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.
Written by Alex Clifford
Taylor Fogarty was an English major at Virginia Commonwealth University before dropping out to participate in UnCollege’s Gap Year program. Read her story below.
Why did you want to participate in UnCollege’s Gap Year program?
I was in college, and I was stressed because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt like I was wasting my time.
After reading a New York Times article about Dale, I did more research into UnCollege. It was the most well-rounded gap year program I could find. It wasn’t just about going abroad. Instead, Gap Year was everything I had wanted from college, but didn’t think I was going to get if I stayed in school.
How did your parents feel about this?
My dad was calm about it. He had a similar experience, having only gone to college for a month before feeling unfocused. In fact, he was proud that I had found something else to do instead of dropping out and doing nothing.
My mom was the same way, although she was a bit upset because she had taken out a loan to help me pay for college. But both of them knew that I needed to do this for myself, so they were overall happy and excited for me.
You’re now in the first phase of the program. What are you working on?
The thing I’m most excited about has been creating my fashion blog. That’s been a big thing, in addition to building my social network and going to networking events.
Then I have my internships, which are AWESOME. I wasn’t actively looking at this stage in the Gap Year program, so getting them was totally unexpected.
The first one is at a boutique and gallery named Wonderland. It’s really close to the UnCollege house, and I’d dropped in to shop before. One day I asked if she needed some extra help. She was psyched! This is my “fun” internship. I model for Irene, the owner, and write up her blog.
I’m learning a lot from my position at Wonderland, especially about the small business side of the fashion industry. Irene buys and sells clothings, and it’s interesting to see how the industry works on a local scale.
My other internship is with a woman named Sarah Liller, who I emailed after finding online. She’s a designer and has her own line. She’s very established! People recognize her name, and she’s doing some work with Macy’s.
I initially emailed her about sewing lessons. She replied: “I don’t have time to give lessons anymore, but I really need an intern!”
I go for hours at a time. It’s very intensive in the design world. I’m learning about the way clothing is made — which fabrics are used, how to assemble them, and how Sarah takes her ideas from paper to fabric. Watching her and how she works is amazing!
It’s a great balance between the internships. One is really fun and the other is really hard. I’m learning a lot from both.
How has Gap Year equipped you for the real world?
I’ve learned how to network and better use the resources around me. It’s made me become a more open person and approach things with an open mind.
Now I feel as though I could travel to any city and thrive in it. I landed in San Francisco just a few weeks ago, and already I’ve gotten two amazing internships and built a huge network of supportive people. I feel like I could do this anywhere… Spain, New York, you name it!
I no longer feel as though I’m meandering through life, which is how I felt in college. Instead I’m waking up everyday feeling excited, thinking: “Let’s do this!”
How has it been living alongside the other UnCollege fellows?
Everyone here has an amazing story and is so smart. There are conflicts from time to time, of course, but all in all it’s a great environment.
I definitely feed off the energy of other people in the house, who are so positive and driven. They’re great resources!
Would you recommend taking a year off to other people?
Heck, yeah! I want my sister to do it too. She’s graduating next year.
You don’t know who you are when you graduate high school (or even college). Taking a break, getting outside of your comfort zone, and stepping back from the traditional system is really important.
Where do you hope this will all lead?
My end goal is to be in the fashion industry (accomplished!) doing something I really love. I haven’t figured out what that is yet, but I’m learning a ton about that now. I’m confident I can get there.
By Jean Fan
Q: Tell me a little about yourself, Caleb. What do you like to do?
I love making videos. During high school, I got the opportunity to learn video production, which I really enjoyed. It was a great way to start out the day. Because I had access to equipment and software I couldn’t afford on my own, it really made a big difference in my trajectory.
Last year, I won first place in a video competition in the Long Island Region, sponsored by SkillsUSA. My piece was done through linear editing — which means if you mess up, you have to rewind, find the beginning of your last scene, and tape over it. I later went to the state competition, held in Syracuse, and won second place. That was a fun experience.
I also love golf. As my summer job for the past few years, I’ve worked at as a caddy at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course, where they’ve held the US Open multiple times.
Q: What was your experience like in school?
I had a very limited worldview during much of high school, as did my friends. We didn’t know what it was actually like in the real world, and we hadn’t been exposed to the concept of “hacking” your education.
During school, I started spending time thinking about my motivation for being there. I realized that most of us just did activities and took classes to make us look good on college applications. That bothered me.
