I have a confession: I really, really hated college. Having attended two different progressive schools (Phoenix Middle School and Linworth Alternative Program) during the six years before I entered university, I found traditional education… well, bland. Lacking.
Harsh? Possibly. But my first year of college, I watched in awe as substitute teachers were used (a concept I found insulting for young adults), students merely jumped through hoops to earn points and grades, and professors utilized only tests as a means of assessment. My education felt meaningless.
My sophomore year I finally decided to stop lamenting over traditional education and instead focus on transforming my university experience through methods already familiar to me.
Now, I’m making my college education meaningful in a variety of ways:
Developing independent classes
I created a class the second semester of my sophomore year about the farm-to-table movement. I interviewed local farmers, conducted research, and created a digital cookbook complete with my photography and design.
For my final project, rather than a paper or independent presentation with my professor, I hosted a luncheon and presentation open to the public. The presentation featured 5 different,
unique dish samples made by the only farm-to-table café in the town. I shared pieces of what I learned throughout the semester, quotes from the farmers I interviewed, and tips for how they could help the community and environment by eating a little closer to home. The presentation had a fantastic turnout, with even the president of the university attending and the local newspaper writing an article about the class.
Practice experiential learning
This semester, I’m in Oaxaca, Mexico, completing a semester of independent classes. With a total of four classes, two self-designed and two adapted for the semester, I’m practicing hands-on education in some incredible ways. With no classroom and few hard deadlines, these classes are largely project based, require a great deal of time-management, and allow me to scratch that creative itch. If you want to see the specific classes I’m taking and how I’m practicing independent, experiential learning, check out my post, “Wait, how are you in school”?
Making a list of goals
With an incredibly diversified set of interests, I avoided choosing a major only for the reason I may want to pursue a career in it. Rather, I created a list of goals, cross-checked the various fields of study with which classes would most cater to my goals, and went from there.
I also developed a 15-page document titled “Ideal University” sometime during my sophomore year, which included ideas for alternative classes or assignments, how I could make certain classes more engaging or hands-on, and my Undergraduate Mission Statement of:
“To develop further into a lifelong learner through preparing for and engaging in work that is equally rewarding to myself as is advantageous to our local and global community, all while developing life-worthy skills like efficient communication, strong writing, and thoughtful critical analysis.”
By making these goals and the mission statement, I have a clearer picture of why I’m in college. When I chat with those professors I see as mentors, I can show them the document I composed and give them a better idea of how I want to shape my classwork.
Connecting with professors
I’m a colossal nerd, which means I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the offices of professors, prodding them with questions and asking for extra information. I found the one-on-one time I spend with these professors not only allowed me to enhance my learning, but pave the way for other opportunities as well.
For example, I took an intro to environmental science class several semesters ago. Because of my special interest in food systems and the agricultural studies, my professor allowed me to turn in a research paper on the link between agricultural practices and environmental damage and develop a mock lesson plan for children rather than take a full exam.
Trying to pave the way for others
While I’m excited for the work I’ve done this semester, my job isn’t over. My capstone for the honors program, which I’ll complete in the Spring 2017 semester, will focus on how my university can take clear steps to making education more meaningful for students, therefor more valuable for their futures, as well as what students can do to transform their education. I’m hoping to highlight subjects such as grading methods, experiential learning, and how students can utilize reflective feedback as a means of growth.
I find myself incredibly grateful for my educational experience and that I have the opportunity to attend college at all. While I’m far from an expert on alternative education, I want my research to reflect how universities can make meaningful learning more accessible to students, as well as how students can push for change in their universities. I can say firsthand that it has changed my life for the better and I want to spark that fire for learning in my peers, too.