Ellie Gonzalez



Current country

United States

When did you unschool?


In what state did you "graduate?"


Describe your childhood education (through age 12).

When I was around seven years old, my parents decided to take me and my older brother out of school and start traditional homeschooling. We used a formatted curriculum for almost a year, but eventually it became a source of frustration rather than learning. We basically decided to take a “break” with the curriculum — technically that break is still going! We started unschooling, although we didn’t find out that what we were doing was called “unschooling” for a number of years after that. We were lucky to live in Idaho, where truancy laws and regulations for homeschooling are very minimal, so my brother and I had a very relaxed childhood. 

For a number of years after that, I didn’t follow any kind of structured learning. I learned what I was interested in via using the internet, visiting the library, talking to people, getting hands-on experience, etc. When I was 15, I decided to pursue community college because I was interested in taking certain courses (such as psychology and philosophy). Community college exposed me to a more “grown up” version of school where I had responsibility and freedom to choose what I wanted to learn. I discovered that I do very well in a classroom environment! I think that if I had stayed with public education through my childhood, though, I wouldn’t enjoy classroom learning as much. 

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

I was part of several homeschool groups in my area that would get together and do field trips. I have always been shy — even when I was in public school — so these groups were not my favorite. I have been able to get along with adults very well my whole life. Most of my friends are three to eight years older than me, simply because that is who I enjoy spending time with.  When I was 13-15 years old, I was part of a “teenage advisory board” at my local library, and I enjoyed that quite a bit. 

I grew up in a rural area with a limited budget, so I didn’t have a lot of access to big community events. Most of the events for young people were put on by the local middle and high schools, and they were only open to enrolled students. I did participate in a number of plays through the Missoula Children’s Theater, and I also took voice and guitar lessons with kids of a variety of ages. When we were able to, my family would travel to unschooling conferences and get togethers, probably one or two times per year. I also attended Not Back to School Camp from 2006-2011, and when I was there I met a large group of teenage campers.

Who made the decision to unschool you?

My parents originally decided to homeschool me and my brother, and then we made the decision to unschool as a family. 

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

I was fully unschooled during my teen years. At first, I had a very unstructured lifestyle, but when I decided to attend community college at age fifteen I found that I enjoyed the additional structure that came from a classroom environment. I liked having the ability to choose what I wanted to learn from my classes (rather than feeling pressured into compulsory education).

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

I lived in a rural location and I was fairly cut off from a lot of other people my age. I participated in the teenage advisory board of my local library. I also solo traveled across the country multiple times to visit friends in Pennsylvania and Oregon, and while I was with them I participated in group field trips and adventures around different cities.

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

I started working when I was around 14 years old, and I also enrolled in a massage trade school at 16, which allowed me a lot of contact and interaction with folks quite a bit older than me. While I was in college, I was around primarily 18-30 year old folks. I worked very well with them during group projects/discussions/general hanging out. I had a number of friends that I made during that time that were 5+ years older than me. 

Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?


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

I focused a lot on photography and then anatomy/physiology through the lens of massage therapy. By the time I was 18, I had earned my professional certification and was running a massage therapy business. 

How did you make the decision to go to college?

The local community college offered classes that I was interested in and that I wanted to experience in a classroom environment, rather than through personal study. 

What did you study?

I took classes in philosophy, psychology, sociology, physics, choir, and film photography (non-degree seeking). I also attended a two year massage therapy trade school, and I now hold a therapy certification from the state of Idaho.

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

The hardest part for me was the public speaking portion. Public speaking was part of most of my classes, and I had major stage fright, so giving a presentation for the first time was nerve-wracking. My psychology class required several in-class presentations as well as a large end-of-semester scientific data analysis study, which required me to interview the general public and then make a presentation with my findings to multiple classes. That was hands down the hardest part of college for me. I don’t think that stage fright was the fault of my unschooling as a child — I think it stems from just general anxiety.

The easiest part of college was the testing — I’ve never had a hard time memorizing information, and because I was interested and engaged in the material it was even easier to learn and remember.

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

Getting into college felt very simple. I was required to take a COMPASS test for placement so that the guidance counselors knew what level of course to put me in, but otherwise it was a normal registration process. I think my enrollment was easier since it was a community college, and because Idaho does not have any formal standards for homeschooling. 

Did you feel pressure to attend college?

I never felt pressured to pursue any formal education. All of my educational decisions (community college, massage school) were born of my own interest and curiosity.

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

A number of retail/service jobs to start (pottery studio, call center customer service for Fedex, counter clerk for shipping business). After I got my massage therapy certification I ran my own massage business for a year. I also worked for a chiropractor doing manual tissue therapies and adjustments.

I took a short hiatus to hike for six weeks in New Zealand and then I worked a summer season in Yellowstone National Park in the reservations department. After that season ended I took over the family business and I am now the manager of a local shipping store.

What is your current job?

Manager/sole employee for a small shipping/packing store.

Why did you choose your current job?

I have a strong knowledge base for the job (been working with FedEx in some capacity for 10+ years). I decided it was time for my parents to follow their dreams of working in Yellowstone National Park so I took over running the store so that they could go. I enjoy the flexibility of my job — I have a lot of free time, and I am able to pursue my own interests even while on the clock at work.

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

Only slightly more difficult, because I don’t have a college degree and oftentimes that means an automatic denial for jobs. However, I have years of hands-on real-world experience, and I have been able to use that to get jobs and promotions without ever needing a degree.

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

Just follow what you are interested in. There are no wrong interests — learning comes from all places, and as long as you are engaged and curious you will do just fine. Try new things, and try to travel as much as you can.

What advice would you give to their parents?

Keep the faith in your child! They are learning all day every day, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Expose them to new situations. Encourage them to participate in community events and projects and to follow new passions. Enrich their life with as many experiences as you can.

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

Right now I would look at combining public school with an unschooling mindset. Basically, the child would still be in charge of their own education. They would choose what they want to do in terms of homework, classes, etc. I would make sure they understand the consequences that the school district might impose on them, and then I would support the child in their choice. That way they are making decisions about what they get out of school. And if they decide they no longer want to go to school, then great! But I don’t want to make that decision for them. I had some resentment towards my parents for a period of time for pulling me out of school because I was still at the age I enjoyed it (in first grade, around six to seven years old). I understand why they took me out of school and I’m grateful now, but I think I would have felt more empowered as a child if I could have made that decision myself.

I wouldn’t focus on grades, standardized testing, or meeting metrics that the school thinks my child should. I would want to encourage my kids to follow their interests and self-direct their own education. Some kids may need or want a little more structure than full unschooling can provide and they should be able to make that choice for themselves.

Published: February 2020