So What Is Alternative Education Anyway?

I never let schooling get in the way of my education.

– Often attributed to Mark Twain

Alternative education as a concept is not widely known in Malaysia (and this blog aims to promote such a concept). But what exactly do we mean by alternative education?

Definition
Alternative education, quite simply, means any form of education that takes place outside the traditional schooling system. As described further by the Alternative Education page on Wikipedia:

Alternative education, also known as non-traditional education, describes a number of approaches to teaching and learning other than traditional schools. Educational alternatives are often rooted in various philosophies that are fundamentally different from those of mainstream education. While some have strong political, scholarly, or philosophical orientations, others are more informal associations of teachers and students dissatisfied with some aspect of mainstream education.

“Traditional schooling” in this context refers to the usual, mainstream forms of schooling – primary school, secondary school, college, university. These are usually characterized by standardized curricula and examinations, as well as a set grading system. Teaching is usually lecture-based (with the occasional experiment or two) and the emphasis is on getting recognized and acceptable grades and scores (as opposed to, some argue, creativity and actual learning). Alternative education pursues other routes and methods of learning, putting a higher focus on experiential learning, creativity, and individuality.

Types Of Alternative Education
Amongst the various forms of alternative education include (but are definitely not limited to):

  • Alternative school systems, such as democratic schools and Steiner schools
  • Alternative modes of teaching/evaluation, as practised by many colleges including the ones on Colleges That Change Lives – for example, Hampshire College provides completely individualized degrees with evaluations instead of grades, while College of the Atlantic offers degrees in “human ecology” involving subjects and projects from humanities, environmental sciences, and social sciences
  • Home-based learning, which covers homeschooling, as well as deschooling and unschooling (like homeschooling without a set structure)
  • Workshops, alternative educational programs, and “lifelong learning” classes such as Esalen, which is directed towards spirituality and theraputic healing, or Tower Hamlets Lifelong Learning, which offers classes to the people in the Tower Hamlets neighbourhood in London
  • Study abroad & cultural exchanges – popular ones include AFS, Up With People, and Raleigh International
  • Mentoring in various areas (personal, educational, career), whether being the mentor or having one
  • Volunteering in various causes and projects, short-term or long-term
  • Activism in various causes, whether related to education (such as education reform or student rights) or not
  • Online-based learning such as the Open University and MIT OpenCourseWare
  • Travel, which may incorporate many of the ideas above (cultural exchange, workshops, so on)
  • Creative ventures such as auditions, performance, or creative production
  • Employment, whether as part-time or full-time jobs, work-studies, co-ops (university programs whereby some semesters are spent in class and some in the working world, such as what is offered by NorthEastern), apprenticeships, internships, or entrepeneurships
  • and tons more.

Why Alternative Education?
Most people go into alternative education as traditional educational methods do not suit them. Amongst the various criticisms of traditional mainstream education include:

  • It doesn’t allow for creativity or more “out-of-the-box” approaches
  • Rote memorization is given emphasis over creativity and critical thinking – even so-called “creative” subjects have to conform to a standards body’s idea of “creative”
  • More emphasis is given on letter grades than on actual learning
  • It does not account for varying learning styles (especially experiential learning)
  • Students tend to be stuck in a “bubble” or an “ivory tower” surrounded by academia, without really knowing or understanding the real world around them
  • Their knowledge is limited to what is spoonfed to them for exams; once the exams are over, it’s promptly forgotten
  • Students learn only for exams, jobs, prestige or grades – there is a lack of a sense of learning for the sheer delight of learning
  • There is not enough space for dissent or disagreement – students that disagree with their teachers do not get enough respect or consideration for their ideas
  • The students’ welfares and personalities are not taken into consideration; only their ability to churn out grades and follow orders
  • The subjects taught in school are not to the students’ interest; what the students are interested in can’t be explored in traditional schools

Through alternative education, students will be able to:

  • Express their creativity
  • Explore and learn about themselves and the world
  • Meet different types of people of all interests and personalities
  • Gain real-world experience of many issues
  • Gain independence and individuality
  • Learn through styles that best suit them
  • Learn different skills and subjects that may not be offered by mainstream schooling
  • Gain a more holistic and well-rounded education

These are only some of the reasons and benefits that pull people towards alternative education.