As I read into it, I began to understand the fallacies that exist in the world of higher education: for example, that you need 4 MORE years of school to get a respectable job. You don’t.
My mom was very much on the same page. During my junior year of high school, after hearing about the success of the European gap year tradition, she introduced the idea of taking a gap year to me as well.
Q: What excited you about UnCollege’s Gap Year program?
I’m just beginning my life in the real world, and I’m at a point where I want to explore and become more well-rounded. General ed classes aren’t great for that purpose, but doing things in the real world is — and I’m excited because Gap Year will help me do that.
Coaching is also a big plus for me. It’s been wonderful to have someone sit down with me every week and help me talk through my goals, figuring out what’s working, and what isn’t. Having someone to talk to very frankly about what I want to accomplish — and knowing that I won’t be judged or ridiculed — is so helpful.
Q: How has your time been in the program so far?
It’s been great. I love the setup of the program so far, and I’m really enjoying the curriculum. I feel like I’m learning new, tangible things every time I go into a workshop. Learning things that are directly applicable in the real world, and being explicitly taught key skills (instead of being somehow expected to naturally pick them up in a college environment) is important to me. I especially enjoy the jam sessions — when we get together as a group and make progress on specific goals, from brainstorming to creating a plan to taking action.
Also, being around this group of kids is so cool. Everyone is always so willing to offer helpful advice and share their perspective. We all come from such diverse backgrounds, so we’re able to help each other out quite often.
I’m excited to partner with some of the other fellows on video projects. Erik is a musician, and we’re thinking of making a music video together. Alex is interested in doing a series of interviews with entrepreneurs, so there’s a possible collaboration in that as well.
Q: Do you see yourself going back to college?
As of right now, I simply don’t see myself wanting to. After a year of learning how to be self-sufficient and successful in the real world, what’s the incentive?
Q: Where do you want to be at the end of the launch phase? At the end of the program?
My ideal situation for the end of this year is to have traveled a bit, and then to start a job in the real world. I’d love to go to Argentina.
I have a couple key goals in mind for the launch phase. I’m getting back into blogging, so I can have a written record of everything exciting that I’m doing here. I want to get my website and online portfolio together. I want to meet even more interesting people and see what they’re up to.
UnCollege has been really exciting so far. I can’t wait to see how much I’ll have grown by the end of the year!
By Jean Fan
This week, I interviewed our housing team to get a better sense of who they were and why they joined UnCollege. Jo Welch is our Housing Director, and Gabe Stern is our inaugural House Manager. They both have had diverse experiences and hold fascinating perspectives. Below are their stories.
Jo Welch, UnCollege’s Housing Director
Gabe Stern, Inaugural House Manager
Q: What was your educational background?
Jo: I was the nerd at school. My teachers always said that I asked too many questions, whatever that means. I think my fourth grade teacher even met with my parents to discuss how precocious I was.
In the 5th grade, I got into my school’s gifted and talented program. I studied for and took the SATs in the 7th grade, tested into the IB program, joined the Academic Pentathlon team, and learned college logic in the 8th grade. This was all very exciting for me. I felt like I was finally learning in school.
Unfortunately, my dad got sick around that time, and in the midst of family issues I ended up dropping out of school in the 9th grade. Finishing school was always a big priority for me, however, and I went back in the 11th grade.
In order to make up the classes I missed during my first and second year, I found high school correspondence courses through Texas Tech University. I took classes like geometry, and was able to learn at my own pace. Instead of studying 6 or 7 subjects at a time, I did about one subject a month. I really enjoyed this, because it meant that I got the chance to immerse myself in a subject and know it well, instead of glossing over aspects of it as I would’ve done in school.
By going to school during the day and taking correspondence courses at night and on the weekends, I was able to graduate high school on time.
My GPA was terrible though, so I went to community college full-time while also working full-time. That was unsustainable. There was a constant tension between being professionally and academically successful. My career suffered when I focused on college, and vice versa. After 5 or 6 years, I realized that I just couldn’t do both. I saw that there were other ways to get where I wanted, and that college wasn’t the only option.
Gabe: In school, there’s always that one kid who is smart but doesn’t try. That was me. I went to a Waldorf school for twelve years, but it wasn’t until after I took a gap year after high school that I found the motivation to apply myself. Specifically: I spent my time off from school working at a supermarket, and I realized that that wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
When I went back to school (McDaniel College in Maryland), I took college very seriously and tried hard to do well during the first two years. Getting A’s was a new thing for me, and it felt really good, at first. But soon I became suspicious of the college system.
