Catherine Brontë de Cardenas



Current Country

United States

When did you unschool?


Where did you "graduate"?


Describe your childhood education (through age 12).

My parents never intended to send me to public school. They felt that children did better when they didn’t have to compete for the time and attention of the teacher. Still, as an Early Childhood Educator, my mother felt that socialization was important. When my peers headed off to school, I attended a preschool co-op where parents were expected to help out in the classroom. We moved to Virginia, partly so that I could attend kindergarten at a private, log-cabin school in the country where my mother had been a teacher. The next year we moved to Austin, and my homeschooling journey began. We jokingly referred to our style of homeschooling as “carschooling” because we had so many different activities going on and we spent so much time in the car. In an effort to create a network of friends, my mother drove us to homeschooling activities. My mother could teach us everything we needed at home, but she felt that these co-ops offered a necessary way to socialize. 

As we met more homeschoolers and learned about more schools of thought, our routine changed. We considered ourselves unschoolers for the most part, but we also joined co-ops, classes, and other organized activities so that we could meet other people and do the things that we enjoyed. 

The classes we took varied in structure and academic integrity. At most of them, parents taught classes related to their interest or expertise. I took history classes as well as classes on soap-making. One co-op branched out from this more laid back, artistic style of co-op to become more academic. At this co-op, accredited teachers were hired to teach each class. This was the most academically structured community learning that we did. 

We also participated in many extracurricular activities (theater, music, dance, art, and sports), many of which were offered during the school day and designed specifically for homeschoolers. In general, these classes were structured, but we chose what classes we wanted to attend (based on our own interest and on the friends we knew in each class). 

I learned science through co-op classes and through visiting science museums with my engineering-educated father. 

We also read a lot as a family, and we went on lots of field trips. Most of my historical education came from either visiting a historical site or reading books that I found by myself. We went on multi-week road trips to see the places that we read about, and it didn’t feel like a vacation until we visited a museum or did something educational. I always asked questions of the docents and park rangers, and I became accustomed to learning through conversation. 

My education was based in my constant reading. My mother never worried about me because I was reading all the time. Our house was filled with books, and my parents encouraged my imagination through reading, writing, and theater. I was introduced to Shakespeare in theater classes when I was eight. I also loved to write stories on my own, and I believed that there were fairies in the garden (a belief encouraged by the fact that my mother left me notes from the fairies). 

Describe how you interacted with other kids around your age in your childhood.

From first grade on, our socialization came from co-ops and extracurricular activities. We also went to Park Days, where homeschoolers could meet and play. 

One of my favorite things about my upbringing was my ability to interact with people of different ages.. We had friends who were years older, and we always included younger siblings as we were taught not to leave people behind. I felt close to my friends’ parents, and I never felt strange talking to people older than me. 

In terms of community events, there were periodic homeschool dances that were geared towards middle- and high school-aged kids, but they were often attended by the whole family. There was also an annual Not-Back-to-School Party in September that was very well attended, a Valentine’s Day party, and several other large gatherings that were attended by homeschooled kids of a variety of ages. 

One of the most common questions we got as homeschoolers was whether or not we had friends. We found this very amusing.  In fact, we got to play with our friends all day, every day.

My sister decided to attend a small private high school in 10th grade and immediately found that there was a social hierarchy which placed older students above the younger ones and imposed barriers between the grades. Because she was not accustomed to this, she befriended students across the grades and became friends with her teachers which made her well-loved, respected, and successful in the community.

Who made the decision to unschool you?

My mother, a former public school educator, was adamant about the decision to homeschool, and my father trusted her expertise.

Describe your education in your teen years (ages 13-18).

My teen years were more structured as I focused on creating a portfolio and transcript that would allow me to gain acceptance to college in the future. 

I continued studying some things at home. In middle school, I decided on my own to follow a curriculum using a U.S. history textbook, and I developed my own schedule. I took more structured classes with the parents of our friends; for instance, we studied biology with a parent who majored in biology, and we completed experiments together. 