Is Alternative Education a replacement for Traditional Education, or a supplement?
That depends on the individual. Some people elect to forego traditional schooling entirely, building their entire educational life on alternative methods (this is especially true for unschoolers or even “uncollegers”). Some have gone through some form of traditional schooling but then move on to more alternative methods – for example, a high school student that enters an alternative college, or a college graduate that then signs up for workshops and travels extensively. Many people – especially those new to alternative education – will usually use it to supplement their traditional educational experiences – for instance, a school student could take art classes on weekends, or participate in volunteer activities during their spare time.

Who is Alternative Education for?
Alternative educational methods are extremely varied and diverse; there’s bound to be something for everyone. The type of people who tend to be most successful in alternative education – or even look to it in the first place – are those that are driven, open-minded, dedicated, creative, independent, and self-sufficient. They are usually already unorthodox and very out-of-the-box and they have a very different way of looking at life.

How will Alternative Education affect my Degree/Career/Life?
It is possible to earn a degree or have a job through alternative educational methods (some colleges, for instance, award credits based on life experience). Alternative education can be considered a way of life; one is constantly learning, and their choices in life are based on what they want to learn or experience. Many people who choose alternative education do not have conventional lives – the usual “school-college-degree-job-family” route espoused by many – which suits them fine; they would rather have a life that is full of experiences, memories, and moments.

That is a basic primer of alternative education. If you have any questions or suggestions, do feel free to comment.

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Ambition Vitae

Here’s a dream for the future. Five years from now, people will be hired based on their 43 Things. Ten years from now, degrees will be granted based on completing your 43 Things. What you’ve done in the past matters, but not as much as what you want to do in the future. The performance review, the prenuptial agreement, the resume, the transcript are nothing compared to a well crafted list of what you want to do with your life, a thoughtful collection of entries and the support of your fellow human beings.

From Josh Peterson of 43 Things

43 Things is one of a series of websites by The Robot Coop that allows users to list down 43 of their life goals. Goals on the site range from the highly popular “stop procrastinating” (5990 people and counting) to “have an underground lair” (248 people). Users can also meet other people with the same goals, cheer them on, write entries about their goals, and mark off goals that they have done (and/or want to do again). Other sites in the series by The Robot Coop include 43 Places for tracking countries, cities, and places that one wants to go or have been in; 43 People, for tracking people (and also making a simple family tree); and All Consuming, for tracking books, movies, music, and other media.

One such goal is “promote the concept of ‘Ambition Vitae'”. As described here by Chris Griego, who originated the goal and the concept:

The idea behind an Ambition Vitae is that, while previous experience is a good indicator of suitability for a position, it tells only half of the story. Traditional resumes only tell what you’ve done, not what you want to do and learn going forward. Your goals should be very important to an employer, because those are what you will be trying to accomplish during and, to face facts, after holding the position. If an employer, and the job seeker, want to really know that they are a good fit for each other, listing goals on a resume is a must.

This seems like a very good idea, not just for job-hunting but for the rest of life as well – especially education. Too many people are going to college or university pursuing something they don’t have an interest in just because someone told them it was a better choice (“there is no money in [Student’s Interest]”, “being a [doctor/engineer/etc] pays more”, “it’s more respectable”) without taking into consideration what their life goals are. Indeed, there are people who go straight to formal education only because “it’s what everyone else does” or “it’s what I’m supposed to do”, when alternative education would suit them much better.

Having something like an Ambition Vitae – even if it’s just a simple list of “things I want to do with my life at some point” – helps show direction and makes one’s goals clearer. By listing down those goals, one will be able to analyze them, see themes in their life, and also figure out how to fulfill those goals (expanding on them, writing down WHY they have such goals, drafting subgoals, and so on). By sharing those goals, one will be able to connect with others with similar goals, as well as those who have completed those goals and can provide guidance.