I spent a lot of time during my senior year of college reading about pedagogy and thinking about effective and scalable ways to educate a population. The Sudbury model of education, where students take complete personal responsibility for their education and lead with their curiosity, was the one that aligned most with my ideology, and it’s very similar to what we’re doing here at UnCollege.
This hands-off model of education teaches self-reliance, and helps young people learn how to get what they want, even if they don’t get a pat on the back for it at the end of the day. That’s key. I think it’s healthy to step back and give yourself the space to ask yourself what you really enjoy doing.
Q: Between college and UnCollege, what did you do?
Jo: Wow. So many things. I’ve had a very wide range of work experiences, and have learned so much on the job — that’s actually what I optimize for. It has not been, however, a clear trajectory of any sort. I think that’s one of the most important things for young people to learn: you don’t have to have your life planned out in order to be successful.
In high school, I waited tables, learning about customer service. I was a dispatcher at a trucking firm for a little while. I worked at a call center. Later I worked as an admin at a construction company, where I taught myself how to use Access and discovered my love of databases.
When I got bored doing that (I had learned all there was to learn), a friend recommended me for an RF drive testing position, where you drive around the country and check data signals. I was traveling all the time, while getting to learn a lot about RF engineering and about how cell networks were structured. I had zero experience in that before, so it was intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun for me.
Then I got a job as a SQL Data Analyst — I still can’t figure out how I got that job — and learned SQL on the job. I fell in love with data analysis and relational databases. They’re beautiful and sexy and I am madly in love with them.
Of course, when the learning slowed on that job, it was time for me to go. There was a company that wanted to do a full data migration from an old system to a new system. I said, “Yeah, I haven’t done that before. Let’s do it.” That was a much smaller team with a much looser company structure, so I was able to get involved with the business side of things as well. For example: I rewrote the training materials, created and staffed a QA department, and redesigned their implementation process. I was able to get really hands-on.
After working with a defense contractor for a few years, I then worked at Dell, which was awful. Big companies are so wasteful with resources.
Gabe: Like Jo, I did many different things before finding myself here. Immediately after graduating college, I worked for the Obama campaign. Then I played in a band in Pittsburgh for a while, and city-hopped between Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New York City. I also traveled to Israel and Palestine, learning about the history and immersing myself in the culture there.
One of the best learning experiences that I had was working remotely from D.C. for an environmental startup for just under three years. As its third employee, I got to watch the company go from ideation to implementation (and ultimately, to failure), wearing many different hats along the way.
When I moved to San Francisco, I did canvassing for Amnesty International and the Red Cross. I’m very driven by causes that end suffering. It was also very fun for me to interact with strangers — I learned how to use charisma to encourage people to take action, which is a very powerful skill. Eventually, they hired me to do higher-level recruiting, which I did for about a year.
Q: What is the most pertinent example of self-directed learning that you’d like to share?
Jo: I started learning a lot about the Paleo lifestyle and grain-free baking. That grew into my own bakery, called Lembas. It’s a reference from Lord of the Rings to the exceptionally healthy bread that elves make. Yeah, I’m a nerd.
Lembas was a food trailer, and I learned about what it takes to start a small business from my experience there. Perhaps my favorite part of running Lembas were all the amazing people I met along the way.
Gabe: For me, it was learning electronic music production. I watched Youtube videos, outsourced questions to forums, and regularly took people in the industry out for coffee.
Soon I started teaching private lessons, and eventually started my own business. I taught myself a few hard skills on the way. I learned how to code in order to make my own website, for example, and design in order to do advertising.
This is what I was doing right before I joined the UnCollege team.
Q: Why did you want to work at UnCollege?
Jo: From my personal experience, starting projects on your own and seeing them to completion can be a lot more valuable than going to school. I think more people should have the chance to choose this type of learning, and I’m excited to be part of the movement that is giving people that opportunity.
Gabe: Education is one of the most important leverage points for fixing global problems. If you can educate people to be smart, creative, and hard-working, then you’re essentially training the next generation of people to do bad-ass shit and improve the world.
