Sophie Wilkus: Seeing the Connections

3 Oct

Freshman year room mates!

“We should create a TED University, where we just watch a bunch of TED lectures!” I had no idea how much this statement foreshadowed my future thoughts and actions. The day before the start of my freshman year of college, my mom and I went out to dinner with my new roommate, Sophie Wilkus, and her family to meet for the first time. I remember being a little nervous since this was going to be the person I was going to live with for nine months. However, it ended up being such a good match. Over dinner, I found out that Sophie had become a certified yoga instructor during her senior year of high school, and had completed her senior year project on the healing powers of yoga. At the dinner table we discovered many shared interests, including TED talks, which is when we joked about “just not going to college and watching TED talks instead.” 

With similar interests, Sophie and I ended up in the same class second semester titled “Healing Ourselves and Healing Our Communities,” which ended up changing our lives forever. The class had many thoughtful and important discussions on the issues of healing, culture, globalization, and social change, and I remember observing how passionate and genuinely curious Sophie was to learn throughout the course. Even as roommates, we would have great discussions about what we were learning and how we each thought about our life paths, and I can honestly say that she has been one of the most influential people in my life. In some ways I gained a whole new perspective on inquiry and learning from her.

Early on at college Sophie began confronting barriers and frustrations that acted as catalysts for her “eduventure.” She has always thought of life in a very interconnected way, and didn’t understand why knowledge and skills were so compartmentalized in higher ed when we live in a world where everything is entangled and related to everything else.  “My dad’s an engineer,” she tells me, “and he was constantly taking shit apart and putting it back together. And so I got to see the inside of things, like remote controls, cell phones, cameras, all these electronic things and how they were put together. I could see these connections that you couldn’t see from the outside. So I was used to and encouraged to think about how things are connected even when they may not seem to be.”  In the fall semester of our sophomore year, Sophie began down the path of studying biology and the human body, as her talent and interest lies in healing. She would ask questions in her science classes relating to how the material they were learning was connected to other disciplines and receive answers such as “that goes beyond the scope of this class.”

Later that year, another incident proved pivotal in both Sophie and my learning journeys, and illustrates our frustration with bureaucracy inside learning institutions. Sophie came up to me in tears one day. As both she and I had been interested in traveling to and studying in India, she had taken the initiative to organize an independent study to learn Hindi since the college did not offer it. She found 13 interested students and a professor at the local graduate university who was willing to teach us for free. She was excited that it was coming together, but was stunned to discover the reaction of the college: I wrote up a proposal, submitted it to the dean, and they just flat out said no. The students were there, the professor was there, and all they needed to do was to sign a piece of paper and give us a room and give us credit for it. It was just a slap in the face, and that was sort of the last straw. I just thought, ‘there’s got to be a way that I can do this and I cannot be in a learning community that does not want me to learn. I’m a self-motivated student, I’m interested in things, I’m curious, I want to ask questions, I can organize stuff, I want to do this, and all I need is the support structure. In a community and society that values a degree, I want that. It’s something that my parents value, it’s something that I think is important to some extent. So I just thought it was ridiculous that I could not learn what I wanted to learn and have it be validated. That was just a slap in the face, that they wouldn’t validate what I thought was important to learn.”

Traveling and learning in Mexico

After having originally visited the Evergreen State College during her freshman year, Sophie decided to transfer there mid-way through her sophomore year. Evergreen is known as a very alternative state school in Washington, where students can taken interdisciplinary courses, design their own syllabi with the support of professors, and even design their own study abroad experiences for credit. Sophie departed for India and China this fall for a full nine months after having designed her own learning journey, which encompasses elements of language, community health and healing, and a biodiversity internship. She is receiving full credit for her experience.  Follow her blog (part of her “assignment” while abroad) at www.bhavacaminante.blogspot.com!

A few more highlights from my recent skype interview with Sophie, right before she left for India:

  • Her idea for the future of Eduventurism: Something to be created to connect potential eduventurists to the opportunities they are searching for, and to make them more affordable. An example she gives is the fact that she has contacts in India for homestays and other activities from her past experience with the high school travel program Rustic Pathways, but for some people who have not had that past experience, how are they expected to be able to easily craft their own learning journey? “This is definitely a class issue, and if we want to make it an intrinsic part of the education system, we have to make it something that is accessible. Someone in say, Harlem, might not have gone on Rustic Pathways when they were 16.” One thing both Sophie and I have used are the work exchange sites www.workaway.info and www.helpx.net, but these are just the beginnings of what needs to be created for alternative learners.
  • Her vision for the future of higher education: “Student-designed. Simple as that. Let students tailor their education towards what they find important, let them follow where their initial interest leads them, through all the cracks and crannies of academia and the real world. Professors should provide a support structure. Obviously every student’s needs are going to be different, but here’s the kicker- they already ARE! We just haven’t yet recognized it. I know of students for whom this would be terrifying and overwhelming, but I’m going to posit that that could be avoided, if not curbed. This kind of higher education relies heavily on students having respect, support and recognition of their abilities well BEFORE they reach higher ed. Ergo, I’m talking about a whole restructuring of our view of children and the role of education as “people-making.” Students need to take responsibility for their education, and for their Selves, and we’ve got to let them. As an integral part of owning oneself and one’s education, students undoubtedly come across fears and anxieties, sense of a lack of direction, existential crises and heartbreak. I think, at its most basic, an ideal higher ed institution would function on two philosophical pillars: self-direction, and spiritual support
  • Another root of her opinions on learning and education: “When I went to high school my mom was a teacher in the school that I went to, so dinner time conversation was a lot of the time about the bureaucracy of the administration and the school, and how pissed off she was, and the undercurrents of sexism and oppression. I mean, I felt particularly oppressed and marginalized in my high school, and I couldn’t quite connect with other students, and I think part of that had to do with the fact that I had a feeling for the undercurrents of the administration of the school, and I felt how that trickled down through the teachers and into the way the teachers interacted with the students. I was in a very privileged position of being very confused. (…)When I went to college, I feel like I was a little bit more aware of those undercurrents, and so my last straw might have come before other students at college. I know a lot of students getting frustrated now. I think we are all getting there, I think we are all getting frustrated enough, especially because we are all feeling like we don’t want to enter the job market so we’re staying in school longer, but we’re getting more frustrated with school. It’s like this constant weird battle and dynamic of push and pull, being frustrated but thinking it’s important. We need a revolution.”
  • An awakening moment at Evergreen: When she asked a professor for a syllabus at the beginning of the semester, the professor gave her a look and said “I’m going to let the students make their own syllabus.” Sophie laughs and says, “I was like “WHAT? Where am I? I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
  • 3 pieces of Advice for others: 
    1. If you are frustrated by other members of society who are not able to see connections you see, “know that you’re not crazy, and the beautiful thing when you’re finally able to articulate it or talk about it with someone else, is that it is truth, and revel in that.”
    2. “There’s always a way.”
    3. “Don’t dismiss anything. Be open to the possibilities. Never say never.”
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