[The following post documents my personal journey with higher education. The experiences and views expressed are solely my own.]
When I graduated from high school my classmates dispersed in one of three directions; entered the work force, joined the military, or enrolled in college. I was indifferent about my future after high school. Most of my decisions at this point were based on what I didn’t want to do, or on what others told me to do.
My thought process went something like this:
Should I enter the work force? I grew up in rural Massachusetts and had been chopping and stacking wood since I was 5 years old. My dad was a self-employed, heavy equipment operator so I was well skilled with a shovel and in jumping in ditches. I’d been washing dishes and doing other odd jobs since I received my drivers license at 16. I knew what the work force looked like for me and it was not what I wanted.
What about the military? I had uncles and neighbors that served or were serving and the prospect of combat did not resonate with me. This option was quickly ruled out.
Enroll in college? The only person in my family to graduate from college was a cousin who I had little contact with. To my knowledge neither my family’s friends, nor neighbors, had any experience with college. My perspective of college was informed by what I heard on the radio, or saw on television – I believed higher education was ‘progressive’ and provided space to explore vast ideas and unlimited experiences. I also believed that college prepared you for ‘professional’ employment.
The shiny, color brochures arrived daily, as well as hand written notes from basketball and baseball coaches at small schools who wanted me to play for them.
I was a master of indifference, so I applied to the school that showed the most interest, not taking anytime to find out if it was a place I wanted to be.
My mother thought this to be a good idea. My father did not. He could not understand why anyone would want to take on so much debt without a guarantee of a return on investment.
I was accepted and began my college career at a small private college an hour away from where I grew up in Massachusetts. From day one I received an educational experience that was not advertised in the brochure and it shattered my college perception and worldviews. I was shocked at the blatant inequality represented by the campus in gender, race, and class. I was also shocked by the isolation from the local community. Leading to frequent encounters of racism and bigotry. In the classroom student participation was non-existent. This improved in my junior and senior years after students had flunked or dropped out. Those of us that had made it that far were committed to finishing.
Like in high school, my concerns in my undergraduate years focused mostly on image and how others perceived me. I played sports, worked, watched lots of television, and only did what I needed to to get by in my studies.
I asked them to mail my diploma. I was now a college graduate with no professional experience related to my degree, $40K in student loan debt, and a sadly reshaped worldview.
After graduating I took a full time construction job at a base rate of $27/hour.
I saved some money and headed West via car, New Year’s Day 2000. I ended up in California five months later and my dear childhood friend Ned drove out and we embarked on a National Park tour. We backpacked in Sequoia & King’s Canyon, Yosemite, and Redwood National Forest. We summited Mount Whitney, hiked through Death Valley and made our way to Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon. Eventually we ended up in Colorado – where I stayed, and Ned returned to Vermont for another season of maintaining trails with Green Mountain Club.
That trip was life altering. To experience the contrast from artificial time to natural time is a slap in the face. We as humans create artificial constraints and unnecessary pressures. From the calendar to clocks and quarterly profit updates, to boundary lines on a map, we create rules that do not apply to nature.
Ned lived his life according to natural time and rhythms. He liked to say, “I may not be part of the solution, but I try my best to not contribute to the problem.” Ned rejected most social norms and worked to maintain an alternative life style and infrastructure for folks that wanted to escape and reset their natural clocks.
Ned passed away in February 2001 in an ice climbing accident. His passing brought deep perspective and acute clarity. Ned was a mentor and touched everyone who encountered him on the trail. I wanted to carry on Ned’s love for the natural world and his values. When I sat quietly and asked myself the best way to do this, the answer always came back – return to school and become a teacher.
I began searching graduate programs in Environmental Education. But having secured a degree in Marketing/Communications this jump was larger than expected. Eventually I found a program offered by Antioch University New England (AUNE). I was not a shoe in for acceptance but, I had a chance. I carried the application with me for three years before I worked up the courage and capacity to fill it out. I was accepted – AUNE provided an educational experience that was student centered. We were encouraged to work collectively and to engage across disciplines. We were also required to fulfill 800 hours of practicum work. It was everything I had hoped a college education would be.
While at AUNE, sustainability was the buzz-word of the year. Theoretically I resonated with it, but communicating it and putting it into practice was difficult to conceive. As a work-study project I was conducting research on sustainability education programs for the Center for Environmental Education and came across a program titled Masters in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability. This nascent program was a partnership between The Natural Step and the engineering school at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona Sweden.
The program description follows:
The programme is founded on the basic premise that a “whole-system”, transdisciplinary approach is needed to deal with the sustainability challenge of meeting our society’s needs today and into the future. The programme is delivered in a non-traditional educational setting with experiential and holistic learning methods.
Sign me up! This was exactly what I was looking for! When I applied, the program was in its second year of existence. I was accepted and plans were made to relocate to Sweden. In the three months between graduating from Antioch and heading to Sweden, I got married and we were expecting our first child. Sweden was our honeymoon and life was exciting!
My experience in Sweden was the best year of my life. I was blessed to study and learn collectively with a culturally diverse group that brought together a variety of individual perspectives. Our individual and collective learning was enriched with diversity and motivated by the shared vision of creating a sustainable world.
I am living proof that higher education provides opportunities to make the world a better place. Formal education is a powerful tool when its purpose is to serve the betterment of society. This is why I work at Second Nature. I am blessed to work for an organization that embodies my personal beliefs and values. It is a wonderful feeling to wake up each day to support a purpose far greater than myself and to work with colleagues and a sector that feels the same!