What does it take to finally realize that you need to focus on the one thing you have immediate control: yourself? In our #MeetCohort12 series, we catch up with incoming Cohort 12 fellow Billy to find out more about his background and how he finally gained control of his life. Billy will begin his gap year in October with the largest UnCollege Cohort to date.
UnCollege: What were you like growing up? What was your town like?
Billy: I had the pleasure of receiving of a happy, safe, and stable childhood. I had everything that I could ever need with supportive parents and family. I was a sporty kid and my only worries were getting home for dinner on time and keeping cool in the Texas heat.
I grew up in a small suburb of Fort Worth, Texas named Grapevine where idleness was the norm and life-routines were easily managed. The city resisted much of modern development and the small-town charm resonated throughout. A simple walk down main street will bring you back in time. It's considered the Christmas Capitol of the World (self-proclaimed of course), as the winter-time decorations, parade, and other activities draw tens of thousands of people from within and outside of the metroplex each year.
If you've ever flown into Dallas-Fort Worth airport, you've been to Grapevine. The domestic terminal is mostly situated in Grapevine. Naturally, long layovers will draw in many visitors from around the country and sometimes internationally. My mother was a shuttle bus driver from the airport to Grapevine for many years and we had the pleasure of meeting many people from all over.
What’s your stance on school or what are your favorite and least favorite parts about school?
School, most of the time, is everything that you want it to be if you take the initiative. But unfortunately there are some institutional and structural barriers keeping all students from realizing their true potential and passions.
There is a distinction to be made between schooling and education. Schooling is what you get by going through the motions, memorizing the facts thrown at you and robotically spewing out that information for tests, and then forgetting that information only days later. Education, on the other hand, is a result of your own actions and further effort. Education is that intangible quality that many of us are seeking, and you don't necessarily need school to achieve a quality education. Ideally, schooling and education would be paired, but they have drifted apart with the ever increasing standardization and factory-like "educational" system here in America that fails to build intrinsic motivation for life-long learning. In the words of Mark Twain, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."
What do you like to do during your free time?
I think I spend half of my time keeping up with current affairs domestically and internationally. After either getting too depressed, angered, annoyed, etc with that, I'll go out for a long hike, eat pizza, drink coffee, eat more pizza, and then drink coffee again. The rest of my time is filled up by Netflix, TED talks and podcasts, photography, calligraphy (the most underrated form of meditation), PS4, camping, volunteering, and reading. Throw in some more pizza and coffee in there somewhere.
What led you to take a gap year?
The short answer is that I didn't like the direction my life was going in and I needed a change.
The long answer is, well, long. The idea of a gap year never entered my mind until late last year. I graduated from high school in 2015 and went straight to university from there. I was rejected from the two schools I wanted to attend, which were Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin. Even though I was a National AP Scholar, received state congressional recognition for volunteer and extracurricular efforts, involved with the National Honor Society and Student Council, received straight A's, along with many more accolades that I would later learn to be all quasi-useless fluff, these universities would not even give me the time of day.
Personally offended, which I now recognize was a poor reaction, I attended the University of Texas at Arlington, a small commuter school situated in between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was my first glimpse of university life up close and in all honesty, I was disgusted. The monotony and rigidity of the curriculum and day-to-day activities did nothing to satiate the naturally curious soul. I was horrified at how the students were all treated like statistics. What disturbed me most was active efforts by the school to make classes easier so that they could increase their four-year graduation and retention rates so that they could get more funding from the state.
I put all my effort into getting out of there and transferring to another school. To do this, I simply repeated the same actions I took during high school, doing all that I could to improve my resume. I became a Cadet with the United States Army, kept my job that I had in high school working twenty hours a week at my local library, joined student government and multicultural affairs, and took on a 19 credit-hour course load.
I had great success in this environment, becoming one of the top-ranked Cadets in the country and received a training slot at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for the following summer. I was awarded this training a full year earlier than most of my fellow cadets. I maintained a 4.0 GPA with relative ease.
I transferred in Fall 2016 to the University of Texas at Austin, the original school I dreamed of getting into where I double-majored in Political Science and International Relations. I continued my involvement in the Army, where I was ranked the #2 Cadet in the program at the university. I was on track to entering into many fruitful leadership positions both in the program itself and in the Army. I eventually wanted to commission as a Military Intelligence Officer with a detail in the Chemical or Armor branches of the Army.
On the academic side, however, I soon realized that few things distinguished UT Austin from UT Arlington. I still maintained a 4.0 GPA, but that said little about my effort as a student except for the fact that I could maneuver my way through the mud and adjust my efforts in a way that I could eventually receive a pretty little piece of paper that said I was educated.
I became increasingly isolated and cut-off from those around me. My level of activity in the Army dropped significantly. I had no way of dealing with this situation where I had fought and fought to get into the university of my dreams only to find out that i was in an arguably worse environment than I was before.
I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder in October 2016, and then Bipolar Disorder and PTSD in March of 2017. I ended my involvement with the Army on my own accord knowing the medication I would be put on would be disqualifying for some years to come. I sought help from Student Emergency Services, registered with Services for Students with Disabilities, and went through therapy. It was a steep fall from grace to say the least. After getting out of the whirlpool that is mental health crisis, I continued my fight, becoming a mental health advocate and Crisis Counselor through Crisis Text Line.
It was at this point when I decided I needed out of university and to take control over my education and circumstances, focusing on the only area which I have immediate control: myself.
I couldn't wait until October to begin this refocusing and realignment of my personal priorities, so I hopped on a plane to Vietnam and taught English and community development strategies to disadvantaged children coming from ethnic minority hill tribes in poverty-stricken northern provinces. I lived on less than a dollar a day with the locals (except for my excursions to Hanoi where I would eat all the pizza in sight). Even though this was drastically different from the life I had grown accustomed to back home, I fell in love with the country and decided to stay.
I missed my flight back to the US on purpose and was soon offered a full time teaching position with pay in a more modern city. I'm currently in the process of setting up two free educational centers in Hanoi and in Dong Van district, Ha Giang province (the most beautiful place on earth in my opinion). With this, I'm laying the groundwork for an eventual establishment of a non-profit organization with another volunteer I met here in Vietnam that will seek to provide equal access for English-language and life-skills education, free of charge.
So how's that for a long answer?
How did your parents respond?
Normally they would have most likely disowned me. But they understood what I was going through at the time of my decision and gave me their full support (Okay, maybe 90 percent support).
What are you most excited about going into UnCollege? (phase, element, etc?)
Meeting like minded peers.
What are your goals for the gap year?
To gain perspective, increased receptivity, and to take control of my own education and life so that I can become a more effective student, professional, friend, and family member - something that no university alone can provide.
What’s your biggest fear going into the program?
The vaccines. I really hate needles. And my hairline receding more.
What is your favorite quote?
It's a tie between "No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness" by Aristotle, and....
"'You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take - Wayne Gretzky' - Michael Scott"
Fellows, if you get that last reference we're going to get along just fine🙂.
What’s your six-word story?
I am alive - all that matters.
Can you finish this sentence? In 5 years, you will find me...
In 5 years you will find me wherever the wind takes me.