Laura Ellis



Current country

United States

When did you unschool?


In what state did you "graduate?"


Describe your childhood education (through age 12).

I went to conventional school from preschool through second grade, and we started homeschooling when I was in third grade. That lasted about two weeks. Our family is naturally inclined toward the unschooling lifestyle, so while we still pursued activities with other homeschoolers like weekly classes, organized field trips, etc., our home life was unstructured, child-led, interested-based learning. 

Before 12, I imposed no structure on myself (that I can recall), except that I chose which weekly classes I wanted to sign up for each term. My parents did impose a “structure” in the form of a family culture of involvement, meaning that my brother and I were expected to participate in chores and other necessary activities of living in community. We were also signed up for various private lessons and camps, but we always had the option of saying no if we weren’t interested in continuing.

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

We were involved with a few local homeschooling co-ops (including one unschooling group, but they were too far away for us to form very meaningful bonds). I was always comfortable interacting with people older than me — especially adults — and I had friends across the age spectrum. We volunteered at our local library for a while and we were involved in the library’s book club.

Who made the decision to unschool you?

My parents made the decision to homeschool us, but our transition to unschooling was less of a decision and more of a slide into a natural lifestyle for our family.

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

I was unschooled during the entirety of this time, although I enrolled in high school-level classes in our homeschool co-op because I decided I wanted the equivalent of a high school diploma. So I imposed the structure of twice-weekly classes and homework on myself, but we still lived our lives with the flexibility of unschoolers. For instance, when I was 17 we went to visit family in Australia and were gone for three weeks, so I taught myself all of the material I would miss in my classes ahead of time. (My algebra II teacher even gave me my tests and quizzes early, because I was not about to come home from that vacation with a mountain of catch-up work to do!) 

We still pursued our interests, and our parents encouraged us to do so, sometimes even prioritizing personal interests above homework obligations. We talked about weighing the importance of prior commitments and the value of doing something you don’t want to do for future benefit against engaging in an activity of interest or passion — unschooling isn’t just about living whimsically. Looking back, I feel like the flexibility and structure in our lives were well-balanced.

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

We were involved in co-ops where everyone knew everyone. We all got along well enough (personality differences aside — there were no cliques or anything like that), and I still feel close to a few of my friends from that time. I was on a homeschool basketball team for a season. We were terrible, but I had fun. My brother and I also went to Not Back to School Camp during this time, which I enjoyed far more than any other camp I’d been to. Even as an introvert, socializing and making friends was easy for me.

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

Involvement with a homeschool co-op necessarily requires some interaction with all ages, since homeschooling is more of a community than a school. Every now and then I helped out with one of the classes for the younger kids, volunteered to go singing carols at nursing homes, or participated in other things like that. 

When I was about 11-13 I worked part-time at the barn where I took horseback riding lessons alongside older teenage girls who were also student-workers. 

I think one unique thing about unschoolers is that you tend to become friends with your friends’ parents and siblings as well, and you can develop relationships with each of them separate from your friends. I still maintain those relationships and enjoy catching up with my homeschooled friends’ parents as much as with those friends themselves. 

When I was 13, we moved to a house with a barn and pasture, and we started boarding horses for a grown unschooler ten years older than me. She became like a big sister in many ways and I actually still board one of her horses.

Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?

Yes. I fulfilled all the Pennsylvania requirements but instead of submitting it to the state, we printed out our own. (Much prettier design!)

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

Horse care and riding were big for me, since we boarded horses on our property. I wrote stories and essays a lot, and read outside of English classes (and I became much more cultured in the better sci-fi/fantasy TV shows, which inspired a lot of the story-writing — that’s right, I’m a fanfiction writer!). 

I loved to travel and learn new languages (I took German and French classes and attempted — admittedly without much success — to teach myself Norwegian and Irish). 

I also found that I really enjoyed psychology and ended up studying for and taking the AP psychology exam. 

During this time I was also desperately trying to find my own sense of spirituality, which was difficult because I was surrounded by conservative Christian friends who said very different things about the issue than my parents, but I didn’t find any sense of peace about it until college.

How did you make the decision to go to college?

I don’t remember making the decision; it was more that I didn’t know to do instead. Even though I had been able to pursue my interests as a teenager, none of them translated into a career path for me. Since college was the path my parents had taken and my friends were taking, it just seemed to be the thing to do. I did, however, take a gap year before going. I stayed home for half a year, got bored, and moved to Florida to work at Disney World.

What did you study?

My bachelor’s degree is in Human Development and Social Relations (a blend of psychology, sociology/anthropology, and philosophy of societal institutions and government), with a minor in Religion (would have been a double major but I didn’t feel the need to write a thesis to make it official). 

I also have a M.S. in Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine.

