In the Spring 2017 OC Magazine, we reprinted an article written by Susan Shilcock, OC Co-Founder. The orignial article was written in 1997 about her experiences with Peter Bergson raising their four youth, Amanda, Emily, Julia and Nicholas on a non-traditional educational path (none of them set foot in a traditional educational setting until college). Read the entire article here.
We caught up with Amanda, Emily, Julia and Nicholas to learn what they are up to now!
It hardly seems possible that this year I finally turned 40, as I jokingly tell friends that I have been middle-aged since about the age of 7. I have been fortunate to spend the bulk of my adult life thus far in compelling and intellectually rewarding work. Following my official unschooling years, I attended college as a part-time student at the University of Pennsylvania, where I bonded with my fellow night students over our shared experience of balancing work, school, and other commitments. I learned a lot at Penn, not the least of which was my relaxed disinterest in being “pre” anything (as many of my classmates were pre-law, pre-med, pre-business, etc).
Armed with a wonderfully diverse design-my-own major (American civilization and history with an emphasis on so-called minority populations), I graduated in 1999 and immediately left my legal publications job for the nonprofit world. I spent six years doing grantmaking intermediary and program evaluation work, and then the next nine years at a community organization primarily serving immigrants, before moving to my current policy advocacy position in 2015.
My unschooling identity has served me well across my professional journey, as well as in my volunteer work, friendships, family, and romantic relationships. Perhaps one of the most fun applications in recent years was when I decided I needed to learn statistical analysis for a survey project. Turns out the ability to locate a resource person, identify the skills needed, read up on background issues, acquire new knowledge, and then apply those skills in the real world works just as well today as it did back in my childhood. And given my lifelong intolerance for pointless work, it was especially gratifying to see our survey research results being put to immediate use by practitioners.
My other enduring identity has been as a librarian. I am entering my 27th year of working weekend shifts as a reference assistant in my local public library, but the principles of librarianship are something I carry with me into every aspect of my life. In particular, the values of access, diversity, lifelong learning, social responsibility, and the public good inform my perspective as an aunt, sister, advocate, and friend.
I think that is the biggest gift unschooling gave to me: the opportunity to identify a life passion and pursue it, even through non-traditional paths. I don’t know if my mother knew where things would lead when she suggested to 13-year-old Amanda that volunteering at the library might be a good fit, but I like to think her spirit shines through in how have I approached my life’s work ever since.
It has been twenty years since my mom’s last writing. In that time, I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology during which I fell in love with, and later married, my college best friend and research partner. Following graduation I worked as a family-based therapist providing crisis management and direct care to adolescents and their families. This work led me to seek my Master’s degree in Educational Leadership, which in turn led to my new role in higher education admissions and financial aid. I remained in that job, which I thoroughly loved, until my husband and I decided to start a family. For us, that meant having me transition from a 60-hour work-week with travel to a part-time position in which I could be fully present for our future children.
Finding myself in the less-common position of wanting desperately to recreate my own idyllic childhood for my own children, I knew that providing a self-directed and resource-rich environment was important to me. Naturally this led me back “home” to OC after a decade of life in the Real World. I decided in the spring of 2005 to return to Open Connetions to work alongside my mom. Sadly, life had other plans for me and when she passed that summer I inherited both of “Susan’s Tutorials.” Despite this unfortunate transition, I remain fascinated by the intellectual and emotional transformation that youth make during the two years (ages 13-15) in which I am privileged to work with them, and the tools, phrases, and wisdom my mom shared with me are ever present.
I am eternally grateful for the trust my parents placed in me throughout my educational journey and for the endless opportunities my mom created for me to learn through real work and to create a life to meet the needs of myself and my family.
