The Alternative Commencement Speech For All Grads

As the semester of exams — of the high school or collegiate variety — morph into a hazy blur of summer, commencement speeches march in succession just as graduates in their caps and gowns do. Their wisdom arms and inspires new graduates to seize not just their days, but their lives, to use their educations to build a world full of all the best things.

Today, we want to remind you to seize your education.

UnCollege was founded on the belief that people should be empowered to take control of their own learning — not just the classes they take or the major they decide on, but the plunging roots of their educations: How they are learning, where they are learning, and most importantly, what they are learning. These things should be some of the most significant parts of your learning, not afterthoughts. They aren’t just blind opinions or outrageous ideas reserved for trailblazers: Self-directed learning is for everyone. And experience-based learning is one of the most natural education practices we have. Learning happens when we don’t realize it as often as it happens as the result of a conscious choice. A self-directed education is a fantastic, challenging blend of both.

As a student whose education has always included elements of self-directed learning, including gap years, I have never heard the traditional graduation or commencement speeches. But in celebration of the time of year we all become slightly nostalgic for our educations, and watch commencement speeches scroll across Twitter like small reminders to “carpe diem,” it only makes sense to share the vision of an alternative commencement — for the student who is maybe walking a different path, or, at least, considering it, and for every individual who believes that we should take ownership of our educations and by extension, our lives.

When I was a college freshman, I was overcome with an unnerving realization that what I was learning in school was not necessarily informing the rest of my life. In the spirit of confession, during the first part of my gap year, I was terrified I had asked too much of my education: It isn’t supposed to guarantee me a job, I thought. It is supposed to enrich me as a person — but it can’t always be inspiring or invigorating, I tried to convince myself.

Please hear me: Above all, our educations should inspire and invigorate us. It isn’t asking too much to learn in a way that works for you, grows you, and brings out the best in you. It isn’t being demanding to yearn for an education that relates to the rest of our lives and even our dreams. In fact, that’s the kind of education we should be pursuing: The kind that is challenging and boundary-pushing; the kind where we don’t automatically know the right answer and perhaps even have to fail a few times before succeeding just once; the kind in which our experiences inform both our knowledge and identity.

I wish I could tell my eighteen-year-old self, so concerned when she didn’t fall immediately in love with her campus and her classes, that this wasn’t meant for her, and that was okay. Now more than ever, we are beginning to see glimpses of alternative learning, experience-based learning, self-directed learning becoming accepted, approachable, and valid. Programs like UnCollege’s Gap Year — where young adults from 15 different countries and counting have shaped their own education — are proof of that.

What I know now is the time I spent directing my own learning is, in fact, the most valuable lesson I have ever learned. When you do, you fail magnificently, and if you’re like me, you fail often — but you stand to grow at a rate unprecedented. Just as we envision a world in which people take ownership of their own educations, you become a person with vision: Vision for your learning, yourself, and your life, with the experience to back up the most grandiose dreams. You find yourself in what you learn. And often, you find connections to the so-called “real world” you may not have realized were there.

Commencement speeches, I think, are supposed to tell a story of some kind. Instead, the most important thing that can be said, whether you just finished school or are looking for the next step in your journey, is that your learning writes your story. It is the most profuse, earnest, demanding pen we have, because it requires us to live what we’re writing. Our learning writes our lives. It informs, in every sense, what we will do, and who we will be. Those experiences become illustrations. The more vivid they are, the better.

So in addition to saluting the self-directed learners among us, it is necessary to wave down the learners and students and curious of all kinds, to remind us all that learning matters; to repeat that education is infinitely more than a grade of any kind, and massively improved when it is true to who you are, and the experiences you crave. To say you have vision, and that the best learning helps create it.

To all the classes who endeavor to learn by the act of their own direction, who have chosen paths less traveled, who find their lessons in the aftermath of their experiences: Congratulations on all that you have seized, and all that you will.

This post was written by UnCollege contributor Rainesford S.

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