College, Homeschool Style
by Rachel Phillips
Since the time I was a teenager homeschooling through the high school years, I have been perennially asked, “What will you do about college?” When people ask me now about my college experience, I tell them: “Before attending college, I was homeschooled in the San Francisco Bay Area from second grade through high school. I attended community college a number of years, then transferred to Skidmore College — a small liberal arts school in upstate New York. Although I graduated from Skidmore this past May, I don’t consider myself to be done homeschooling. I think of myself as having homeschooled through college, and I expect to continue my homeschooling approach to learning throughout my adult life.” As you can probably imagine, my answer leads to more questions.
Author of One’s Life
How does this explanation of our core homeschooling values — self-direction and negotiated, eye-level relationships — translate to my college experience? I passed a high school equivalency test called the “California High School Proficiency Exam” when I was fifteen. The Proficiency Exam was the first test I had ever taken, and I was petrified with fear. I would not have found the courage to tackle the test if my parents hadn’t insisted I try it — one of the rare times in our homeschooling when something was “non-negotiable.” (And I must admit I’ve benefited tremendously from my parents’ long-term vision that pushed me to take the test when I couldn’t see past my fear of it.) Shortly after passing the test, I began taking a few classes at our local community college — it was the first time I’d been in school since first grade! Just as I had been apprehensive about taking the Proficiency Test, I was worried about starting college because it was completely beyond my realm of educational experience (and I was only fifteen). Again, my parents held my hand but also pushed me forward. They allowed me to choose what courses I wanted to start with — and I chose some classes in the fashion department — but insisted I take something.
I quickly discovered that in college (even in the fashion design department) there are required classes, readings, assignments, tests, pop quizzes, etc. etc. Everything a student does — writing, tests, attendance, projects, class participation — is labeled with a grade based on a points system and a bell-curve. Self-directed students and negotiated, eye-level relationships between students and faculty/school administration are not a prominent feature of the system. Therefore, in the first few minutes of the first college class I ever took, it became clear that I had a lot to learn about doing school.
The Learning Curve
First, I had to recognize that college is not compulsory education — it is voluntary. It was my free choice (with some parental prodding…) to start college. I was choosing to accept the requirements of the college. I was choosing to do the schoolwork. I was raised with the homeschool approach that if you have a choice of doing something, either choose to do it well or don’t bother to do it at all. I decided that I needed to continue this approach in college (I’m a bit of a perfectionist), and committed to completing the schoolwork to the best of my abilities—even when I didn’t particularly agree with the class requirements or assignments. This commitment to doing my personal best often went against the school culture. My “peers” in community college (mostly eighteen year-old kids just out of high school) had spent their childhoods in compulsory school, doing compulsory schoolwork. Consequently, they mostly shared a goal of discovering what minimal amount of thought and work would allow them to scrape through a class with a “C” grade. Based on their background, I understand what motivated their desire to do as little work as possible — they had never had much (any) say in their education, so why would they know how to be self-motivated once in college? But I had no such excuse.
Committing to doing my best was an important step toward my goal of “owning” my college experience; of feeling the process was something I chose, not something mandated to me by an institution. This commitment meant — especially at first — a lot of time and energy spent on learning how to do school. Assigned readings and essay topics, taking notes, units of credit and academic calendars, grades, tests, syllabi, prerequisites. Aside from a handful of distance-learning high school classes, I didn’t have any familiarity with these things. I had to learn a whole new school vocabulary. But I couldn’t learn about “doing school” in the comfort of my home. I learned about college at — where else? — college, surrounded by fellow students and professors. A ubiquitous question of my homeschooling childhood was, “What about socialization?” Everyone asked me that question, and I politely dismissed it. But once in college, I found that it was I who was asking What about socialization? How will I cope with the people around me whose paradigm of education is so different from my own?
A fifteen year-old homeschooled girl doing her earnest best in English Composition or Geology 101 was a puzzling curiosity to professors and students alike. When I began college, I was so focused on mastering the process of doing schoolwork that I would have preferred to have been left in anonymous peace. I was not. Just as I had been asked about homeschooling by curious strangers as a child, I was constantly asked homeschooling questions in college. I realized that my college experience was going to be a mutual education: I was going to learn how subjects are (and sometimes, are not) taught in school, and at the same time, the people around me were going to learn about homeschooling.
This mutual education was sometimes exasperating for me (how many times do I have to explain that I didn’t go to high school?), and sometimes dumbfounding to the students and professors who met me. I remember I took an Advanced Composition class from a well-meaning teacher who was entirely committed to the school model. One day she gave us a writing assignment I didn’t particularly care for, so after class I asked her if I could write the paper on a different topic. I did this unthinkingly, because negotiating my education was second nature to me. She was shocked! She’d never had a student view her assignments as something they could negotiate with her. Our views of the relationship between student and teacher were polar, reflecting the deep differences in our models of education. She saw a system where teachers and institutions held the authority, mandating requirements to the students. I saw a system where students and teachers were on level footing, negotiating as equals. So what did my Advanced Composition professor tell me after she recovered her composure? You may be surprised to hear she said yes, I could do the assignment on another topic. I’ve often reflected on why my professors were so accommodating with me, even when I violated the status quo of student/faculty relationships. (And yes, they truly were very supportive: Considering my requests, talking with me, writing encouraging notes on papers, helping me with administration, recommending me for honors.) I’ve concluded that my professors were generous with me because they knew I was committed to doing my best. My negotiations with them — our dialogues — were never a way for me to talk my way out of the work. A student who wanted to actively engage in the learning process was a rarity they respected.