When I was fourteen, I started attending an accredited weekly co-op to take classes in English and Latin. I had mixed experiences there because it was run by a fundamentalist Christian group, it did not align with our beliefs. However, I was able to choose classes selectively and avoid the classes that were religiously based. 

At sixteen, I began taking two classes per semester at the local community college. These, along with the co-op classes, allowed me to demonstrate to other colleges that I had successfully completed competitive coursework, since I was not doing standardized testing. I continued with many of my extracurricular activities; I won state awards in theater in middle school, and I danced professionally in high school. I still had the opportunity to meet with friends during the week and various social gatherings. My schedule was still on my own terms but my focus did shift more towards preparing my transcripts for going to college. 

I was adamant that I did not want to attend traditional school for middle/high school, even though my family toured a couple of small private schools. I did not like the overly structured nature of school, and I found that I transitioned more easily into community college classes than into the high school environment. I liked the openness a college schedule offered, with separate classes and time for doing school work independently. I was already pretty self-motivated, which allowed for an easy transition to college courses that relied on the student taking responsibility for their own learning. 

Describe how you interacted with other people around your age in your teen years.

I continued socializing through extracurricular activities and co-ops, but also through organized social activities and field trips. We set up hang-outs with friends individually, and we also joined social clubs that organized activities like bowling, visiting museums, and going to concerts. 

Describe how you interacted with people much older or younger than you during your teen years.

We continued attending lots of intergenerational events and gatherings. In high school I worked as a hula dancer, and many members of the company were older than me. We also did shows and nursing and retirement homes, which provided a significant learning experience. 

Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?

My mother wrote a letter declaring my graduation to qualify me for the community college. We also had a homeschool graduation ceremony. 

I took the SATs for college and provided transcripts, but I did not have an official high school diploma. 

During your teen years, what did you end up focusing on, working on, or learning?

I felt most passionate about my extracurricular activities, especially theater, music, and dance. I studied hula dance for eleven years. I danced professionally with my teacher’s company, and I started my own company with my sister, through which we were booked for events, mostly children’s birthday parties. 

I also composed music, which I continue to do today. I loved writing, but because coursework became a priority during my high school years, creative writing fell to my limited leisure time. I wrote primarily for personal journals or academic essays. I have since returned to creative writing, and now I’m actively pursuing it. 

During my high school years, I was considering potential careers in history and museums. When we moved to Virginia during my last year of high school, I went to the house museum of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and I asked to volunteer there on a more regular basis than the opportunities they currently offered. After interviewing with them they created a volunteer intern position for me. Later I became the youngest tour guide they’d ever had. I’ve worked with that foundation on and off for eight years and it has been a wonderful working community, leading to a number of valuable experiences, personal mentors, and beloved colleagues. 

How did you make the decision to go to college?

Attending college was the expected path in my family. The question was where I wanted to go to college, rather than if I would go. I received my associates degree from a Virginia Community college and then transferred to the College of William and Mary.

What did you study?

For my bachelor’s degree, I majored in History and minored in both Latin American Studies and Museum Studies. I also obtained certification in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from a separate institution in Prague. I am currently studying for the GRE, but I have not obtained my Master’s degree yet. 

What was the hardest part of the transition to college? What was the easiest part?

The hardest part of college was being around people who were not used to seeing learning the same way that I did (they were already burned out, while I was still eager). It was also hard to learn from teachers who didn’t trust or respect students when I was accustomed to trust and mutual respect. The system felt less like learning and more like proving knowledge, which eventually burned me out. 

My previous experience with tests had been to use them as learning tools, so I would know whether I should study the concepts again or move forward. Now, the tests seemed to have more riding on them, and the testing methods themselves seemed meaningless. Sometimes I didn’t want to do my homework, and I would have preferred to be studying my own thing (the articles I had saved, the books I didn’t have time to read, etc.). 

The easiest part of the college transition was my self-motivation. It provided me a useful skill in my courses that many of my classmates had not yet developed. I was also used to asking questions and I was not shy about talking to older people, so participating in class and going to office hours was something that I usually enjoyed doing. I made connections with my professors easily and I often stood out because I was interested in the material. Learning was, and is, such a pleasure for me, and that helped me immensely in college. 

