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Grown Without Schooling
By Peter Kowalke
An adult unschooler interviews his peers to find out what they are doing and thinking now.

Chatting with . . . Sarah Smith Seris, age 28

Grown Without Schooling: Sarah Smith SerisWanted: My Place in the World

When I was in college, I thought that I really wanted to do political campaign work. I studied political science and worked on a few campaigns, but found campaign work seedy and kind of disturbing. I had been working at a therapeutic horseback-riding center, so after I finished college, I worked there full-time for one year until I discovered that the University of Missouri had a public administration program with a public policy emphasis. So, I started my Master’s degree and finished that in 2004. After graduation, I ended up working at a substance abuse facility, where I was hired to do program evaluations and internal auditing. I continue to work at the therapeutic riding center, too, where I’m a volunteer instructor – that’s one of my escapes in life. The other thing I do that I love is work as a swim coach. I’d just like to be a swim coach some day, but that’s not financially feasible. In a richer area maybe I could, but I’m quite fond of Columbia, Missouri.

Accidental Job

They basically created a job for me at the substance abuse not- for-profit. I think this happens to homeschoolers a lot. I met the executive director, we had a really great conversation and later she just called me out of the blue: “I’m coming up with a job description you might be interested in.”

Not-for-profits have this problem in which they’re constantly seeking to diversify their funding. Four years ago, 80 percent of our funding came from the state. Well, the state cut our funding in half. So, we write grants. But, you don’t really get a grant funded unless you’re going to think of a great new program. So, then you end up with about 15 different programs running from the same organization. You need a lot of interconnectedness, some reflection on ultimate goals and that kind of thing. I think that the executive director was looking for someone who had a good idea of not-for-profit structure to tie it all together. That’s why I was hired. And I’m doing a lot of that when I’m not troubleshooting the printer.

There was no indication when I was hired that I was going to do tech work, but now I’m their network administrator. I came across as knowing a little bit about computers, and I helped write a grant in December for $15,000 of new tech equipment, and we got it. We bought a new server, I learned how to build the server and now I wire network cables and troubleshoot servers. It was a total accident.

Learn Now or Fail

Let me tell you, I’m really glad that I was homeschooled because my job is one of those experiences where you either learn really quickly or fail. I think that having a creative learning style, and being very comfortable trying new things, was necessary for me to take on the networking job. I definitely bit off more than I could chew. When the server failed for the first time, I was like, I don’t know how to do this. I’m not a computer person. What is a RAID array? I don’t get this. Then, by two o’clock in the morning, I finally had it all figured out. Now I’m pretty comfortable doing routers and whatnot. But it definitely isn’t my favorite thing in the world – especially when I’m up all night.

Passion Required

I don’t hate my work by any means; I’m very happy there, and I like the people I work with. But, unlike coaching and the therapeutic riding center, I’m eager to leave every day. I literally count down the hours until I teach at the therapeutic riding center. I think that because work is where most of our life is spent, we should have that kind of excitement about going to work. I’m not sure my current job is the best fit, though.

I think school really prepares people for the workforce. School prepares a lot of people for jobs that aren’t really that great, but that’s what they do day after day because it is what our society has prepared them to do – be little worker bees. Kids are going to school and doing what the school wants every day whether they like it or not. They do it even if they hate what they’re doing. It was different for me, coming from an environment where learning is a constant process and you have unbelievable flexibility. When I started my job full-time last year, and started working eight to five, I felt like I was in a cage. Honestly, I almost had panic attacks. Not because I hated what I was doing, but because I had never been trained for that kind of life.

I never want to be one of those people who is depressed on a Sunday night because I know Monday is going to roll around. I don’t want to be that person! I know so many people like that.

Work as its Own Reward

Life really is what you make of it. I’ve made my job at the substance abuse not-for-profit a really good thing. It is not what I want to do for the rest of my life, but it fulfills my needs now. I’ve definitely made a difference to the organization, even if it just is the tech grant I wrote that allowed everybody to get a new Dell with Windows XP Pro on it. That was a huge change; the counselors do their assessments literally in half the time, so now they spend more time counseling clients. Even if I don’t love my job more than anything in the world, I’ll respect what I did if I leave and feel that I left with a good legacy. There’s the homeschooler in me talking: No use doing something if you can’t do it right!

I was talking with my best friend recently, who also was homeschooled, and we had this conversation about how so many people we know who went to school are slackers. So many people we’ve worked with just are going through the motions and don’t really try. I try to do everything well, even if I don’t like it. I feel it is incumbent on me to do well, especially if it affects other people. She had the same reaction. We were wondering if this is a product of our homeschooling. I guess we won’t know until there’s a quantitative study of grown homeschoolers.

Peter Kowalke grew without schooling. He is a journalist and the producer of “Grown Without Schooling,” a documentary about grown homeschoolers and the lasting influence of home education.

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