Home Education Magazine
March-April 1998 - Articles
Fly-Fishing to College
The Value of Uniqueness vs. Orthodoxy
The college application process need not be as traumatic as it is often made out to be. I was gently reminded of this fact when Christian, our son, got yet another note from Kalamazoo College. This one asked for "written certification" of his high school graduation. The note alarmed Christian, and when he brought it to me, I must admit that I too felt panic set in. Was this going to be the loop-hole we had not anticipated, the loophole which would cause the college to withdraw its scholarship money and leave Christian out in the cold? I'd heard often enough of homeschoolers dickering with college admissions officers about discriminatory or seemingly unfair admissions policies and couldn't help but wonder if, after having avoided such pitfalls, we were finally going to face the raging bull. At this point in the game I knew I was entirely unwilling to allow administrative details to cut Christian's dreams short. We'd come too far.
Christian's decision to attend college was not made known to David, my husband, and me until he was seventeen. Before that time, an all-consuming interest in fly-fishing and fly-tying suggested that Christian might want to pursue a career that would keep him by a trout stream most of the time. Indeed, he would be going to West Yellowstone, Montana that summer to work at a job that he thought might lead him toward more permanent work as a paid fly tyer and possibly a fishing guide. Needless to say, Christian's announcement came as something of a surprise but, as in all of our homeschooling ventures, we did our best to take it in stride and offered what support we could.
Our living room, which has served in years past as sick bay, center stage, play room and central library, now took on yet another disguise: school counseling center! Christian soon cluttered the floor with college directories, math texts (he hadn't done a lick of higher math and needed to study for the ACT he'd take in five months), and an assortment of pens, pencils, and stationary. In the meantime, I sat in my well worn spot on the living room couch with a small collection of homeschooling literature which discussed college entrance procedures.
From our personally assigned positions on floor and couch, Christian and I freely engaged ourselves in study and discussion. When David could free himself from writing his own dissertation, or Georgina, his younger sister, felt the urge, they also perused the college directories and offered words of advice and support. Christian regaled us with his thoughts about various schools while I discussed, with anyone who would lend an ear, what our college admissions options looked like.
Admittedly our conversations were not always relaxed discussions of what a grand time we were having. We all agreed that Christian's best chance at cracking the admissions process was to emphasize his unusual educational history. His competitive edge would be that he was unique, having no grades or traditional course work and vast experience living and learning in our community, in other states, and even in Germany. And, as it turned out, this was the case. The feedback from college officials was that his uniqueness is what made him such a strong candidate. Often times our most difficult discussions were about how to document such a unique life. At other times David and I found ourselves encouraging Christian to apply to more than Kalamazoo College. Christian felt it was the only school "worth it," while David and I felt he should open up his options "just in case." Christian wasn't wild, either, about the prospect of having to submit to taking the GED. We, on the other hand, reminded him that it might be a necessity given the fact that he would need all the financial aid he could get. Needless to say, the next two months were filled with decisions to be made, procedures to learn, documents to produce, and applications to file.
First and foremost was the decision about the diploma/GED issue. As an unschooler Christian had no "official" diploma. But wait? Hadn't we educated our children in accordance with the laws set out by the state? Didn't that qualify us to stipulate that Christian had truly graduated? We'd always advised both children to claim high school graduation status on job applications once they were beyond high school age. Was this situation much different? We eventually decided it wasn't different. Not willing to jeopardize Christian's future, though, we decided to do our own research. Through reading, letter writing and conversation, we uncovered lots of useful information about the "GED vs. the personalized diploma."
As I had always suspected, taking the GED was a guarantee of nothing. In fact, a story came to me of a young man who had been advised by a university admissions counselor to take the GED before sending in his application. When the young man finally took the exam and submitted his score (which was a good one) along with his application for admissions, he was told, "We don't accept students who have taken the GED." He got nowhere with his appeals.
This story made me even more suspicious of the GED. Does the GED serve, in an unofficial and unspoken way, as a cautionary red flag to administrators at universities? If this is true is it because the test has come to be associated with students who are unsuccessful in completing traditional course work and have dropped out, or with students who opt to participate in "school-within-a-school" programs? With my suspicions running rampant, I decided to call a local GED testing agency. I asked about how students go about being tested. There was the preliminary requirement, I was told, of age or class graduation, that had to be met. I told the woman on at the other end of the line that those requirements would soon be met (Christian was almost eighteen) Next I was told about more bothersome requirements: Christian would have to submit to three days of reading comprehension tests and career counseling before they'd even consider giving him the GED. My suspicions were confirmed. The GED seemed to be a test which, when passed, signified only basic literacy in general schoolish subjects. At this juncture it seemed wise to forget having him take it and focus our efforts on our personal diploma, but would it suffice?
