Alternatives To School contributor, Gina Riley, Ph.D., follows up with many of the grown unschoolers who participated in the research study on grown unschoolers that she and Dr. Peter Gray conducted last year. Here is the second in a series of interviews of these grown unschoolers. (Click here to read the first interview.)
Laura Ellis is a former unschooler, Master’s student, and experienced horse trainer. She was kind enough to share her amazing life experiences with Alternativestoschool.com:
Tell me a bit about yourself…
I’m 28, live in Santa Fe, NM, and will graduate with a Master’s of Science in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine this August. After I graduate, I’m going to stay here for a few months to de-school, then move to Pittsburgh, PA to be with my family, where I will practice Oriental Medicine. I’m also a horse trainer and plan to (somehow, financially) continue training captured wild mustangs to be adopted. I also currently work at a craft brewery part time.
Were you homeschooled or unschooled or both? For how many years? Did you attend public or private school? Why did you switch?
I attended public school through the 2nd grade. Because of a particularly inflexible teacher, my (apparent, though I don’t recall this) love of math turned into a hatred of math, so my parents decided to homeschool us. Because of our family’s nature, this quickly became unschooling. In high school, I decided that I wanted the equivalent of a PA high school diploma, so I signed up for twice-weekly high school classes with the homeschool co-op that we belonged to. You might say I was “homeschooled” during this time, since I had homework, but I always considered myself to be unschooled through this time because of my learning philosophy and because all of the choices that we made educationally–classes and otherwise–were from the unschool mindset. Slightly more formal classes (with teachers and homework, though with flexibility that homeschoolers expect) were the way I wanted to achieve my goal. So in short, I unschooled for 10 years, 3rd-12th grades.
What, for you, are the main advantages to unschooling?
One main advantage, which I think is the foundation for the others, is that unschooling taught me to trust myself and to question the traditional paths. Not to scorn or dismiss traditional paths, simply to question. I have always been able to look at my life situations and decide on my next step based both on what mainstream says I should (“You graduated from high school? Go to college!”) and on out-of-the-box options. Being used to choosing less traditional paths and trusting myself to know which path is best for me have opened up opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have had the courage to look for otherwise.
Another (related) advantage is that my parents taught me how to pursue the scarier options–that is, how to ask strangers for help learning something or for internship/jobs, and how to look for and take advantage of opportunities.
Also, I developed a sense of self-confidence, a sense that I have something to contribute, and a realistic sense of my limitations. Together, I think that these three things are what has made my previous employers pretty unanimously fall in love with me. I can see my own potential and expect myself to live life, I try hard to succeed at new things, I expect myself to be valuable to the team/society (not only because I personally believe it’s important, but because I do believe that I am valuable, and being less is a disservice to myself and my community), and yet I know that there are certain things that I am not good at (not valuable for), and I can be honest about it from the start. I believe that all of these qualities (advantages) can be attributed to having been unschooled.
What are the main disadvantages?
This is always a hard question for me to answer because I think I sound particularly rosy and probably self-deceptive when I say, Nothing. Honestly, I cannot think of a single way I am not better off from being unschooled. But that’s me personally: I know that unschooling doesn’t work for some people, and that’s due to the beauty of human variety. Nothing is going to be the right path for everyone, and unschooling is no exception. I couldn’t tell you why, though.
Ugh! The social question…(Sorry! But so many want to know…). How did you make friends as an unschooler? Would you consider your social life healthy (as a child and now)?
Lots of other people will say it, too, but I think that my social life was much healthier than my peers as a child. My friends’ ages ranged at one point from 5-50, and they were people I considered personal friends, not just “my friend’s little sister” or “my mom’s friend.” My social life now is just as healthy because I know how to relate to people of all ages, including co-workers, bosses, fellow students, etc.
For socialization, we belonged to a few different homeschool/unschool co-ops. I was also involved with Girl Scouts until I was a teenager, I played with neighborhood kids, and went to summer camps. I also often made friends on family vacations–not that I kept in touch with them, but that’s how easy it was for me to make new friends.