Do you feel like your unconventional upbringing made getting into college more easy, more difficult, or both?

When I applied, I think colleges were on the cusp of seeing the value in homeschooling students. To a certain degree, I “fit in the box,” with proof of my academic achievements in co-ops and college classes as well as my extracurricular activities. 

Being able to take community college classes in high school made my transition easier in terms of coursework and grades, and I was able to count some of those classes towards my four year degree. 

In my experience, colleges seem to be noticing that homeschoolers are especially engaged participants in the learning environment, and are often assets to the school. I’ve heard professors say that homeschoolers are some of the more mature students they’ve ever had. 

Did you feel pressure to attend college? Did that pressure come from within your family or from outside of your family?

My family expected that I would go to college, but they were flexible in terms of supporting gap years/semesters, taking breaks, etc. I wanted to attend college both for the opportunities it would give me and for my own interest. 

I was raised around families who did not necessarily expect their children to go to college, and I have friends today who did not attend university until later, or at all. 

Describe the kinds of jobs you’ve had in life so far.

Post-graduation, I have worked as a tour guide, a research assistant for historical web-content, and a TEFL (teaching english as a foreign language) instructor.  

What is your current job?

Museum docent.

Why did you choose your current job?

Personal interest, and because I needed work while I’m applying to graduate school.

Did your unconventional upbringing make it easier or more difficult to find paid work?

Employers have not usually even been aware of my unconventional education. They have only ever focused on my university education. 

When I was younger, my unconventional education made employment easier because I had more opportunities for internships. 

What advice would you give to someone beginning their unschooling/alternative schooling journey?

Enjoy! Take advantage of your freedom and indulge in your interests and curiosities. If you’re choosing to unschool, you probably have a keen desire to learn and grow. Read, experience, explore, engage. If something sounds interesting to you, be willing to go after it — people are often willing to help you if you are kind and mature. Many people will be impressed you thought to seek out the opportunity in the first place! 

You do have to create social experiences sometimes, depending on your existing activities, but this is actually how the adult world works. Now, when I meet people, I know how to organize “friend dates” and make a concerted effort to create community. Many young adults are lost for friends because they are used to having a pre-made community from high school and college. They never had to seek out friends, and they’re still learning how to do it. 

I do think that, unfortunately, some main paths in our society require fitting into a box, so to speak. That doesn’t mean you have to diminish yourself. The alternative experiences you’ve had will shape you and carry you forward. 

What advice would you give to their parents?

Trust your children. Guide them through your example. As I was growing up, my parents read to me every single night, and that experience taught me the magic of books early on. My mother asked probing questions herself, and she would hypothesize with me during long conversations in the car. My father watched documentaries with me. 

You can’t expect your kids to decide to be self-directed learners if they don’t have models. I think the hardest part of unschooling is for the parents, because you have to be willing to learn and grow alongside your children. 

This path isn’t for all families, and that’s okay. I had friends growing up who had always been unschooled, but as teenagers they decided on their own to attend school because they didn’t feel like their educational needs were being met. My sister decided to do this when we moved to Virginia. She knew herself well enough to know that she enjoyed more structure at this point in her life, whereas I felt very uncomfortable even in the structure of small, private schools, and I learned better with freedom. I loved my education, but I don’t say it’s for everyone. 

If you choose to have children, what school/unschool experience would you want for them?

I am so grateful for the education and the experiences that I had, and I would want to raise my children in a very similar way. Since I was free to choose my community, I had very limited experience with bullies. (While I had a few friends who went to public school, in general I disliked the negativity I saw from public-schooled people). I felt respected by the adults around me, and I had real life experiences every day. I was raised in a very supportive and open culture. 

I would want to raise my children in the same kind of positive, engaged environment. If I am not able to homeschool my children, I would like to find a school that followed similar principles of education and community. 

Are there any other thoughts you want to share?

Alternative education is becoming more and more popular, I think with good reason.  For those with the resources and drive, I think alternative education is a beautiful path to embark upon.  

Published: August 2019