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The UnCollege Blog

Why I Left College to Start Learning

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Two things happened during my freshman year of college:

  1. I wanted to learn, so I went.
  2. I wanted to learn, so I left.

During my freshman year, I was a good student—I studied and made good grades, met people and lived in dorms. I was also working on what was (and still is) my ultimate dream job: Writing a book. I signed with a literary agent, pulled all-nighters editing, and felt as though I was packing a crash-course in all things writing into every conference call.

That was, until, the professor I went to for advice told me I needed to focus less on my own writing and more on writing assignments.

It crushed the dream, a little. It baffled me that trying something like this didn’t count at least as much as getting an A on an exam. It got the wheels turning: Why is taking notes considered more valuable than doing the thing? Why is it only considered learning if we’re sitting in a desk?

I left school following my freshman year. I took a gap year—then, that went so well, I took a second one.

I found out one thing: There is no right way to learn. There’s just the way that is right for you.

(Disclaimer time: I’m a big fan of teachers. I’ve met professors who inspire, encourage, make you think…and I’ve learned countless things from them. Turns out, what I learned from this particular teacher was that I needed to learn a different way).

It sounds counterproductive, right? To say I wanted to learn, so I left school? And yet, I think that’s where we’ve hit a higher education snag: Learning doesn’t have just one definition. Everyone learns differently, so doesn’t it make fundamental sense that everyone’s educations should be different, too?

We stereotype it: If you don’t go to college, you’re a failure. If you leave school, you’re either chilling out on the couch watching reruns or “finding yourself” on an international journey. If you study at a trade school, well…that doesn’t even count.

Talk about getting answers wrong. We make it complicated, but it’s simple: Learn the best way for YOU to learn. Maybe that means a solid four years of uninterrupted college. Or getting hands-on in a vocational school. Or maybe, like me, you want a taste of everything—life experiences, work, classes.

So that’s what I tried (sometimes more successfully than others…) to do: I wanted to recreate my learning to include my work and experience. I wanted to spend some time recreating my education—my goal was to do things that benefited and inspired me, personally and professionally.

That book from way-back-in-freshman-year never got published, but it catapulted me into the most extraordinary learning experiences of my life: Throughout my gap year(s), I became a contributor to The Huffington Post’s blog and was published by Zouch Magazine, I taught ballet and co-founded a community yoga studio. I started working for a nonprofit devoted to making Mondays rock for hospitalized kids, volunteered for an organization I adore, and spoke at TEDxYouth Kansas City on redefining learning.

I’m not trying to rattle off my resume, because that isn’t what is important here. I am, however, trying to explain (in the only way I know how) that for me, these lessons taught me more than most of my academic classes. They tested me—not via A, B, C, D or pass/fail, but in a way that encouraged me to get creative and keep moving even when things seemed insurmountably difficult. Yes, some of these things boosted my resume (and most of which were just incredibly fun) but they taught me things I’m not sure taking notes on the theories of them would have: Discipline. Being gutsy enough to follow your curiosity. The value of sending an email.

That’s not to say you can’t learn these things in college. It just so happened that it wasn’t the best way for me to learn them.

Even though we have more options than ever, our view on higher education has remained painfully narrow.

What’s so wrong with it being different?

In my opinion, gap years are a major solution to America’s $1.2 trillion-in-student-debt problem: They allow you to gain experience in jobs you might be interested in, so you don’t wind up with a degree in a frame and no paycheck upon graduation. They encourage you to put your own ideas into motion, and venture outside your comfort zone.

But they also go deeper than that. They give us something so connected to and illustrated by education, that we’ve forgotten in our hustle to lock down that degree: Gap years create possibility. Possibility to go forward, to try something new. Possibility to fill yourself with things and lessons and people who are teachers, even if they don’t stand in front of a class. Possibility to create our own educations.

Gap years aren’t opposites of education. They’re extensions of education.

My gap year(s) bridged the path between my life and learning. The higher education divide is closing…

Who knew it would take a gap to open it all up?

Rainesford Alexandra is a writer, student, and education activist. During her gap
year(s), she published writing with The Huffington Post and Zouch Magazine in
addition to founding The Young Artist Feature, an on-going arts interview series.
Rainesford co-founded a community yoga studio, works with The Monday Life to
make Mondays rock for hospitalized kids, and spoke at TEDxYouth Kansas City
on redefining education. She hopes to leave the world—and education—a little
better than she found it. Catch Rainesford on Twitter: @Rainesford

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