Can young people create their own education? If so, how should they do it?
For me, the roots of the question lie in the fact that I've always been hopeful. At a young age hope seemed sparse after my family life deteriorated due to a divorce and subsequent challenges. However, a group of teachers, mentors, and friends in my small town of Nixa, Missouri, became incredible supports. Their influence was so great that I wanted my career path to follow their footsteps.
During my senior year of high school, I brought my Middle Eastern parents into the same room to share that I wouldn't be pursuing the expected route of becoming a doctor. They were less than pleased, to say the least, but they gave their blessing and I left home to pursue a degree.
I also began working for a student program at a church in the west suburbs of Chicago. For the next five years, I served on a team focused on building a 40,000 square foot student community center, complete with a theatre, cafe, and hangout space.
My work made me curious about further education in business, design, and simply learning how I could make a difference. Over time, the idea of earning an MBA surfaced. But the more I studied for the GMAT and researched programs, the more I wondered if the options and price tags fit.
I began interviewing hundreds of friends, family, peers, college students, and professors, asking droves of questions about learning methods, practices, ideas, and personal dreams.
When I explained I was thinking of creating my own education, people were partly intrigued and perplexed. All of that changed, however, when I ended the interviews with one final question: "If you were me, what risk would you take to change something in your life, your community, or your world?"
The question led to several incredible conversations around creative projects, personal goals, family events, and community endeavors. It caused me to wonder what would happen if more people embraced risk to pursue their passion.
I took my findings from the conversations and created a simple format of learning based on spending time in the spaces and with the people I admire in design, business development, and social change: 12 experiences and apprenticeships in 12 months.
I also carried that final question about risk-taking throughout the year. After countless interviews, I had a system and structure to learn on my own, and a community of people to learn with. I gave my self-made experiential education and the corresponding community project a name: The Leap Year Project.
I started by helping a Chicago-based design agency, Doejo, explore how to be more involved with cause-based organizations. Then my journey led me all over the world: a journalism trip to Cairo; a stint on the community management team at Threadless with their founder, Jake Nickell; a startup ad agency with advertising guru Alex Bogusky; an experience design apprenticeship with an architecture firm in Seattle; a business trip to China with a socially conscious clothing company; and so forth.
All of this helped me learn practical skills in marketing, business development, project and client management, and community building. I shared valuable experiences with a wide network of like-minded individuals, several of whom are now friends and mentors. And I learned more about myself than I imagined. My hopes turned to action and my convictions matured and grew into values. Afterwards, I staged my graduation at TEDxWindyCity and compiled our community's leap stories into an end-of-project book.
Throughout The Leap Year Project, I began hearing feedback from employers, mentors, and friends that my self-made experiential education could become a helpful model for others. There is a general, overarching understanding that real-world experiences are incredibly valuable to one’s learning objectives and personal formation, but there are countless questions surrounding how to evaluate, assess, and guide the learning process within such an organic structure. The feedback became so prevalent that, rather than accepting one of several job offers, I’ve decided to explore how experiential education can become a more prevalent and highly regarded route for students ranging from high school to graduate level programs. Experience Institute is that effort.
The mission is simple: establish experiences as a credible form of education. I believe that people who complete this type learning process will gain the tools necessary to transform our world with an inventive spirit.
The game plan is even simpler: begin with a pilot class of ten students this fall who are interested in design, business development, technology, and/or social innovation.
We'll begin by meeting in Chicago to learn problem-solving processes that we can apply to our apprenticeships, and then establish each of our tracts for the year. We'll also begin working through a curriculum developed by friends from Kellogg, Apple, IC Stars, Stanford, and Sapient.
Together, we'll join with others in elevating real-world experiences to be seen as a valuable form of education while providing fresh, valuable work and insights to partner companies. As we grow, this will open the doors for students of all ages and types to find their place in this world in a way that is affordable, helpful, and transformative—all while building meaningful relationships.
In his 1973 work Reflections on the Human Condition philosopher Eric Hoffer writes, "The central task of education is to implant a will and a facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people." Hoffer goes on to note, "In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."
Those words may have been written nearly 40 years ago, but they couldn't be truer today. I believe that my small project and the generosity of several bright, caring individuals have not only surfaced a new type of degree, but more importantly, a new space to equip people to live in today's world and learn ways to make it better.
So, can we create a new type of education? I have a feeling that we can. Whether you're a student or a company, I hope you'll join us.
Image courtesy of Victor Saad