Algebra Is Like A Bad Breakup – Sean Gilmartin’s Story

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Sean – second from left 

“Algebra is like a bad breakup – you want your X to be by itself.”

This was my first impression of Sean. We both tutor at Quinebaug Valley Community College. He tutors math while I tutor science, and after only a few hours of working with him I knew I would enjoy his company as a co-worker. He’s witty, smart, and quietly sarcastic. He brightens the mood of my workplace incredibly effectively, so when I started this project I knew that I wanted to talk to him. With the notable (for this blog) exception of homeschooling, Sean has experienced almost every form of education available. From attending a tiny public school to teaching in a private school, learning in a community college, a 4 year university, and even a religious college – you name it, he’s done it.

After talking to me about his K-12 experience in a public middle and high school, Sean summarized his ideology as a student during that time of his life. “I just took the path of least resistance.” Ultimately, that led him to fulfill his parents’ wishes as he attended Word of Life Bible Institute for two years, but when he graduated, he still had no idea what he was going to do with his life.

I had no real relevant skills, I had coasted my way through high school, I had gone to a kind of pointless school afterwards, so I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” Again, he decided to take the path of least resistance, but this time, it lead him down a much more promising road – a road that led to QVCC. In retrospect, he says that “I feel very strongly about QV now. It would be nice to retcon my decision making and say ‘yeah it was because I knew it had such a great reputation, wonderful professors, and I wanted the tight knit class environment.’ But I knew none of that. I just knew it was close, and that if you didn’t have great grades in high school you would be reasonably sure you would be accepted, (and I didn’t have great grades in high school, so I was reasonably sure I would get accepted). I wish I had had higher hopes going in.” Sean’s first semester went by reasonably well, but for the first time, he looked at his performance and realized that he wanted to do better. He wasn’t happy with just doing okay. He decided to step up his work in his classes, and while it was a gradual process, he eventually got from wanting to do better to actually doing better.

As he started to excel at QV, he took a tutoring class. This set a myriad of life events into motion, as it was really the start to his teaching career. He started by substitute teaching Spanish at a private school, and eventually attending Eastern Connecticut State University for an education degree in English. However, Sean quickly realized that having a Bachelor’s in education and English wasn’t going to get him far. He dropped the education part of his major and decided to pick up a math minor just for fun. The whole time he was in school he was plugging through Calculus I, II, III, and so on, so he figured why not? “Then I was looking at what you can do with a math minor, and it’s pretty much you can put it on a wall. I didn’t really feel like going through all that effort for something that was like, fancy window dressing,” so Sean decided to double major in English and Math. Now, he finds himself pursuing an eventual PhD in math with the hopes of becomes a college math professor. However, he doesn’t ever want to lose the one-on-one relationships he gets to have when tutoring at the Learning Center at QVCC, so he would love to continue to foster students through tutoring as well.

While listening to Sean’s educational experience was fascinating, what I enjoyed the most about my conversation with him was his insightfulness. When I asked him what he thought he gained from having gone to QVCC, his answer was unique and incredibly true from my standpoint as well. He said that he gained “an appreciation for the value of education.. Education wasn’t just a chore, it’s a privilege – it’s an amazing privilege. I think if I had just gone to a 4 year university right off the bat and hung out with a bunch of incoming freshman, it would have felt like an overwhelming continuation of high school, where education is a chore or an obligation, or a duty, instead of something you get a chance to do and something you have to work damn hard at. It doesn’t come easy, and even giving yourself the opportunity to get a good education doesn’t come easy.

This mindset is something that I have witnessed several times from people who have gone to QVCC, although I did find it to be especially prominent in homeschooled students who have attended a community college. For many students in high school, I feel as though there is an overwhelming expectation for them to choose the highest quality, 4-year school they can get into. They are expected to literally continue high school at their college, maintaining record-breaking grades while they have a social life and get involved on campus. This doesn’t appear to be the case for many of the homeschooled students that I have had contact with. From my perspective, it appears as though deciding to pursue a higher education as a homeschooler, and perhaps for students like Sean, requires a more active decision. Most of the time, there are more avenues that are seen as acceptable, and sometimes, one of the roads less traveled is a community college. In my town at least, most homeschooled students that I know have attended QVCC for at least a few semesters, so I decided to ask Sean if he had experienced any stereotypical homeschooled students while taking class or tutoring at QV. He told me that he has never noticed a difference academically between homeschooled students and students fresh out of public school, but mentioned that some homeschoolers tend to have a lack of verbal filter. While sometimes surprising, he said that it isn’t overall a bad thing.