As I re-read this piece, I was struck by how much my siblings and I have, at our core, stayed the same since our youth. My mom wrote about who I was as a person, sort of a descriptive review. The line that brought tears streaming out of me was this one: “It has been only in the past few years that we have come to fully embrace the value of Julia’s special intelligence and indeed the skills necessary to be an outstanding counselor, diplomat, manager or teacher.” My mom died shortly after my 24th birthday, so she never got to know what my adult life looked like. She certainly had a strong sense of where it was headed (Mike and I started dating three weeks before she went into the hospital, and I was working at OC full time as a Facilitator), but I have often yearned for her to be here so that she could see the “adult me” in action. Her perception of my greatest strengths at age 16 were spot-on then, and they still hold true today, so in a sense I guess she did/does know the adult me.
Picking up where she left off…
After my high school years during which I took some college classes, I transitioned to full-time college. The time I had spent working with young people during my pre-teen and teen years (I was an Intern at OC, and also volunteered bi-weekly for 9 years at a very underserved public school in North Philadelphia) had led me to believe that I wanted to be an education major in college. I quickly learned, however, that both the content and structure of the way the education classes were delivered in college was not going to be a fit for me. I did, however, find value in many of the Child Development and Psychology classes I was taking. In my sophomore year, I took my first Sociology class and knew I had found my major.
During college I worked at OC two days a week in addition to my full course load and captaining the soccer team. When I graduated, I felt confident that working at OC was my life’s calling. However, upon my parents’ urging, I took a traditional 9-5 temp job in a totally different field of work in an effort to be certain that OC was the right fit for me long-term. My four months in a 9-5 desk job solidified my gut instinct, and I joined the OC staff full time in January 2004. My only hesitation about that decision was that I had yet to find my life partner, and I was pretty certain that working in the field of progressive education was not likely to yield me many options. However, life works in mysterious ways, and as fate would have it, exactly twelve months after I started working at OC full time, Mike [Hilbert] walked through the door. My life, both professionally and personally, was forever changed (for the better) at that moment.
Mike and I married in 2007, and Callie Susan was born in February 2009. It quickly became evident that I could not continue to work full time while simultaneously parenting Callie in our chosen attachment-parenting lifestyle. Fortunately, one of the skills I had learned (the same one that is at the core of OC’s philosophy) from my dad was creative problem-solving, so with help of my fellow Co- Directors and the OC Board of Directors we restructured my role at OC so that I could have the best of both worlds working at OC and being a present and nurturing mama.
Since 2009, our family has grown by two (Cade and Cassie), and I continue to work on mastering the work/ wife/homeschooling mom dance. People often remark how “lucky” I am to live the life I do. And while I certainly do feel blessed, I wouldn’t use the word “luck” to describe my life. Maybe the luck part came 35 years ago when I was born to two parents who were pioneers in the self-directed education movement. But since then, the crafting of my life has been deliberate. I felt empowered to create the life I want because I knew that my parents believed in me, and they trusted that I had the tools to create a life full of purpose and fulfillment (the tagline of OC’s Mission)!
I currently live in New York City, where I’ve been for more than ten years now. In that time I got a degree in computer engineering from Columbia University (like my three sisters, I was a conscientiousness objector to the SATs), worked as a software engineer, quit my job, started a company, got funded by the startup accelerator Y Combinator and spent five months in Mountain View, CA before returning to New York to grow my company. Along the way I fell in love with an amazing woman, whom I just married in January.
I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours over the past five years building the Recurse Center (RC), a full-time, self-directed educational retreat for computer programmers. RC combines the interest in programming my mom recognized in this article with unschooling philosophy. Our goal at RC is to build a productive environment where people are free to follow their interests and focus on becoming better programmers with the support of a diverse community. Nearly 1,000 people from more than 50 countries have traveled to New York to attend RC, and we’ve disbursed more than a million dollars in need-based grants to people from groups traditionally underrepresented in technology (RC is free for everyone, so participants use the grants for housing, food, childcare, and other living expenses).
I’m forever grateful that my parents chose to unschool me, which is to say, that they rejected the authoritarianism of school and gave me the freedom to pursue my own life 18 or so years before most of my peers. (My only critique is of the few times they failed to live up to their own values, like their misguided decision to make me play soccer:-)).