By John Gallagher
At some point during my sophomore year of high school, I stopped showing up. Shortly thereafter I tested out of my remaining graduation requirements (this was actually more out of a desire to avoid being prosecuted under state truancy laws rather than an actual desire to have a high school diploma). I was 16 years old. I’ve never regretted my decision to leave school.
I found school disgusting. The unctuous behavior of spoiled teenagers desperate to go to Harvard repulsed me. Teachers and administrators were horrified that, despite my high test scores, I displayed zero interest in joining the ranks of US News & World Report obsessed ranks of adolescent drones. One day, I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I left.
People told me I was making a huge mistake. That I was making a mess of my life. That I’d never make it without a college degree. People told me I’d end up on the streets. They insisted that unless I went back, I had no future. But, I stood firm. I was going to make it on my own. I was determined. In the end, I was also right.
I got a job almost immediately after leaving high school as the Volunteer Coordinator on the biggest congressional primary of the election cycle. Then in the general election, I was the Fairfax County GOTV Director for the Obama Campaign (Tim Kaine’s US Senate Campaign also folded into my operation). Today, I’m an Account Executive at a full service political consulting firm based in Washington, DC.
I’ve learned more by living and doing than I ever would have by sitting in a classroom listening to some academic lecture. What seminar will teach you how to manage a large, multi layered staff? When will you ever learn how to make an effective sales pitch in a school? Which degree confers upon you the ability to function effectively in a public relations crisis? I may not have a fancy piece of paper from some Ivory Tower, but I’ve got real world, marketable skills and substantive track record of success.
Not too long ago, I went back to my old high school. Surprisingly, most of the teachers I talked to agreed in retrospect that I’d made the right call by leaving. But they also told me that veering from traditional educational route wouldn’t have worked out for other people. That’s where I disagree. I think that anyone who consistently finds themselves challenging the conventional wisdom of education should seriously consider opting out of the system.
I got my first gig in politics because I walked into a storefront campaign office and asked to help out. I got my big break because I asked the Campaign Manager for a ride to the metro and used the travel time to convince him to fire a top gun twenty something operative and hire me in their place. If you’ve got the balls to ask for great responsibility as a teenager, people will generally give you a shot. If you’ve got the intelligence and talent to handle it you can reap the rewards of that.
The combination of guts, smarts and ability will take you as far as you need to go regardless of what field you choose to enter. What’s more, it’s easy to turn what conventional wisdom would suggest are liabilities like youth and a lack of formal education into a whiz kid persona (which will do wonders for your career). Plus, skipping four years of college will give you a huge head start on your peers.
When you opt out of the traditional educational system, you turn reality into your classroom. The people you meet along the way in your own personal journey of self discovery will be your teachers and your classmates. Your shared experiences will be your textbook and the only tuition is an open mind.
My rise over the last few years has been pretty meteoric. I’ve proved all those who doubted me wrong. I may not have gone to prom, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t go the official inaugural ball. I saw my opportunities and I took them. At the end of the day, that’s why I’ve come out on top. If you’re brave enough to blaze your own trail, you can make it to the top as well.
I’m a huge fan of the UnCollege movement. I found out about it while researching unschooling. I think that as a society, we need to move away from higher education. If people choose to go to college, that’s fine. But it should be a footnote on your resume, no more important or prominent than a summer spent backpacking across India or a stint in the Marines (although I think either of those are a lot more valuable and fulfilling than four years of frat parties punctuated by boring lectures from academics with no real world experience).
By Robert Shin
Some background information for context: I lived and attended school in New Zealand my entire life, where the school year begins in February and ends in December. All references made are in relation to the New Zealand education system.
If you had met me a year ago, you would have seen the epitome of modern education’s top-tier student. Having built a well-rounded and highly academic high-school career consisting of Olympiads, sports, music, leaderships, scholarships, and science fairs, I had my eyes fixed for a long time on the elite US colleges as my next platform for growth. But plans changed quite suddenly 4 months ago when I found out I had been rejected from all five colleges I had applied to.
I was the one person who people thought had everything figured out in life; heck, even I thought I had everything figured out in life. But there was no more prestigious college ahead of me, no more open road to walk in the system that had nurtured me. Instead, I was forced to grow past the system, and began considering alternative routes for the first time in my life. It wasn’t easy, and I initially spent weeks being lost for ways to use my time productively. But not getting into college hadn’t changed anything about my identity – I still had my dreams, passions, and hobbies. And with the freedom of time and choice, I paved trails through connecting the dots of my pastimes.
