders are people who create ladders for other people to climb towards higher performance, to succeed, to win and to actualize their dreams and potential.

  1. Stand up for people and not for ideas.

From Nelson Mandela to Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. each one of them, like every other great leader you can think of, stood up for people. They didn’t stand up for ideas. They fought for people and not for ideas.

When you are starting a project, creating a product or making decisions in the boardroom, are you doing so for the “idea” sake, to prove that you’re intelligent and smart; or are you doing so thinking about the “people” who will be affected by it? Great leaders stand up for people. You can, too! These are the people who leave an impact for many generations long after they are gone!

In conclusion, my challenge to you is this:

How can you be “leaderless” today?

In what ways can you create a ladder for someone else within your network today?

Who can you stand up for today?

Remember, “There is no off switch on leadership. Every one of us can demonstrate leadership in every role we play, not just at work but everywhere, every day.” – David A. O’Brien


Posted by on September 27, 2014
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