Some people are naturally awkward, some are naturally not. I think you may stay awkward longer if you’re homeschooled, but you might also stay happier, and I think that the trade off is probably worth it. You get beaten into shape, socially, in high school, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

Overall, it was fascinating to talk to Sean about education. He had many engrossing observations about schooling, but none more so than this final quote about QVCC. I was talking to him about the stereotype that community colleges are inherently easy and that the education is somehow subpar, and he shared my opinion that the stereotype couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I think the problem is there is this conflation between the entry requirements and the exit requirements. I think the mantra of some place like UConn is ‘we accept the best of the best, and we produce the best of the best.’ The mantra for something like QV is “we give everybody a chance, but you still have to prove that you can do something with that chance.’ They’ll let people in the door, but they won’t let you out with a degree unless you’ve proven that you can do what they’re claiming you can do. There’s this amazing tendency to say ‘it’s easy to get in, then ergo it’s an easy program all around.’ It’s just a way of giving everybody an opportunity and they shouldn’t be penalized for that.”

I think that Sean’s story needed to be told, but more than that, I wanted to share his outlook on alternative education. I’ve not met many people who truly understand the validity of community colleges and can so effectively explain their worth. It’s hard in this world of herd mentality to be different and to stand out, but I think it might just get a little easier if people like Sean keep speaking their mind and educating young, impressionable students along the way.

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iPhone VS. Android (A Love Story) – Christopher Vaudrain’s Story

Christopher Vaudrain

I’m not going to lie, this post was quite challenging for me to write. Not because the material was hard, or the story was convoluted, but because I needed to be unbiased. And it was very hard for me to be unbiased here. Because, as it turns out, I am truly, madly, deeply in love with Christopher Vaudrain. So I did my best to tell you his educational story with a minimum of sappy details about his amazing kindness and beautiful introspective traits, but you must forgive me if some of my fondness bled through.

I saw Chris several times before I officially met him. We attended QVCC at the same time, but for some unknown reason, our paths never crossed in class. This, however, didn’t stop us from being the overachieving homeschoolers that we truly are as I first noticed him during scholarship night. We were awarded the same scholarship and the picture taken after the ceremony was our first picture together (which seems very appropriate if you ask me). After later being inducted into the same honor society, attending the same glorified hallway for 2 consecutive years and literally (and unknowingly) living 100 yards away from each other for approximately 1,825 days, I had to go all the way to Storrs to finally officially meet him. We were both enrolled in the Guaranteed Admissions Program with UConn, and our first conversation was filled with all of these statistically improbable similarities. Chris had caught my eye as an interesting, magnanimous and fascinating person, but until I interviewed him I had no idea just how true that really was.

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Scholarship Night – apparently we were testing how close two people’s lives could revolve around the same sun before they came crashing into one another.

As I mentioned, Chris attended QVCC, and while in retrospect it’s a decision he is grateful to have made, this was not his first choice. When he started applying to colleges, he applied to private colleges as well as UConn, but wasn’t accepted anywhere he really wanted to attend. He didn’t feel ready to move far away and live on his own, so he begrudgingly chose to go to QVCC because it was conveniently close and affordable. When he started going to QV, he was surprised to find that he enjoyed the school, and the detrimental stereotypes he had about community colleges were all completely wrong. Before going to QV, Chris had heard that the students wouldn’t be as motivated, the education would be subpar, and the faculty would be uncaring and disappointing. However, he couldn’t have been more wrong, and he had an exceptional example to disprove the stereotype of community college professors.

Chris took four semesters of Spanish at QV, but there weren’t enough students to actually run the Spanish 3 and Spanish 4 classes. However, he was able to further his knowledge of Spanish through an independent study with Professor Elkin Espitia-Loaiza – a Spanish teacher who is held in such high regard that I wish I had taken Spanish at QVCC. Chris had many words of praise for Elkin (as he prefers to be called), but one story in particular stood out to me. Chris told me that “for my final project I did a powerpoint and all that stuff, but to make it multimodal I wrote a rap song in Spanish and I like, dropped bars on him in Español. It was so fun; I mean, I don’t know how great my rapping was, but he let me have a lot of license with how I went about it.” I am a huge proponent for making learning fun, and as a homeschooled student, my mom embraced this while I was young and helped me love learning. However, I had never heard about a college professor supporting such a different final project and was blown away by the one-on-one connection Chris told me he had with Elkin. This independent study wasn’t something for which Elkin received additional compensation, and yet he greatly enriched Chris’s learning experience and was a true representation of the spirit of learning that QVCC tries to embody as a whole.