Constant curiosity about homeschooling was a hallmark of my community college years, but this curiosity and surprise never tipped over into anger, rejection or criticism of me (as I feared it would when I started college). I was always struck by what a revelation it was to students and teachers that education (with “good results”) could happen in an entirely different mode than they had known. Once, in a geology lab, I was (yet again) explaining to a curious student that I had been homeschooled. The student looked at me and said, somewhat surprised, “Well, you look totally normal and functional. I wouldn’t have known you were homeschooled.” I think the student intended this as a compliment, a reassurance in case I’d been worried that I had “homeschool freak” branded on my forehead. Homeschooling was associated with strangeness. But after meeting me, students and professors adjusted their expectations and accepted me, even if they thought me somewhat eccentric.
Been There, Done That
Or rather, I should say we mastered college — my family mastered college. Homeschooling in our house was a group effort; we learned together, my parents alongside me. My community college experience was also a family effort. I would have fallen pancake-flat on my face in college without a commitment from Mom and Dad which matched my own. First, during our homeschooling years they made sure I had the core academic tools needed to master college work. Once I was in college, they drove me to classes, explained the system to me, helped me read schedules and find classrooms. We had long dinnertime conversations about my experiences with peers or professors. We talked about what I was studying. When I first started venturing outside the fashion department into more academic classes, Mom took a history class with me, becoming my fellow student and mentor. My years in community college had their moments of frustration (it is hard to have a background that is so different from everyone else’s), but overall were an experience I grew from tremendously. My family and I were proud of what we’d done. However, when I was eighteen — and had completed the general education requirements plus a slough of electives — I decided I’d had enough of traditional college.
Remember what I said about choosing to do schoolwork well — or choosing not to do it at all? For about three years, I’d chosen to do college work (and done it well). But I was tired of it. Tired of grades, of dull lectures, of required classes. Since I didn’t like the narrowness of any of the majors I’d considered, I wanted the ability to design my own. I needed to transfer to a four-year university to complete a degree, but none of the schools I researched offered the autonomy and latitude I’d found in homeschooling. So I chose to be done with traditional college, and set out to find a school that would combine rigorous standards with flexibility.
University Without Walls
I finally applied to, and was accepted as a transfer student at, “University Without Walls,” the distance-learning program at Skidmore College. I chose University Without Walls (UWW) for several reasons. First, Skidmore College is a highly-reputable institution (U.S. News and World Report ranks Skidmore in the top 25 percent of liberal arts colleges nationwide). Second, the distance-learning program had existed for decades. Third, the program offered exceptional freedom from the traditional school model. At UWW there are narrative evaluations from professors instead of grades; student designed classes and majors; opportunities exist to create internships and independent studies; private classes (individual tutorials) can be arranged with Skidmore faculty. University Without Walls offers the chance to homeschool in college for a fraction of the cost of attending a residential college program.
I can’t sing the praise of Skidmore long enough or loudly enough. Skidmore was educational gold for me. It was a homeschooler’s dream. It was one of the most joyful experiences of my life. The connections I formed with the faculty and advisors at Skidmore were genuine, based on mutual respect, negotiated. During my time in UWW, I was an equal voice in designing my education. With the help of my two wonderful advisors, I designed my major combining photography and creative writing. I also created classes ranging from film studies to poetry to art theory. I earned three units of credit by having the textiles professor at Skidmore evaluate a series of dolls I’d made. Just as I’d committed to doing my best at community college, I engrossed myself in my UWW studies — but the work was done with such joy and satisfaction because I had a significant part in designing my program.
I attribute my success in both community college and UWW to homeschooling. Homeschooling gave me the tools I needed — academic skills, creativity, initiative, discipline — to choose my own course. If there is a “message” in my college story, it is to encourage homeschool families to find a way to carry their homeschooling values forward as the kids make that transition from homeschooled child to adult. I am finding the way to become a part of the broader world that is congruent with what I’ve valued as a homeschooler. I made several trips to Skidmore as part of my University Without Walls program, including a trip with my parents this past May to participate in commencement exercises. At commencement, one of my advisors gave me a book of poetry as a graduation present. The book’s dedication reads: “For Rachel – Who has taught me many things in our friendship.” In the end, I found what I wanted in college: An experience where I not only received new ideas and skills, but could also contribute something of value to the collective thought process of education. I found a way to do college homeschool-style. R.P. ■
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