From a very early age, Alex knew he didn’t want to go to college. “I think from an early age I just never liked the classroom,” he recalls, “You’re on this track. It’s very comfortable. At school, I had to do things just because someone was saying that I had to do them. I wasn’t engaged. I don’t do well when I’m comfortable or bored; I have to have some skin in the game, I need things to be unpredictable. College just seemed like a four year comfort zone.”
At the same time, Alex didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to spend time with other interesting young people. If universities offered one thing, it was the chance to socialize with smart, engaging peers.
“I didn’t want to stay in DC,” Alex says of his motivation to join the fellowship. “When I found out that I could get up and move across the country and work and be inside the startup world where they’re building these companies and live with 18 people from around the world, with the freedom to do what I want… that’s why I decided to do UnCollege.”
Freedom is exactly what Alex found. After completing UnCollege’s three month launch phase, it was time for his voyage phase: the period where fellows travel abroad for three months to do independent work. Most of Alex’s colleagues took on work abroad -- “tech incubators overseas, internships in Paris, au pairs in Spain,” and the like. [For upcoming fellows, the voyage phase will be slightly more structured, with options to choose from around the world.] Meanwhile, Alex and his roommate (who, he’s quick to say, is now one of his “absolute best friends”) bought two round trip tickets to Bangkok with no plans and just a backpack each. Neither had ever been out of the United States before.
“There’s something about going to Southeast Asia with no responsibilities and no plan. You’ve never had so much freedom in your life. If you weren’t having a good time, there was no excuse. You couldn’t stress about little things like waiting ten hours for the bus or sleeping on a bus with no AC. My takeaway was that if you’re going to stress about something, change it. If you care enough, you’ll change it. If you don’t change it, you don’t care enough, so stop stressing.”
Learning to let go of the little things is one revelation amongst many that UnCollege brought up for Alex. “UnCollege is about being very goal-oriented and very self-aware and self-reflective. I think I was somewhat self-aware and self-reflective before UnCollege, but the program showed me how you can break everything down. Now, I write down all my goals, every day. I write down the things I want to accomplish each month and each day.”
Back in Thailand, Alex traveled around the country and on the islands south of the mainland, staying in hostels and going where the wind blew. After about a month, Alex and his roommate decided to visit another UnCollege fellow who was in Malaysia before the three guys flew to Hanoi. “All this was on a whim. We wanted to ride motorcycles across the country, even though we’d never ridden motorcycles before. We arrived in Hanoi at 8 a.m., met three guys at the hostel who had just ridden from Ho Chi Minh city with their motorcycles. We bought them for $200 each, learned how to ride them that day, went to bed, and first thing in the morning we set out. We were still struggling, but we rode for three weeks on the Ho Chi Minh trail all the way across Vietnam, stopping in these little villages. Nobody spoke English. It was just an adventure. Our bikes would break down every other day. We had to tie ropes around our bikes and pull each other through the mountainside.”
That’s how, at the age of 18, while most of his high school friends were sitting in university lectures texting under their desks, Alex Tatem was motorcycling across Asia.
After his voyage phase, Alex knew what he wanted to do and headed back to DC, where he packed up his things and drove across the country back to San Francisco to begin work at an education technology company, where he now does sales operations and account executive work.
“It’s not as though I wouldn’t be doing this work if I hadn’t been in UnCollege. But I wouldn’t have traveled. And I wouldn’t have met these awesome, awesome people that I’m now friends with. That voyage was the best thing I’d done.”