Sometimes, when I waltz into my office at my preferred lovely hour of 10:30am, ready to tackle a project in the machine shop, I think to myself “How did I get so lucky?” And other times, when I’m still staring at a white-light interferometer at midnight on a Friday, looking for subtle fringes so I can take a measurement, I have to ask, “What did I do to get myself into this?”
Other bloggers this week have told their stories of how they have gotten to where they are – for some software was the gateway to a career, for some being flexible was the key. There’s been discussion on how to find room for passion in every opportunity, even if that passion can burn you out eventually.
My story is a story about taking advantage of every opportunity I could grab. And a lot of those opportunities came out of how I was educated.
I was homeschooled from first grade all the way through high school. Being homeschooled allowed me the flexibility to explore the subjects I was interested in, unlimited access to my teachers, and the delightful experience of being constantly challenged with stimulating material. I loved, loved learning by the time I graduated.
Because of that flexibility provided by homeschooling, I completed my school a little faster than the standard pace. Being a little younger than anyone else, and having good SAT scores, let me get into community college with no trouble. And good grades in community college let me get into a good state school for engineering. Good grades in undergrad and participation in extra-curriculars let me get good internships during my summers, including internships with research. Having research experience helped me win a major national scholarship. Having an excellent undergrad record and resume helped me get into the best school in the world in my graduate field.
So in my case, each accomplishment opens doors that let me reach the next goal. But those accomplishments have come through the lessons I learned during homeschooling. After I got through homeschooling through highschool, I had gained:
• Ability to study independently
• Ability to be self-motivated
• Ability to work through problems without help, before asking for assistance
• Time management skills
• A lifelong excitement for learning
• Ability to teach others (I taught my younger siblings), which was helpful because teaching is one of the best ways to make sure you understand the material yourself.
And of all those life lessons, the one that has served me best has definitely been the ability to work independently.
Now of course I speak in generalities here, but in my experience students who attend public highschool are often used to having teachers explain all material in class, having the teacher available to answer questions, and having classmates to collaborate with. But in college, students are usually required to know additional material not covered in class, are required to learn by reading the textbook, and often only have limited access to the professor. That’s a lot like how homeschooling is. Since I was self-taught in highschool, I was not used to having a teacher or any classmates at all. Having a classroom setting was just a bonus for me – I was already prepared to rely on the information in the textbook and my own research in the library to learn new material.
Of course there were some drawbacks to homeschooling as well. For instance, my peers are much more tolerant of busy work than I am. I absolutely hate busy work. If I am assigned 20 problems for homework, and I understand the concept after 5 problems, I have a really hard time making myself do the last 15. I see no point. But my peers would just chug on through. Therefore I often made poor grades on homework, but I always rocked the tests.
For me personally, homeschooling allowed me the flexibility to reach my full potential. The flexibility I had in homeschooling – flexibility to choose my own curriculum, my own methods of study, my own time and scheduling – was a powerful advantage in college. College was actually less flexible than I was used to, but for my public school peers it was a major change. My peers who excelled in college were the ones who discovered this flexibility and enjoyed it, who could handle it and take advantage of it. The ones who dropped out were the ones who couldn’t handle the independence and flexibility they now had. They floundered, not knowing what to do or where to go because nobody explicitly told them anymore.
Of course homeschooling is a unique experience, and fairly rare, and my point is not to advocate or campaign for homeschooling here. What I am saying is that education, and the lessons learned during your education, can be powerful drivers.
The legacy homeschooling left me – the ability to think, and the ability to independently take advantage of all opportunities available to me – is a legacy that I wish that all kids could take with them, whatever their education path.
We’ve talked about engineering education a lot here on Engineer Blogs, so clearly it’s an important topic. What lessons did you learn from your education?