For a few more days I warmed my place on the couch in our "counseling office" while Christian was sprawled out across the living room floor and Georgina played with the dog. I pondered our dilemma. We had educated Christian in compliance with the guidelines set out by our state. Weren't we, therefore, the persons responsible for graduating him and granting him his diploma? Surely the state had no intention of making homeschoolers remain perpetual students when the law which stipulated that parents need only register those children who were between the ages of six and eighteen as homeschoolers. Given this, wasn't it implied that homeschoolers would eventually graduate? Besides, who else could graduate Christian, since he'd never even enrolled in an "accredited" homeschool correspondence program?
It seemed to follow logically that the diploma David and I granted Christian would carry just as much weight as any high school diploma if we ourselves would only believe in it. That was no problem. We'd always felt our children had educated themselves far better than any school could have. But what about those admissions committees and financial aid officers? Would they believe in the strength of our diploma?
There was only one way to find out. Christian drafted a letter of inquiry to Kalamazoo College. In it he discussed his unusual educational history and asked for an application. In no time at all he received a letter from the dean of admissions praising his unusual interests and experiences and encouraging him to apply. That Christian had spent four years fishing, sprinkled with volunteer work, two or three college courses, singing, and otherwise enjoying himself, seemed no barrier to this dean, diploma or not.
In fact, his fishing exploits were what made him such an interesting and attractive candidate! Encouraged by this response, Christian set up a campus visit. He'd go and spend two days living on campus. David would drop him off and meet with a financial aid officer.
The question was simple. David asked what were the requirements for receiving federal financial aid. Among the requirements were a diploma or GED. David didn't press the issue. We had learned to call our home a school when it was necessary, to label our children in terms of particular grades when it seemed expedient, and to acknowledge that we taught our children when, in fact, they taught themselves (and us!). We were on the verge of learning the final homeschooling lesson: we grant our children diplomas. A diploma, according to this officer, would suffice.
When Christian and David came home, our living room took on yet another disguise. It became a "document production center." We didn't busy ourselves with creating a credential to validate Christian's life; that wasn't necessary. Instead we spent the next few weeks composing the final draft of Christian's college portfolio. David and I composed a statement of our educational philosophy and donned the caps of high school counselors to write a counselor's letter of recommendation for Christian's application. When David and I weren't working on these documents, I was busy sifting through the final notes in Christian's "academic journal" in order to enter them into his emerging homeschooling/college portfolio in a more presentable fashion. In the meantime, Christian wrote the required entrance essay and filled in page after page of application.
All of this work made us a bit edgy but we were confident he would be successful in his quest. Acceptance at Kalamazoo College, as well as at Grinned College, Hamline University, University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and University of Wisconsin-Madison, confirmed our belief in ourselves and our ability to weave our way through the murk and mire of red tape, credentials and transcript writing.
Luckily, those experiences came well ahead of the recent request for "written certification" of Christian's graduation. Had we not resolved for ourselves the issue of the validity of our diploma we may have been unable to see things clearly. But, I must admit that our confidence was shaken, and we suggested that Christian write the dean of enrollment and ask for some clarification. Within a day's time Christian had the answer to his e-mail note. He was merely being asked to provide a letter, which could be written entirely by himself, stating that he had graduated from high school. This courteous explanation told Christian that the request was made as part of a federal regulation. It was entirely up to Christian, but he could have "the individual who provided your schooling" sign the letter too. I chuckled as I thought to myself who it was had actually educated our son (himself, mostly) and whether or not he'd ever be as intimidated by issues of credentials as his parents had been.
As I reflect on the experience our family had composing a college portfolio, I realize that David and I worried, somewhat needlessly, about orthodox credentials. By giving our children opportunities to become "experts" in fields of their choice (fishing and German for Christian; drama, singing and animals for Georgina) they have moved themselves well beyond the confines of traditional school work and have become avidly curious learners. It is their "real world" expertise, their ability to think creatively and their facility to converse with people from all walks of life, which makes them attractive college candidates. These are the credentials that most homeschoolers bear. These credentials - that interesting uniqueness - rather than the more traditionally recognized credentials, are the ones, we have learned, homeschoolers should proudly emphasize when they seek college admissions.
© 1998 Alison McKee
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