After graduating with me at QVCC, Chris also started taking classes at UConn in the Fall of 2016. I asked Chris if he felt prepared going into UConn, both academically and socially, and he told me that he absolutely felt prepared academically. He mentioned that, although the difficulty level of classes at QV was comparable to that at UConn, there was almost more motivation to do well at QV because the teachers know the students and don’t let you skate through classes. Chris said he feels that, while UConn is “definitely a quality education, it’s not leagues above the community college experience at all.” Chris also added that socially, he felt “much better prepared than I would have been freshman year if I had gone there for a typical 4 year route. I matured a lot in my experience at QV, for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones being my experience at that school. Just on an individual level, I have an apartment, I live there alone, and I’m actually adulting for the first time, which is fun. I wouldn’t have been prepared for it otherwise. You have to remember to pay your credit card bill and stuff like that, but the bank hasn’t repoed my car, I haven’t demolished my credit score, so I think I’m staying afloat.”

When I asked Chris if he felt as though he missed anything by entering UConn as a junior, he told me that “I missed a lot of the fraternity parties, but turns out, I don’t really like to party anyways, so no. Alcohol poisoning – I never got it.” He thought he was missing out on a ton of experiences when he spent his first two years in college at QVCC, but once he got to UConn he realized they were experiences he was glad that he missed out on. As I now know first hand, Chris has become incredibly independent and mature, and he credits a lot of this to the skills he had to learn while at community college.

While Chris entered UConn with the intention of going to law school after his earning his Bachelor’s Degree, he has used his first year living on his own to do some serious introspection and figure out what he wants to do, instead of what other people want him to do. He has decided that he just can’t see himself as a lawyer in a few years. While he’s not sure what direction he will go in when he graduates, he’s thinking of working for a non-profit of some kind. When I asked Chris if he had anything else he wanted to add about alternative education, he said something that I thought really captured the spirit of his educational path.

“To anybody who reads this blog – don’t listen to all the hype and don’t believe everything that you hear.. My experience [with community college instead of a four year university] was like buying an Android while my friends bought an iPhone – I spent half as much and I’m still taking better pictures. It’s like you’re paying for a brand sometimes. If you want to take the traditional route, awesome – follow your path, but don’t think for a second that is how everyone has to be and if they’re not, they’re somehow deficient. There’s a lot of ways to go about life, education, and even higher education.”

 

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Okay – I think I did a pretty good job being unbiased there for a while. What do you think? Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to break that streak here, because I’m feeling a tad sentimental and incredibly, overwhelmingly grateful. This alternative education project has brought me closer to many people and has shown me just how individual and unique each person can be. I have been able to look critically at our education system and question many of the social norms that society holds, but on a personal level, this project has brought me a level of happiness and contentment that I didn’t think was possible. As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I’m different in many ways. I don’t fit in with the collegiate social scene, so I have a hard time making friends and deep connections. Meeting people who understand me even the slightest is challenging, so I didn’t have high hopes of finding anyone who understood every part of me. But then I interviewed Chris. And I know that this project is about education, but I can’t get through this entire blog post without taking a minute to just appreciate the human being that Christopher is. He is kind and compassionate, funny and intelligent, and I feel as though I must have won some kind of world wide lotto game every time I realize how lucky I am to have him in my life. I don’t think I believe in fate, or destiny, but I do believe in puzzles. And while I can only scratch the surface of how I feel for him here, I can say this – he fits into my life like the puzzle piece I didn’t know was missing. I have been called an “old soul” many times, and if I am an old soul then he is one with me. He makes me realize that many clichés are not as ridiculous as I once thought, if you really have found the right person. If nothing else comes of this project, I will be eternally floored that an idea in my head about a blog project brought Christopher into my life, when ironically we had been quite literally living within shouting distance from each other for years.

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Teachable Moments – Emily Zornado’s Story

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Musical. If I had to think of one word to describe Emily and her family, it would be musical. I attended a few of their Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, and anytime I was invited I was blown away by their talent. These parties were everything I wanted them to be – friends sitting around a living room, playing songs on their guitars and piano and drums and singing beautifully along. I actually first officially met Emily when we were both in a Christmas Cabaret show, although I had known of her for a long time, because like many of the people featured in this blog, she was homeschooled.

