When did you unschool?
In what state did you "graduate?"
Describe your childhood education (through age 12).
I went to kindergarten, first grade, and parts of second and third grades. When I left public school we followed a more formal homeschool curriculum, but over time we transitioned to unschooling. I had complete control over what I was doing every day, while my parents helped me reach my goals and pursue my interests.
Describe how you interacted with other kids around your age in your childhood.
My unschooling friends were all over the country, so most of my local socializing was with kids who went to school who lived nearby. My interactions with other kids felt typical to me, we would play games and run around outside together. During these years my friends were all my age, but I also interacted with older or younger people without really changing my behavior.
Who made the decision to unschool you?
It was a joint decision between me and my mother. My dad and two younger sisters got on board as well.
Describe your education in your teen years (ages 13-18).
My family embraced unschooling in my teen years, and I continued to have complete control over my days. My parents were still present all the time to help me when I had goals I wanted to achieve, and I imposed more structure on myself as I grew older and got my first job.
Describe how you interacted with other people around your age in your teen years.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much in the way of local friends. I was not part of any local sports groups or co-ops. The attempts we made to meet other home educators in Georgia always went poorly, and we didn’t find many like-minded people until after we moved to Virginia. The friends I did have were almost entirely older or younger than me, and during these years I struggled to enjoy hanging out with people my age. I was an adult by the time we moved this last time, and I built a diverse community of friends at my first college with other students of all ages and backgrounds.
Describe how you interacted with people much older or younger than you during your teen years.
In my teens, I was friends with people who varied widely in age, from younger kids to adults. I had been socializing with people of all ages for so long that I felt very comfortable outside of my peer group, and at the time I enjoyed hanging out with adults more than other teens. Someone’s age did not strongly influence how I interacted with them, since I had never been in the habit of treating people differently based on their age.
I spent many years attending unschooling conferences (such as Live and Learn) and connecting with other unschoolers. During my time in Georgia, I would travel many times each year to see friends in nearby states. In my later teen years, I worked some service industry jobs with folks of all ages, and I always got along well with everyone.
Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?
No, I eventually started community college without any official high school certification of any kind.
During your teen years, what did you end up focusing on, working on, or learning?
People are skeptical when I tell them this, but I worked on myself. I learned how to be motivated about things I cared about, and I attained a very high level of self awareness. Skills that many would deem essential, such as mathematical ability and essay writing, came later for me, but I developed a strong work ethic and a stubborn determination to see things through.
How did you make the decision to go to college?
When I was in my twenties, I decided I wanted to challenge myself with something new after spending a couple years working jobs I was no longer interested in. I initially opted for Engineering at the local community college since I had a very analytic mind and loved solving problems.
What did you study?
After starting in Engineering, I discovered I actually hated it, but I was loving my math courses. I transitioned to a math degree when I transferred from my community college to a four year university as a third year student. I now hold a Bachelor’s in mathematics, and I am finishing my first year in a pure math PhD program which I started immediately after obtaining my Bachelor’s.
What was the hardest part of the transition to college? What was the easiest part?
When I decided to apply to college at age 22, my math knowledge was way behind my peers. I had to learn the basics of the basics, but I spent a few hours each day using online resources such as Khan academy. Within two months I learned everything I needed to know to skip all remedial math. I started in college level math as a result, and finished my bachelor’s in four years total.
The easiest part was pretty much everything else. I came into college treating it like a job, and in doing so, the first couple years at a community college were nowhere near challenging enough for me. I was ready to spend 40 hours per week on classwork, and I didn’t need anywhere near that much time. I remedied this by taking on more and more extracurricular responsibilities in later semesters, including tutoring, teaching and leadership roles in various clubs.
Do you feel like your unconventional upbringing made getting into college more easy, more difficult, or both?
My community college does not deny applicants, so this may not be entirely relevant to me. That said, I feel my upbringing makes me stand out as a highly motivated and independent person. I think this helped my transfer application to a 4 year university, my PhD program application, and my application for a prestigious NSF research fellowship, which I recently learned I was selected for.
Did you feel pressure to attend college?
I did feel pressure, not from anyone in my family, but from myself, because I was not happy with my job prospects. I am now seeing a future working at a four year university as a math professor, so I am very happy I decided to attend.
Describe the kinds of jobs you’ve had in life so far.
I delivered pizza, worked at a grocery store, and then spent a year working with a downsizing and decluttering company before beginning my academic journey.
What is your current job?
I am a full time PhD student, which includes teaching responsibilities.
Why did you choose your current job?
There’s only one good reason to be a math PhD student: I love math.
Did your unconventional upbringing make it easier or more difficult to find paid work?
I believe it helped me in my applications for competitive programs and fellowships.
What advice would you give to someone beginning their unschooling/alternative schooling journey?
Take your time figuring out what motivates you. Life doesn’t have to be such a rush, and my ability to slow down and really evaluate myself gave me the chance to determine what I really wanted out of life.
What advice would you give to their parents?
Give your kids a chance to take things slow and figure themselves out. Talk to them, listen to them, and help them when they express an interest in something. Don’t worry so much if they aren’t math geniuses in their teens, or if they aren’t proficient in some other field you deem important. If, eventually, this lack of knowledge keeps them from a goal they have chosen thoughtfully and they feel driven to accomplish, they will learn it on their own.
If you choose to have children, what school/unschool experience would you want for them?
I definitely want unschooling to be an option for them. Just as I had the choice to unschool, I want them to have that choice.
Are there any other thoughts you want to share?
Life is nonlinear, and even though I started working towards my ultimate career goals at the “late” age of 22, I can now say I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. The extra time, time to figure myself out, is what made this possible. And I know countless adults who cannot say the same, who feel trapped — adults who were pushed into college at 18 and had their first major career at 22 and are still at it today. My dad is one of them, and he is now a true believer in unschooling.
Published: April 2020