Anything and everything I held interest in became viable options, from long-held hobbies to distant curiosities I never explored. Interests in meditation lead to my entering a Buddhist monk temple in Kyoto, Japan; spontaneous enthusiasm in cooking lead me to an organic farm restaurant in the mountains of Nagano; my wish to visit family relatives exposed me to the lower-class lifestyles of South Korea. I opened my mind to all ideas and people, and it showed me chasms of a beautiful world I had never bothered to look for. And as I am writing this piece now, surrounded by young entrepreneurs at the heart of Silicon Valley, I am cultivating a growing belief that productive gap-years are a necessary part to understanding life.
It is impossible for me to explain in detail my growth as an individual from my (half-finished) gap-year, but I want to highlight how time spent outside the educational bubble can build a foundation that will prepare you for a deeper, more colorful life. The beauty of a gap year is the endless creativity in which you can craft a path; there is nothing you cannot do if you learn to give yourself permission. As the focus shifts from life in an education system to life in the real world, you begin to truly clarify where you really want to go and what you really want to do. Dreams crystallize, and the path in which you choose to attain these dreams is no longer restricted by the conventional methods of modern society; your journey is defined not by the academic years of school, but rather by a continuum of spontaneous, changing environments, that force you to open your mind and heart.
The diverse and profuse group of people you meet will help you identify your own flaws and strengths, and understand what it means to connect as a human. The lack of titles, awards, and grades in the real world leads to a deeper, more meaningful reflection of what you want out of life, and you are continuously humbled by the lives of strangers. What becomes apparent is that it is not so important what you know, as it is what other people have to say. Life is a constant flux of learning, thinking, and doing, and whereas in school you spend your days learning and thinking, it is through leaving it you actually do.
At this point I would like to give me two cents worth regarding college. I for one am not against college in any way; in fact, I personally support entering college at some point during your lifetime. One thing I am certain of is not to simply disregard an opportunity or pathway without having experienced it first-hand, as often the most pleasant surprises arise from not well-thought-out experiences you planned, but the spontaneous, less certain happenings you decide to ‘just try once’. Having said that, however, learn to take a breath and look around you periodically. Don’t be in any rush to enter college, and take some time off to gain insight into what matters in life and what doesn’t. Understand that school is simply one of many platforms for growth, and that you can break the rules that were meant to be broken. Have confidence in your judgments and decisions, and don’t let trivial formalities prevent you from enjoying the ephemeral beauty that life is.
Paul Wegzyn was a high school salutatorian, majored in mathematics and economics in college, dropped out of an MBA/MSA program to play online poker player and now he teaches, farms, and blogs about education.
How did you learn about UnCollege and why are you interested in the UnCollege movement?
I first heard about UnCollege from a friend after I had set up my blog, which is about the evolving economy and how the current education system needs to be transformed.
I became very interested in the whole idea of “hacking your education” and wish UnCollege had been around back when I was in high school!
For me, I went through the entire education system without questioning what I was doing because it seemed that high school success was important for college and that college was required to get a good job and be financially successful.
I think the path mentioned above used to lead to financial success because the scarcity of a college degree used to differentiate a person. However, now a college degree is attained by such a high percentage of the population, which makes a degree far less valuable.
To differentiate yourself today, I think individuals should hack their own education by creating their own unique learning path. To do this, I would utilize all the resources on the UnCollege website find and connect with mentors in fields you’re interested in, and display your skills/achievements through different mediums such as a personal website.
It is also important to remember that learning is a lifelong journey, and there is no rush to attend college or get trapped in student loan debt immediately after high school.
Could you elaborate on why you became a teacher?
Sure, that’s a very good question because I never thought I would spend time teaching in a high school!
Well, after completing my bachelor’s degree, I still wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my life, so I enrolled in a dual MBA/MSA (masters in accounting) program. After a short time in the program, I realized I did not want to be trapped in an office working as an accountant.
At the time, I had been playing a lot of online poker and before I dropped out, I met and connected with a few of the most successful online players in the world. I mentioned that I was planning to drop out of school, and two of these poker players offered to back, mentor, and coach me while I figured out what I really wanted to do.
I knew I never wanted to play online poker long term because it is a zero sum game that does little to benefit society, but I saw a short term opportunity where some players definitely had a large competitive advantage. Soon after, online poker became illegal in the United States, so I needed to reconsider what I wanted to do and how I could enrich and contribute to other people’s lives.