For instance, my 43 Things (including the things I have marked off as “done”) indicate a lot of goals related to performance and the arts, as well as world and cultural issues. Analyzing my list, I can see that I need to find some sort of avenue that allows me to express my creativity while helping the world and the community in some way. Through input from other users, I get to share ideas and expertise about how I am to go about doing such a thing, and learn what works and what doesn’t. I could even get recommendations for good voice classes, or programs that involve creativity and charity, or something else. I can make new friends and network with people from all over the world. And that’s just on 43 Things the website; what about the rest of the world?

Many colleges and universities (especially in the United States) require some sort of personal statement about yourself – often, it involves what you aim to learn and what you hope to get out of the experience. An Ambition Vitae would provide the backbone for such a statement, by tying in what their life goals are with what they’re applying for. Universities could then see which students would fit with their own mission and vision, and help them acheive their goals, whether through classes or through other school activities (counseling, mentoring, clubs and societies, so on.) This also helps with jobs: indirectly, an Ambition Vitae shows skills and interest, since most people’s goals are related to things they like doing or topics they’re interested in, so companies and groups can find people who fit their goals and whose goals they can fulfill in some way, even if just as a stepping stone.

An Ambition Vitae can also provide direction as to how such goals could be fulfilled – would a college degree work? Would it make more sense to travel instead? Work for now? Find a mentor? Study abroad? Who else has the same ambitions as you? How did they fulfill their goals.

Too many people are doing things and worrying about things just because “they have to”. I’ve already seen loads of secondary school kid stressing out over not getting an A because they think that lack of A will ruin their whole lives. There’s always a question on “what do I do with my life” over at Ask Metafilter. Ambition Vitaes – lists on paper, 43 Things accounts, full scrapbooks, whatever – show that what really matters in life is what you make of what life gives you for your own good. Not even the “lack of an A” can stop you from doing what you need to do, if you’re ambitious and passionate enough.

This gives me a great idea on how to expand and improve my portfolio – having a list of what I want to do as well as what I have done. How about you? How will an Ambition Vitae help you? Do you already have one? Do share your stories.

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All You Needed To Know About Up With People (and then some)

Up With People logo

One of the biggest, most meaningful experiences I've had in my life was travelling on Up With People's WorldSmart Leadership Program for 4 and a half months, August to December 2005. Going on that program reinforced my view of alternative education and also gave a name to my preferred learning style – experiential learning.

TinKosong.Com has posted my article about Up With People (and my friend Li Shun has posted it to BlogsMalaysia – thank you!) so you can find the basic details of the program there. You can also see my account of my travels on my travel Livejournal.

Here, I will describe, in a somewhat more relaxed manner, what exactly Up With People is all about and how it fits in to alternative education. (Or at least try to.)

Last Updated: 17th May 2006 – added info about the new show, and Moral Re-Armament.

So what the blazes is Up With People anyhow?
Up With People is a US-based nonprofit organization which develops global education programs, allowing young adults from around the world to travel to different parts of the globe, do community service, learn about world issues, and perform messages of peace and unity.

I thought they did big musicals about that stuff.
That is basically how they started out, yes. In 1965, the founder, J. Blanton Belk, didn't quite like the whole "down with people! Down with the authority!" sentiment that was going on. He felt that the energy could be better spent on something positive, and he developed this by having the song Up With People written. This then inspired a travelling group of young performers going around the world with various year-long productions on various issues (togetherness, positivity, peace, current affairs, teamwork, so on), sharing cultures, and doing community service. Among the places and events they've been a part of include the Munich Olympics, the Superbowl, and being one of the first international groups to perform in China.

What happened to the musicals?
In 2000, Up With People found themselves in a rocky financial situation – they basically didn't have enough money to continue the way they are. Their performances were losing out to mainstream acts and it was starting to be outdated. They decided that, for the best of the organization, they will shut down.

They weren't dormant though – quite a number of people from Up With People's history worked together to develop a new program that would be a lot more relevant to current needs. In August 2004, the WorldSmart Leadership Program was born, with roughly a hundred people from across the world travelling to North America, Japan, and Europe for a semester.