 

Emily is the oldest of three children in her family, and she was homeschooled until she began community college. When I asked Emily about her homeschooling experience she was overwhelmingly positive. Her family leaned towards an “unschooling” approach, although she avoids labeling their method of schooling because she said that people used to mistake her family for being Amish if she called herself an unschooler. Instead, her family liked to find the teachable moments throughout everyday life. Emily’s father is an English professor at RIC, and she told me that “he was a curriculum in and of itself. He knew how to find teachable moments. We did sit down and do things – like I remember doing vocab words and we would sit down and fill out our multiplication tables – that was terrible…. And then we would watch, like, Little House on the Prairie, and he would pause it and talk about the great plains, and manifest destiny, and Native Americans, and then he would pause it again, and Reverend Alden would be giving a sermon, pause it and talk about the bible… So we got the teachable moments, and in hindsight, those were a lot more than I realized in the moment, and I remember them.”  Emily had the freedom to explore topics in depth that she found interesting, and wasn’t forced to delve too deeply into subjects that she wasn’t as interested in. Overall, she told me that one of her favorite parts about having been homeschooled was that she was able to find what she found interesting about any particular topic and “not have to study the whole thing.”

 

Since I get asked so often how I was socialized when I was homeschooled, I have been asking all of my homeschooled interviewees this question as well. When I posed the question to Emily, her response embodied every feeling I’ve ever had about the supposed socialization conundrum that homeschoolers face in the minds of many. If an eye roll could result in permanent stickage of an eyeball to the back of the orbital cavity, this would have been the one. Exacerbated by years of people asking her this question, Emily said “it’s just exhausting, like – how were you socialized?!” as if she was talking to someone who legitimately wanted to know how she was a functioning member of society after not having gone to public school. She told me that she “did what every other kid does, you go and find friends because you’re kids – you can be friends with anybody.” Her parents involved her in teen groups and the library and she was never lost for friends. However, something she does consider herself lucky for avoiding are incidences of forced interaction with people she didn’t like.

When Emily was 15 she started taking classes at Quinebaug Valley Community College, and stayed for long enough to get 30 credits before transferring to Rhode Island College. She wasn’t at QVCC for very long, but was able to experience the classroom setting for the first time there. When she transferred to RIC, she began commuting. This was a logical decision for her, because her father is a professor there, so they already had a car going to and from the college every day. Emily was involved in theatre and enjoyed her job back home, and those weren’t things she wanted to give up to live in a dorm. When I asked her if she wished she had started at RIC as a freshman and gotten the “college experience,” she told me that she’s very glad she did college the way she did. She isn’t naturally a social person, so “having to live in a tiny dorm room and share that space with other people that I may or may not actively dislike… I just… And I liked being at home too much, I NEVER would have done that, it NEVER would have occurred to me.”

 

While talking to Emily, it is clear how intelligent and thoughtful she is, and she was incredibly insightful throughout our conversation. Something that she told me about living in dorms versus commuting to college is something that I want to share with you now, because I thought it was an important perspective that I happen to share with her.

 

“I think we have a better taste of what the world actually looks like, not that we know better, but we’ve just got a little sense of ‘that’s fake’. Manufactured. It’s not real life, and it’s not really preparing anybody for real life unless you’re gonna live in a loft with 8 other people… Or a commune… It’s not really what most people’s lives continue to look like after you graduate, so I didn’t feel like I needed that.”

 

Emily is currently working on her Bachelor’s degree in music education and has already graduated with a Bachelor’s in social work. She currently works at a performing and creative arts center in Putnam and loves what she does. Emily is one of two directors of a pre-professional musical theatre program, as well as a private voice teacher and instructor of an Introduction to Theatre class. She plans on getting another job that will give her health insurance when she graduates, but doesn’t ever want to stop the kind of work she’s doing right now. Either way, I know that Emily will continue to inspire creativity in young minds and foster the love of learning that her parents instilled in her when she was young.

 

GUNNFIT – Gunnar Andersen’s Story

 

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Driven.

 

If I had to pick one word to describe Gunnar Andersen, it would be driven.

 

And if you had predicted 10 years ago what he’s doing today, I would have thought your predictions highly improbable.