As I started reflecting back on my life and my education journey, I began to see more and more of my friends trapped in student loan debt. I then began reading student loan horror stories, and I was shocked to learn that there was about $1 trillion in student loan debt.
I knew I needed to find a way to help some of these students, so I decided to get back into the education system to learn more about some of the problems I had been reading about. I began tutoring at a community college, and then I started tutoring high school students in their homes and then via Skype. In the fall of 2012, I began teaching economics, statistics, and trigonometry at a private high school in Boston that has a unique student body comprised of students from over 20 countries.
You mentioned student loan debt a few times. What are your thoughts on the current $1.1 trillion in debt?
Obviously there is a lot of student loan debt, but there is also a tremendous amount of government debt (over $16 trillion in the US). Interest rates are near historic lows, and the value of fiat money has been steadily depreciating, so I really think the student loan debt issue is a subset of a much larger government debt problem.
But just to focus on student loan debt, I think this whole issue is going to be a complete disaster, and I am really worried about future generations. Often times, I find myself up late at night thinking about the education journey for a current student in elementary school or middle school.
What will the education journey will be like for these younger individuals?How expensive is college going to get? Are MOOCs and Open Course Ware sites going to be help drive down costs and create a new university setting? Where are the high paying jobs going to be to service all this debt?
However, in the short term, more and more individuals will want a student loan bailout or some short term interest rate reduction, which will only benefit current holders of student loan debt.
This potential bailout is not a great idea because it will most likely be inflationary in nature, the burden of the debt will be shifted to an already broke US government (and US taxpayer), and student loans will continue to be a problem until something is done to fundamentally fix how expensive education has become.
Some individuals argue that education is always a good investment, but if it was, then why is so much student loan debt and why is it increasing?
Also, many individuals will point to statistics that show how much more money college graduates make in their lifetime, but these statistics are not useful for today’s students. First, these statistics do not reflect how expensive college has become and how much debt students take on. Second, much of the data from non-college graduates probably comes from individuals who were unmotivated and did little to create their own learning path.
Ultimately, I think college tuitions could be lowered by reducing government guaranteed student loans, and by making it more difficult for prospective students to borrow money unless they have a clear and concrete education plan. This would decrease demand for college, and help drive down price, but I know this would be a very unpopular political move that would be seen as anti-education.
All I know is that we don’t have much time to address these issues because it is predicted that student loan debt could be at $3.84 trillion by 2023!
So what advice would you give to UnCollege readers?
Individuals should be reading all of your great blog posts and newsletters, they should be figuring out what problems other people have and then be thinking about ways to solve these problems.
I would also recommend that individuals:
- Learn more about money and investing
- Discover ways to generate cash flow through a job or other means
- Consider alternative education routes like vocational schools
- Take a gap year
-Do not take out large student loans if you plan to attend college
Finally, UnCollege readers should realize that many paths lead to a happy, and financially secure life. In today’s world, most of these roads probably do not include the traditional college route.
You can connect with Paul on his about.me page, his personal website or through Freedom After College.
Katarina Minich is a singer and was a participant in this January’s Hackademic Camp. She’s just released her latest single, “Fall For This.” Buy it here.
What do you care about?
I’m Katarina and I’m passionate about music. It allows me to express myself, influence others, and serve as an example to others hoping to follow their passion. I’m concerned about the education and general well-being of others. Because our current education system encourages students to focus on their grades rather than their talents, I often worry that my generation is being dissuaded from pursuing what they love.
Are you in college? Do you like it?
I am, unfortunately, currently in college. I’m still trying to find the value in it. My biggest complaint is that I have to take specific classes to fulfill a degree requirement, and that I can’t just take classes that I find interesting.
What I enjoy about college, however, is the strong sense of community. After performing one of my songs, for example, people approached me, asking to follow me on Twitter or buy songs from me on iTunes, simply because I was one of their peers in university.
How do you hack your education?
Hacking your education means that you take control of your learning process. I take control of how I learn by reading and working on projects that I create for myself. Creating my own projects is similar to how teachers create lesson plans for students, except I’m the one who evaluates my work, looks at the progress I’ve made, and determines which direction I need to go. It takes an incredible amount of discipline, but by doing so, I’m able to learn more about what I love than I ever would in a classroom.
