When did you unschool?
In what state did you "graduate?"
Describe your childhood education (through age 12).
I attended kindergarten until I was six, after which I began to homeschool. My homeschooling varied in structure over the years but it was almost always very loose and self directed. I started with a curriculum that my mom designed and then I moved on to pre-designed curriculums provided by a local private school. I was evaluated yearly by an education professional (usually a friend of the family). While “book learning” was pretty much a daily part of my life, it always happened when I wanted it to and it was woven throughout my diverse life experiences. I didn’t truly ditch the curriculum and radically unschool until I was 16, but I still identify as a lifelong unschooler because of the amount of freedom, independence, and autonomy I was always allowed as a kid.
Describe how you interacted with other kids around your age in your childhood.
I had playgroups as a kid, and I participated in a few homeschool groups/classes/field trips. I loved them all.
Since I was raised in a small town in Vermont, a sense of tight-knit community was unavoidable. I was fortunate to have a mixture of homeschooled/Montessori schooled/Waldorf schooled/public schooled/religious schooled/charter schooled friends all my life. I think that having access to all these different perspectives on education helped to form my views of the world.
Who made the decision to unschool you?
Unschooling seemed to happen organically as I was growing up; it wasn’t really a decision at all. It developed from me being stubborn and wanting to make my own decisions about how I spent my time, and my parents were too busy, tired, and hippy-dippy to argue with me about it.
The official decision happened when I was 16, and it was entirely my choice. My parents weren’t too thrilled but they supported me anyway. They’ve since come around, and my brother, who is ten years younger than me, is unschooled now as well.
Describe your education in your teen years (ages 13-18).
I started my teen years with some pretty awful mental health problems and having a structured homeschool curriculum at the time helped me get through my days. I spent a few years really hitting the books with occasional breaks in between. I traveled a bit, started taking a serious interest in dance, fell in love, and discovered Not Back To School Camp and the word “unschooling.” When I was 15 I was really struggling with math, a subject that I had previously loved and found comfort in. All of a sudden the subject had become about the grades, and it wasn’t fun anymore. After attending NBTSC I decided to drop formal school entirely and just devote myself to my passions. I was in pre-professional dance training and I studied mushrooms for a while. I pursued this interest in mycology by renting books from the local library, watching documentaries, making sketches, and keeping meticulous notes on a personal blog. I also spent a lot of time doing not much of anything, which was amazing.
Describe how you interacted with other people around your age in your teen years.
I’ve always been a bit of a loner, but that really came out in my teen years. My biggest form of social interaction with fellow teens was through dance. I maintained my childhood friendships (mostly long distance and online) and made a few new ones through Not Back To School Camp. Most of these connections are still important to me as an adult.
Describe how you interacted with people much older or younger than you during your teen years.
I have often found myself in groups of elderly people. In my teens and 20s, it just seemed that I shared a lot of the same interests as retirees. I loved knitting, gardening, and hiking. I worked odd jobs with and for adults and joined a knitting group where I was the youngest by a good 50 years. I’ve always hung out with my neighbors and my family which covers a wide breadth of ages. I also started volunteering for my local Biopark (an aquarium, zoo, botanical garden, and fishing/boating pond) when I was 16 which connected me to people every age under the sun.
Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?
Not officially. Around the age of 17 when I started applying for ‘real’ jobs I started telling people that I was homeschooled and that I had graduated early. I was never asked to prove it or to show a copy of my diploma.
During your teen years, what did you end up focusing on, working on, or learning?
Fiber arts, gardening, animal husbandry, dance, writing, fashion, nutrition, herbal medicine, environmentalism, composting.
How did you make the decision to go to college?
Going to college was a very long, drawn out decision that I fought for a while. When I was in my teens I really wanted to go to college, and I was doing a lot of research into various institutions. It just felt like this exciting thing that I was supposed to do. In my later teens and early 20s I started to become disillusioned with college and I really wanted nothing to do with it. I saw it as this ridiculous waste of money that didn’t mean anything other than symbolically, and that certainly wouldn’t secure my happiness in life. Eventually those two viewpoints met in the middle and now I’m very passionate about higher education while still upholding the belief that it has issues.
When I was 21 I made the decision to start attending my local community college, and I haven’t missed a term since. I started with 3 credits per semester to see how I liked it and then slowly began adding to my course load over time. Now I think my sweet spot is 12 credits, but I have taken as many as 17 at once. I have since transferred to a public state school and I am on track to leave it with an undergraduate degree. My total time spent will be somewhere in the realm of 5 years when I graduate.
In the end, I decided to go to school for a multitude of reasons. I wanted to be able to share this experience with my peers who were going or who have gone. I realized that I love learning and the more avenues for learning I can access, the happier I am. Being able to attend college at all is a privilege, and the fact that I have access to it is something I am very grateful for. Whether it’s a perfect system that will set you up for life is debatable, but having a college degree does open doors and as an insatiably curious person, I like all the doors to be wide open.
I’ve found that it’s really nice to have a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other type goal to work towards, especially when life gets hard and I don’t know what I’m doing. Going to a university has provided this kind of goal for me.