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

The hardest part was certainly the lack of freedom. I felt completely trapped, even down to my living choices, like being made to live in a dorm and sign up for the full meal plan for the first semester. I even remember being angry at the idea that I had to take classes in a certain order — not that I didn’t trust the school officials to know which order is best, but that they didn’t trust me to know my capabilities. 

The easiest part was probably either the social aspect or living away from home, since I had already been living away from home during my gap year.

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

Certainly easier. Most college admissions officers were impressed by my background and transcripts, and even if the school required extra submissions (like a portfolio) from homeschooled applicants, they were usually waived after the interview. 

I do know one homeschooler who found the admissions process more difficult, but she applied to much more traditionally-minded institutions, so that probably plays a factor in ease or difficulty of admissions.

Did you feel pressure to attend college?

I felt an inevitable pull towards college. I never really questioned whether or not to go, and that came from social expectations that I never felt the need to resist.

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

I was a student-worker at a riding stable, a ride operator at Walt Disney World, the registrar’s office assistant at college, a writing tutor, an editor, a receptionist for a Chinese herbalist, a retail clerk, and an office assistant for a craft brewery. This was my favorite job by far, aside from my current one; it was just me and the remembers-everything-he-ever-read owner, so I ended up doing a lot more than office work. I ran our booth at craft beer festivals and tastings; made trips to the brewery to track inventory, do labeling, and pick up/drop off/clean kegs; created tasting fliers and other info/promo material, maintained our Untappd profile… I even got to learn how to carbonate our newest batch of test kölsch once! I travelled all over the state of New Mexico and got to know the head brewers of many of the other local companies. Because the company has a rich history in the Benedictine monastic tradition, I learned a ton of interesting things about a ton of related topics, from Benedictine philosophy and history to beer-making to chemistry and so much more. If I asked my boss a simple question, I could expect up to an hour-long response and it would all be fascinating.

What is your current job?

I am a practitioner of East Asian medicine and I own my own practice. East Asian medicine includes acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and lots of other ancient healing modalities.

Why did you choose your current job?

In college I discovered an interest in energy medicine, which led me to Reiki. After college I thought about opening a holistic healing practice but I wanted a deeper education and better credentials, so after I experienced acupuncture and felt a profound shift in my body, my interest in the tradition piqued. I decided to find a job with an acupuncturist/herbalist, and after about a year at that job I went to graduate school for Oriental Medicine. 

I love that this medicine addresses physical, emotional, and spiritual issues all at the same time. Illness is not a list of symptoms, but a picture that’s out of focus. When a patient tells me how they feel poorly, a big part of my job is to figure out who they are in good health so that I can know how to guide them back there. For instance, a very active patient who has injured both knees not only needs treatment for the knee injury, but for the frustration and perhaps anxiety they experience not being able to be active anymore. A patient with knee injuries who only wants to sit on the couch needs to be treated for the knee injury, but also for whatever underlying condition has prevented them from having the motivation to get up and experience life. Patients are unique portraits of life’s expression, and my job is to help each patient’s portrait look as colorful and detailed as they desire. I absolutely love getting to work with a variety of people with a variety of challenges in a profound and often magical way.

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

Definitely easier. I was able to ask for jobs I wanted according to my interests and I became friends with my bosses and coworkers easily, making keeping those jobs easy, too.

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

You don’t need to see where you’ll end up; just keep taking steps in the direction of the things that you want and love. I was often very frustrated that I hadn’t discovered that “burning passion” that so many unschoolers seem to experience and throw themselves into, but looking back, I wouldn’t have been ready for the idea of becoming who and what I am now. I hardly even knew that my current job existed, let alone how to learn about it. Just have faith that what you’re experiencing now will serve you down the road exactly as it needs to.

What advice would you give to their parents?

Exactly the above. Don’t worry about seeing the outcome of your children, just keep your eyes open to Right Now and the possibilities that exist here.

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

I would definitely unschool them, although — since the choice would be theirs — I’d let them go to school if they wanted.

Are there any other thoughts you want to share?

While I never would have thought of becoming an entrepreneur, my background prepared me to become a business owner incredibly well. I find it interesting that both my brother and I own our own businesses in our entirely separate fields, having arrived here in completely separate ways. Not only do I love the freedom I have in owning my business and running it exactly in line with my values, but I’m always considering new, out-of-the-box ways of serving more people, in better ways, using things I love to do. I have horses and do natural horsemanship — can I offer horse/reiki mindfulness retreats? I’m a good public speaker — what if I taught reiki with an East Asian meridian therapy foundation? I want to learn medical Spanish — can I volunteer at a hospital in South America? I feel incredible ease and freedom with these ideas and have complete faith in my ability to make them happen, if I decide to.

Published: January 2020