What is something you learned recently, and what are you learning about right now?
I’ve learned several things in the past month. When I met musicians to help me produce my music, I had to learn how to manage a band and produce my songs with instruments other than just my voice and guitar.
Right now, I’m also learning a lot about marketing, which is important to do if you want to succeed in the music industry. I’ve had to create a new stage name and develop an entirely new persona that matches the music I create.
You’re a great singer. How long have you been singing for, and how did you learn how to do it?
I’ve been singing since I was 5 years old, but it took a few years before I was able to hit a note correctly. For the longest time, I would irritate my family members by singing along with the radio on long car rides. I was constantly told I was a terrible singer, but I think the two things that led me to continue were the facts that I loved singing and that I was incredibly stubborn. I would listen to several artists such as Lee Ann Rimes, Faith Hill, and Kelly Clarkson and try to imitate their voices until I could finally match pitch.
How long have you been following UnCollege for, and how has it influenced you?
I’ve been following UnCollege for over a year now. I came across a 25-page article written by Dale right about the time I started questioning the entire education system. This organization has been a source of support as I’ve continued to question the education system. It’s really opened my mind up to other possibilities. I’ve realized that every individual is in control of their own life. You can’t defer to society’s plan for you in order to achieve success — the status quo is not your friend.
How can the UnCollege community support your work?
Check out my new single under my stage name, Evi West. It just came out on iTunes. I’d love for people in the UnCollege community to listen to it. If you like it, please share it with your friends!
By Jordan A. Boyd
Jordan A. Boyd is the founder of EducationRevolution.ca, a blog that lists free resources for people to learn. An ideapreneur at heart, Jordan loves brainstorming ideas and creating vocal loops for random people on his YouTube channel. His first book ‘Future by Design‘ will be available in 2014. He’s also working on a documentary feature for CBC’s The National about the education revolution in Canada. It’s to be released in mid-April.
I’ve spent the last four years trying to work my way into the music industry. Although it’s an ongoing process, I’ve learned some valuable lessons along the way. My experience is mostly in being a musician and producer but I have also interned at record labels, handling social media and marketing. To give you some background about my journey, it all began in 2009 when I decided to pass on an opportunity to play basketball for one of the top-ranked universities in Canada. Most people I knew thought I was making a terrible decision.
A week before this, I had received word from a friend in Vancouver that a promoter had heard one of the sets I had DJ’d. He wanted me to tryout for a resident position at his club. I had always wanted to DJ a club in high school, so I packed up my car and moved to Vancouver.
There were around 500 people my very first night at the club. The set list for the evening looked something like this:
9:00 – 10:00
10:00 – 10:30
10:30 – 12:00
12:00 – 12:15
12:15 – 2:00
That fifteen-minute set turned into an hour… I ended up becoming the resident DJ at that club and another for about six months. This was before I decided that I was more interested in creating my own music rather than playing songs by other people. Working as a DJ was a great introduction into the music industry and gave me much-needed confidence. A lot of the producers I met during that time got their start in DJ’ing because understanding how to blend songs and being able to manipulate sound are crucial skills for music production.
In the end, the DJ world was not for me, so I branched out. After moving about three hours away to attend university, I also recorded my first album. My genre of choice was hip hop and I managed to scout out a talented young rapper. Together we created a ten-song album, released it on iTunes, made a music video and then began performing. We slowly built up a following of around five hundred Facebook fans and got around five thousand views on our music video through self-promotion and networking.
Before I left for Vancouver I began emailing record labels, asking them if they needed an intern to help with daily tasks. It took three weeks of “no, unfortunately not” emails before I was contacted by an indie label in Vancouver. The label had about seven hip hop artists. They told me I would be in charge of managing the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts for the artists. It was a dream come true so I found an apartment and moved back to Vancouver.
Working for the label helped me understand the power of social media and marketing. I learned the fundamentals of producing a high-quality music video, and quickly figured out how to capture the attention of fans. I would definitely recommend working at a record label if you are interested in the music industry.
A year-and-a-half later, the label offered me the chance to sign on with them as one of their artists, once I proved my solo career. That’s what I’m working on now.
I recently started an interactive YouTube experiment: I get random topics from YouTube users and create vocal loops about them. From potluck suppers to gophers doing it with tadpoles, you never know what people’s creative minds can come up with. I love the challenge.