What did you study?
In the beginning of my ‘college experience’ I was really uncertain about what I wanted to study or where I wanted to go with my life afterwards. I started taking classes anyway, because I know myself pretty well and having 100% certainty about anything isn’t really how I roll. I changed my major at least 5 times and took classes that spanned all sorts of different topics. I just tried to make sure the classes I was taking gave me options and fulfilled some sort of general education requirements while I figured it all out. After years of confused honing I am a lot more sure of where I want to be and I am pursuing a Bachelors of Science degree in Industrial Mathematics and Statistics. With this degree I hope to work in climate science documentation and strategizing. Ideally I would love to work in a combination of fields encompassing biostatistics, environmental data analytics, field work, and higher education. I am particularly fascinated by bugs, mushrooms, and reptiles/amphibians so I would love to work on ways of mapping and protecting the vital roles that they all play in ecology. However, if I end up working at a pizza kitchen after all of this effort, that’s okay too. It’ll still have been worth it. I am open to wherever my life is going to go and whatever is going to make me happiest.
What was the hardest part of the transition to college? What was the easiest part?
Navigating the logistics of college can be challenging and it was definitely the hardest part for me at first. There are lots of deadlines, and people that you need to communicate with, and paperwork that needs to be completed correctly. I have definitely gotten better at it all over the years but it still stresses me out.
The academics themselves can be a bit of a struggle but for the most part I try to keep perspective and not worry about my grades too much which helps a lot. I was never graded in my life before college so it has been difficult to not let those benchmarks get to me and keep me from my love of the learning process.
Do you feel like your unconventional upbringing made getting into college more easy, more difficult, or both?
I think that without unschooling I wouldn’t see learning as fun, intuitive, and something that is ultimately up to me and for me. My unschooling background has helped me to not take the penalties and rewards doled out in college too seriously. I try to always remember that it’s the process that matters, and not the end grade. I have yet to fail a class and I don’t think there is a single class (even the truly miserable ones) that I haven’t grown from.
Did you feel pressure to attend college?
Oh yes. The pressure to attend college came from all sides of my life. I think that’s why I rebelled against it for so long. Both my parents are college grads and the concept is especially important to my mom, who thinks you can’t have a successful life without a degree. But the pressure also came from random people on the street and at work who wanted to know what I was doing with my life. I also felt sad that all of my friends were going and I wasn’t.
Describe the kinds of jobs you’ve had in life so far.
Too many. Office assistant at a media company, various food service jobs at coffee shops and chocolate shops and malls, receptionist at a dance school, arthropod handler and bugarium flood attendant (yup that was as weird as it sounds), bookkeeper/accounting assistant, personal assistant, nanny…
What is your current job?
I was laid off due to COVID-19 and am currently a full time student.
Why did you choose your current job?
Before deciding to go to school full time, I was working as the Office Manager at an Acupuncture Clinic. I chose this job because it was interesting and challenging without being overwhelming. I enjoyed that there was a somewhat reliable sequence to my days without the work getting totally monotonous. I got to meet a lot of eclectic people and learn about many alternative approaches to health that I found interesting.
Did your unconventional upbringing make it easier or more difficult to find paid work?
Honestly very few people even ask about my high school experience now that I have entered ‘adulthood’. Those that do usually think it’s neat that I was homeschooled (I don’t say unschooled in job interviews due to the stigma), and it sometimes helps me get the job. I use it as a way to market myself as self-reliant, unique, and curious.
What advice would you give to someone beginning their unschooling/alternative schooling journey?
Seek out people and communities outside of unschooling so you can find perspectives that are different than your own. Try things that kind of suck and if you hate it… stick it out for a little longer. Still hate it? Leave with no regrets. Having control over your education is an amazing gift, and it allows you to get a jump start on learning about who you are and that balance between pushing yourself and setting boundaries.
You’re free! That comes with some enormous responsibilities to yourself but it’s also so beautifully fun. Always follow your gut, ignoring mine has gotten me into heaps of trouble.
What advice would you give to their parents?
Your kids are going to be okay. I promise. High school is not a prerequisite for life. It’s interwoven with life, and so is unschooling. They are just two different approaches. In my opinion unschooling allows for the ability to build such an amazing foundation as you grow and mature with a lot more ease than traditional schooling. There were certainly many adults who were deeply concerned about my future when I spent years doing nothing but watching television and hanging out in my room but those years were necessary work too. Honestly, the concern just stressed me out and hindered my growth so while it’s a natural impulse to have about your children, try to let go of your preconceived notions about what they ‘should’ be doing.
Make sure they know that you love them unconditionally.
If you choose to have children, what school/unschool experience would you want for them?
I’m still not sure that I want kids but if I do have them, they will definitely be unschooled. If they want more or less structure, I’m game for either. I just want them to be autonomous beings and I hope we can spend a lot of time together figuring it out as we go.
Are there any other thoughts you want to share?
We need everyone to be true to themselves because it just makes us all richer and better people.
Published: January 2020
Updated: November 2020