 

I met Gunnar when I was about 12 years old when I was dancing with his younger sister. He was always nice to me, but I don’t remember too much about him from that age. He was just a normal teenage boy who liked to make fun of his sister and her friends, and that’s all that I recall. And now, suddenly, Gunnar is driven.

 

From my perspective, this transformation appeared to happen overnight. Today if you meet Gunnar, you will be nothing short of amazed at how passionate he is about spreading his message and the lifestyle that he believes in.

 

Gunnar started his college career at UConn where he had a full scholarship, having graduated from his high school as salutatorian. However, after an entirely underwhelming experience with an advisor,  he decided that a smaller school was a better fit for him. He continued his higher education at Eastern Connecticut State University and got a degree in Health and Physical Education, as well as becoming certified as a personal trainer. If you spend about 30 seconds scrolling through his Instagram page, you can see how this degree fits his life like a glove. Gunnar is the founder of GUNNFIT, a lifestyle brand where he promotes his beliefs – everything from the importance of an active lifestyle and a vegan diet to his anti-vaccination position and questioning of commonly held beliefs. While I might not see eye to eye with everything that Gunnar believes in, no one can argue that Gunnar is successful, ambitious – and entirely focused on getting his message out.

 

And would you ever have guessed that he was homeschooled?

 

From grades 3-7, Gunnar was homeschooled by his mom, along with his three siblings. His mom chose a relaxed approach to their schooling, but placed great importance on reading. In retrospect, he was able to realize that the amount of time he spent doing work was minuscule in comparison to the hours and hours that his peers spent, and yet when he went back to school for eighth grade he found that he wasn’t behind, but instead was actually ahead of his fellow students. He credits this to the time he spent reading, comprehending, and having a good work ethic instilled in him from a young age. He was able to learn at his own pace and concentrate on what he found interesting.

 

While Gunnar has always been a very outgoing person, he didn’t feel like he lacked for socialization while he was homeschooled. Every season there was a different sport that he played, and for several years he also had a best friend that lived just down the road from him. He really doesn’t feel like he missed out on anything, as he still had frequent interactions with other children. Instead, he feels like he gained more from being homeschooled because he had plenty of time to be a kid. He had more time on his hands, less stress, and was allowed to follow his own interests at his leisure. Even though his homeschool past doesn’t come up very often in conversation, Gunnar is still aware of the stigma that is faced by all homeschoolers. He made the point that there is definitely a stigma that many homeschooled children are “uber religious, super, super weirdo kids. Are there some of them? Yeah, but there’s also some of those in public school too.”

 

While I was talking to Gunnar, I asked him what he thought were some surprising facts about homeschooling, and he brought up a great point. His surprising fact was that there isn’t a universal curriculum for homeschooled students, and the state (Connecticut) doesn’t have any say in what is learned at home. I’ve personally done some research on the homeschooling legislation in the United States, and I can understand why people could have misconceptions about the requirements homeschoolers are tied to under the law. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, but each state can set their own guidelines for homeschoolers to follow, so it varies widely. Connecticut happens to be a very easy state to homeschool in, which could explain why I have grown up with 5 homeschool families (that I know of) who live within a four mile radius of my home. In this state, homeschool families aren’t required to show any annual progress or have a set curriculum. In my family, my mom sent a letter to the school system each year, informing them that my brother and I wouldn’t be going to school that year, but she wasn’t even required to do that much. Gunnar agreed with me in thinking that it was sad that a lot of people don’t know what their rights are when it comes to homeschooling, and that people should learn to question the school system. Just because they send paperwork asking for information on the curriculum or proof of schooling doesn’t mean that it is required by law, and in Connecticut, it’s not.

 

In the end, Gunnar returned to school because he wanted to become more involved with sports as club sports weren’t enough for him at that point, but throughout the entire time I talked to him, he had nothing but praise for homeschooling. He is an incredibly confident individual, and seems much more self-assured than most 23 year olds that I know. I’m not sure if I can equate this to the time that he spent homeschooling, but I do know that throughout the interview process so far, I have talked to many homeschooled students and I have found a similar theme. Homeschoolers tend to be unapologetically themselves and are unafraid of being unique, individual and different – and Gunnar is certainly no exception.

Learn More 

To learn more about Gunnar’s messagehttp://gunnfit.com

To learn more about homeschooling legislation in Connecticut: https://www.hslda.org/hs/state/CT/