I’m also recording my first solo project with my drummer and roommate. I want to create music that inspires people to think, create and be happy. It took me three years and a ton of hard work to get where I am, but I’ve finally found my style in and passion for music.
Please feel free to reach out to me at jordan[at]socialpigeon[dot]com if you have any questions about starting your career in the music industry — I’m happy to offer advice! Below are some steps you can take if you want to pursue a solo career:
1. Learn the basics.
No matter what you want to do, you have to be a master of your craft. Practice as much as you can and try to envision what will make you unique and different. Be diverse with your skills.
Don’t rely on the skills of others to get you somewhere. I used to pay someone else, for example, to use his studio and help me produce my music. Since then I’ve taught myself production, so now I never need to pay for it again.
2. Do some research.
Where will you fit in the industry? Make sure you know about the music that you’re creating. Who is popular in the industry? Who is not? Why? Also learn the genre’s general history so that you don’t repeat things that have been done. You can also do research on new technology and be the first one to pioneer that kind of music.
3. Create content.
This is what I would tell artists at the record label: create YouTube videos about anything you can — from the process of making your album to you covering a popular song. Make sure you have engaging content that portrays you in a positive light. If you share more of yourself, your fans will become interested in not only your music, but also your story.
4. Build a following.
The creating content step flows nicely into this one. How do record labels choose which artists to sign? Based on the size of their following. Think about it: if you have a huge following, it shows that your music is popular and that you’re willing to work hard to get where you need to get. Record labels want artists who won’t just rely on the label to do everything for them. This is particularly true of indie labels.
5. Perform live.
If takes a lot of courage, but you have to perform live. Go to an open mic night or arrange a group of friends that you can perform in front of. The more you perform, the easier it will become. Don’t forget to film or take pictures of yourself performing. This is another thing that record labels look for in a prospective artist.
6. Give back.
Last but not least, always remember to give back. If you choose not to be a professional musician, you can still continue to teach people to play music. It’s a great way to make an impact on the people around you, and to teach them a universal language — music.
By Rand D’Orazio
Rand D’Orazio is a 20-year-old metal enthusiast, entrepreneur, and writer. Right now he’s working on an e-book that promotes heavy metal music in today’s day and age. He is very open-minded and loves to make new friends.
When I first arrived in San Francisco from Las Vegas, I remember thinking: Wow, this is a beautiful city. I took the #33 bus to the address that we were provided, admiring the sights along the way, and knocked on the door.
Dale welcomed me in, and we got to know each other a little bit. There were already people roaming around in the living room, eating the food on the table and making their first introductions. As usual, there were moments of initial awkwardness, but that feeling quickly dissipated — everyone was eager to make friends. It only took a few minutes before I realized how awesome this community was. I met people who I will always remember: entrepreneurs, political activists and more. A few hackademics from the previous camp came to join in the festivities as well.
Over the next three days, we had the unique opportunity to learn from and communicate with an inspiring group of people: Bay Mclaughlin, Olof Mathe, Mick Hagen, Lisa Betts-LaCroix, Tiffany Mikell, Natalie Warne, Nick Terzo, David Dalrymple, and Alex Peake, in addition to our fellow hackademics. It was a safe environment where we could reveal our deepest needs, desires and fears.
Although very accomplished, these men and women were humble and unassuming, genuine and sincere, talented and driven. Some loved building startups. Others were interested in art. Many were involved in science. All made it a point to practice self-directed learning.
We had great conversations about how society is changing: online portfolios might soon replace resumes, for example, and Python might become a more widely-used language than Spanish. When I think about these people, I am reminded of their acceptance of revolutionary ideas.
Here, I had many great experiences. We had truly meaningful discussions. We came up with a model for education that would help people find alternative ways to signal their knowledge. We walked through the streets of San Francisco on the night the Giants won the World Series. Although we spent a lot of time in that living room, we also had the freedom to explore the city.
My few days in San Francisco were truly empowering. I had the chance to see the world through so many different lenses, and was able to share the real me with people who I had just met (but with whom I bonded quickly after just a few days). One important thing I realized during the Hackademic Camp is that your life is very much in your control. This concept of personal responsibility means that you are the one who needs to choose to keep learning; you are the one who needs to decide to make the best out of your circumstances; you are the one who needs to make choices that reflect the amount of freedom that you desire. Being a hackademic is not about rejecting college; it’s about finding the courage to live life on your own terms.