Crafting your own education requires creativity, commitment, and vision. So, it makes sense that twenty-year-old artist Allison B would take her gap year by storm and mold her education into something as unique as her art.
As a high school student, Allison was a Young Arts winner, a recipient of the Silver Knight Award (one of the nation's most highly regarded student awards programs), and has recently been featured by Bustle, Vice, and the Miami New Times. She’s also an UnCollege fellow and has learned over the past year how groundbreaking it can be to take charge of your own education.
In high school Allison checked all the boxes. Locking down all the AP classes she could get her hands on, Allison graduated top of her class with ten extra high school credits, and fifteen college credits to boot. At first glance, Allison appeared to be the archetype of the traditional perfect student--except she demonstrated a dedication to the kind of education that occurs way beyond the classroom through personal projects. In her spare time, Allison founded an internationally recognized jewelry business that has sold handmade jewelry in every state except Alaska and launched a nonprofit, High Relief, that helped homeless and at-risk women regain confidence through artistic expression.
“I initiated most of those things for myself,” said Allison. “I did all these things because I was really interested--I loved learning, I loved giving back.” When Allison began applying to colleges, she knew she wanted to venture beyond Florida, and had the resume to do that and a whole lot more. Carrying more than 3,000 community service hours and two years leading her high school as vice president and student body president in consecutive years, Allison was somehow denied admission to her dream school.
“I had the grades, I had everything I thought I would need to get into the school of my choice, and I got rejected. In that moment, I felt extremely betrayed by the academic system,” Allison notes. She began searching for an alternative. Despite being accepted to almost every other school she applied to, she wanted to pursue something she was excited about –-- and college didn’t fit the bill.
One of Allison’s teachers who recognized her potential and understood the type of support she needed persuaded her to pursue a gap year with UnCollege. “It sounded like everything I wanted to do and more.”
During her Voyage, which she described as “the most amazing experience of my entire life,” Allison volunteered with children and took her passion for art abroad. “I kind of brought my nonprofit to Tanzania – --I brought art supplies from Miami, taught them different techniques, printed out different stuff they could work on. I taught them about self-portraits, and even brought mirrors they could use.” She painted a mural with the children, in addition to putting on an art show.
When discussing her ambition, Allison observed that she “had to be working on a bigger goal,” something that was illustrated through her Voyage. She drew pairs of the children together, and upon selling them, donated all the proceeds back to the shelter. She explained how what the children experienced in the shelter connected with her own experience volunteering abroad: “They go in not knowing anybody, but automatically become a family. It is really beautiful how they are never alone.”
When she wasn’t changing lives as a volunteer, Allison camped in the Serengeti and had to be rescued off Mount Kilimanjaro. “It made for funny photos,” she laughed. She saw her Voyage as the opportunity to expand her horizons and step out of her comfort zone in a way she wouldn’t have on a college campus.
Her time during Voyage was also a pivotal point for self-reflection. Citing the slow pace of life as being a welcominge break from the burnout of high school, Allison said: “Being in Tanzania helped me realize if there is food on the table, and you’re healthy, and you’re alive, it is a good day.”
Thinking back over her high school experience with renewed perspective, Allison recalled the dirty looks and doubt she received from the administration and peers when she announced her decision to pursue alternative education instead of a traditional four-year degree. “Going to a certain school doesn’t make you a good person. We tie intelligence to that one degree, or that one school you got accepted to,” she noted. Noting that intelligence, talent, and learning come in many forms, Allison doesn’t believe a degree is the end-all, be-all to an education.
Currently, Allison has plenty on the docket: She’s an intern for a design company in San Francisco, a position she hopes to segue into a full-time job. She’s having a solo show in June with her sculpture work. She’s applied to a coding school, and firmly believes getting a degree isn’t the only path to success: “Education is important. I don’t think a formal education at a university is necessary. I love learning, and am seeking mentors, and am doing everything I can to get an education and be informed.”
There’s no question Allison is a drop-out success story, whose ambition and vision for her life remind us what education is supposed to be. “It is incredibly empowering to shape your own education,” she said, emphasizing the self-motivation required to make things for yourself. “Declining my acceptance to college was the best decision I have made so far.”
(All photo, news clippings, and video credit to Allison Bouganiam, https://www.allisonbouganim.com/)