Tell me about your first job (Paid or unpaid). How did you obtain it? Did being an unschooler assist you in any way?
My first job was at the riding stable where I took dressage lessons. I was about 11. I don’t remember how exactly I got the job, but I suspect my riding instructor suggested it, since they had a working student program where students could work in the barn for credit toward additional riding lessons. Probably the only part of being an unschooler that helped me get that job was flexible hours, but since I remember often working with other public-schooled kids, I doubt it was a huge factor.
What about college? Did you attend? If so, how did you get admitted?
I attended college after a gap year. Getting in was the same process as public-schoolers, only we had to write a transcript for me, showing the classes I had taken (both through the homeschooler co-op and the “classes” we made up when I pursued something far enough to warrant mention and “credit”), and one college required a portfolio of my activities (which they waived after my interview). Most colleges were very impressed at my educational background and experience, and I felt that the admissions interviewers were quite receptive to the idea of admitting a homeschooled student. (And yes, we used the word “homeschooled” for the sake of ease.) I got into four of the five colleges to which I applied, including Mt. Holyoke and Earlham College (which is the one I attended, partly for its reputation for academic challenge). The one that I was not accepted into (Kenyon College), I was told, had a massive influx of applicants that year, and I was told that I was the right caliber of student that they were looking for.
What about your current career? What do you do? Is your current career somehow associated with what you did as an unschooled child/teen?
My current career is “student,” although by the end of the year I will be a licensed practitioner of Oriental Medicine. I had hardly any idea of what acupuncture is and even less idea of energetic and whole body medicine until sometime in college. I did, however, always have an empathetic heart for human suffering and knew that I needed to be of some service to humanity.
I’m also a horse trainer, and working with horses is a love that began when I started lessons at 9 years old. I worked at that barn for several years, and then, when my family moved to the country, became the primary caregiver to two horses that we boarded in our pasture (their owner was a grown unschooler, actually, who became like a big sister to me, and was an influence in the ways of growing into an adult unschooler). I started to learn training with these two horses in the style of natural horsemanship. Then, when I moved to Santa Fe, I started studying natural horsemanship in earnest with a man who trains wild mustangs to be adopted out, and he (and the horses) are my inspiration for continuing this work.
What does the future hold for you? What are you excited about?
The future holds….too many things, and it’s a good problem that many unschoolers have. After I graduate, as I said, I plan on enjoying Santa Fe for a few months, then moving back to PA to be with my family. I will also be going on a month-long trip to China through my school in August 2016, assuming I can raise the money to help me go, and will be traveling around Asia for an unknown amount of extra time while I’m over there. In PA, I’m going to start my acupuncture and herbs practice, but how that will manifest is not yet solid for me.
I plan on bringing one of the mustangs that I’m working with and have developed a strong bond with back to PA with me and perhaps another green mustang to train.
I have also played with the idea of going on a 6-week intensive Spanish language immersion program to Peru next spring, but it looks like I’ll need to postpone that pursuit for now. I also desperately want to move to Alaska for a year, and I have the connections to do it (including housing and getting a job as a commercial fisherman, which I am mostly interested in because of my unschooler self shouting, “Something new!“), but again, my family is trumping my options, so I’ll be moving to PA instead and save Alaska for later. I was also thinking about moving to Oregon, and plan to settle in that region eventually.
I am equally excited by all of these things and sometimes despair that I can’t do them all now.
What advice would you give parents who are thinking about OR making the choice to unschool?
It’s more work than it sounds like: you have to be present, attentive, and willing to devote a lot of time to driving and actively doing things. But it is also probably the most rewarding thing you can do for your kids (possibly for you, too, but I don’t have kids, so I wouldn’t know by anything but hearsay). As long as there is respect and communication (and I reiterate, respect), you’re going to have amazing relationships with your kids, your kids with each other, and your kids will know and appreciate your efforts.