by Talia Winningham, guest writer
“How are you?”
“I’m awful. I can’t find a reason to get out of bed in the morning, I have no job, and I don’t know what I want in life.” This would have been my response mid-year when I was 19 and took my first year off from school. I had just finished my freshman year of college and discovered I didn’t have enough direction academically to shell out thousands of dollars for a degree. My plan in taking time off was to live, work, experiment with my passions, and travel. While those things happened, they were sparse and intermittent, and I struggled to find purpose on a day-to-day basis. I lived in a tent and worked on an apple orchard (for a cold and rainy September), I washed dishes at a bakery, I volunteered at an elementary school, but mostly I slept in until 11:30 a.m., sat around my house, and felt confused and depressed. In that time I realized that I missed a sense of community and structure in my learning environment. I couldn’t create that on my own, so my first step in rebuilding was participating in a yearlong abroad program for college credit. The program took me to Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru where I learned Spanish, volunteered with various organizations, and explored the backcountry. Then I was ready for college again.
“How are you?”
“I’m doing well. School is intense and exhausting, but I love it.” I have been back in school for two years, living and learning alongside individuals that inspire me daily. I have studied dance, outdoor leadership, education, and printmaking. I have worked on dining, student activities, and in the garden. But mainly I have survived the ups and downs of two years of college, making friends, deciding my major, and writing my senior thesis. After two years, I am one semester away from graduating. A voice in my head begins to pipe up and say “don’t do it in the fall, do it in the spring!” The voice has a point, I do love spring at Warren Wilson. I look closer and find that most of the courses I want to take are offered in the Spring. I remember my love for the circus, work day, and many other Warren Wilson traditions that only happen in the Spring. Then I begin to panic a little. What will I do in the Fall if I do my last semester in the Spring? I start brainstorming internship options. I make a promise to myself that if I am going to take time off from school again, I will do it right. I will have a plan, I will set goals, I will connect with a community outside of school.
“How are you?”
“I’m nervous. I didn’t register for fall classes and therefore committed to not returning in the fall. I plan to do something meaningful and intentional with that time but nothing is in place yet.” At this point I have just begun communicating with an educational organization in Maine called the Expedition Education Institute. They run semester programs in a traveling school bus where people form experiential learning communities, do wilderness trips and service work, and meet with inspiring people of all walks of life including activists, farmers, and Native Americans. After a couple months of e-mailing and an extended phone conversation, we make a plan for me to intern there in the fall. I am in it to win it and I have my plan.
“How are you?”
“I am good. I am learning a lot in my internship, and though I miss friends from school, I feel like I am making my time in Maine worthwhile.” I have been living in Maine for over two months, doing my internship and juggling two part-time jobs. I have had a number of experiences in these past few months that have made my time off an asset to my future. I will detail a few below.
In mid-October I served as the food-coordinator for a 10-day climate leader immersion program run by the Expedition Education Institute. Planning and coordinating 30 meals for 18 people and then cooking them on a camp stove behind a school bus was an experience that developed me as a leader and as a cook. I remember an evening where we didn’t begin cooking until 8 p.m. and I shuffled to direct people in headlamps to find ingredients in different compartments of the bus to make a quinoa stew.
Furthermore, riding in a bus with students who are passionate and engaged about climate change issues and visiting frontline communities facing hydraulic fracturing and mountaintop removal shifted my views on climate change and helped prepare me as an educator and activist for the future. I have never felt a stronger call to action than when I stood on a well-pad for hydraulic fracturing and met a family whose water was poisoned as a result. I have never felt more impassioned to protect the Appalachian Mountains after witnessing the destruction of mountaintop removal firsthand in West Virginia. All of these experiences have made me feel I have an important message to share, which is this:
I think it’s important for students who leave the bubble to report back, to tell stories of success and failure, and to remind people of all the learning that takes place outside a college education. In the best of circumstances time away can prepare you to return to school, just as school can prepare you for the world beyond. One can choose to wander, to figure things out as they go along, to work and to travel and ask questions and seek answers. One can also plan their time off in advance, design a learning experience with tangible goals, and work alongside people and organizations they admire. Perhaps what I’ve learned for myself is that the combination of the two is essential. I need to have a plan, and I also thrive on being open to new and exciting opportunities.