What happened to the WorldSmart Leadership Program? I don't hear that name much anymore.
The WorldSmart program travelled for 3 semesters – August 2004, February 2005, and August 2005. During that time, there was a change in management, including a new CEO (Thomas J. Spaulding Jr) and a partnership with another US-based program, Leader's Challenge. Up With People also received a ton of feedback from everyone – current WorldSmart students, Up With People alumni, former host families, former host communities, anyone that had some sort of connection to Up With People in some form or another.

Based on that feedback, Up With People decided that it was best to reconnect to their history and base, instead of having two brand names compete against each other. It'll also make the transition flow smoother, bringing back the use of music as a communication tool while still emphasizing the need for skills in leadership and global perspective. In late 2005, it was announced that the next semester will start in July 2006, and will be known from now on as the Up With People Global Education Program.

I was in the August 2005 WorldSmart semester – ultimately the last one, and also the first semester with Tommy Spaulding as CEO – and we really gave a lot of feedback and viewpoints about the future of the program. The name change was probably one of our biggest influences. There is still some friction (some wanted the WorldSmart name to stay, some wanted the old shows back…hard to please everyone!) but hopefully with the short break to clean up the program, as well as the feedback and support, it'll go well.

So what happens in this Global Education Program?
The program still travels for a semester – 22 weeks total. One month is spent in Denver, Colorado, for orientation and to learn material for the performance. The crew/cast then travels to 18 cities across the US, Japan, and Europe, doing all sorts of things – community service, cultural exchange, internships, group discussions, projects, regional learning, performing, host family living, and tons more.

Only those countries? What about the rest of the world?
There are plans to diversify the tour places – right now the places being explored or considered include Korea, China, and possibly Singapore. Interestingly, the first WorldSmart semester went to Canada after orientation, and Up With People did travel to a lot more countries during its time.

That's a lot of things to do!
Indeed it is.

What sort of community service do you do?
It varies from city to city. In my semester, among the things we did include:

  • Building a horse trail that also filters water
  • Setting up a World Expo in a school
  • Working with the homeless
  • Visiting schools
  • Cleaning away old trees and weeds
  • Cooking and preparing food
  • Tutoring and looking after kids
  • Doing various media and creative projects with schoolkids
  • Interacting with senior citizens
  • Redecorating various houses/rooms/buildings (even a ship once)

and all sorts of other things.

Do you get to choose which service projects you go on?
Sometimes you do, if there is more than one option in a city (for instance, in Erfurt, Germany, we could choose from nearly 20 media projects). Sometimes it's a matter of lottery. Sometimes there's only one project in the city, and everyone works together on the same thing.

Are there any classes?
There used to be actual college classes (with coursework and all). However, that has since been dropped since very few people were actually taking them. Now, there are weekly group discussions on various topics – leadership, global perspective, conflict, communications, cultural identity, and lots more. Kind of like the classes, except everyone is involved and there's typically no homework or heavy reading (though you might be assigned a group project once in a while).

What's "regional learning"?
Regional learning is basically learning about the area you're in – the actual city, the country, and the general culture. This takes form in many ways – tours (or, as the Malaysians know them, lawatan sambil belajar), company visits, lectures, projects, scavenger hunts, all sorts of things. We had a scavenger hunt in Boulder, Colorado; a panel discussion with key people in Hollywood, California; an Amazing Race-ish hike in Murou, Japan with tasks and pitstops; visiting the World Expo in Aichi, Japan; lunch in an immigrant high school in Antwerp, Belgium; various lectures about all sorts of things in Utrecht, The Netherlands – and tons of others.

Like the community service projects, there will be cities with more than one option – and cities with more than one thing going on for everyone. There might also be just one regional learning activity in the whole city for everyone to participate in. Occasionally there will be special opportunities open to a select few (usually by lottery, and evenly distributed amongst all crew members so that everyone gets a chance) – amongst these opportunities for us included visiting a mental health facility in Phoenix, Arizona and the General Atomics nuclear center in San Diego, California.

And what about the internships?
There are various internships available in the program, whereby students get to work with staff in various fields:

  • External Relations & Admissions – public relations, media, admissions work, getting new students in
  • Community Service (or Impact as we called them) – planning future community service works and tying them to the program syllabus
  • Creative Productions – developing and organizing the weekly show/Celebration, event management, tech, performance.
  • Applied Education – the Community Service group falls here, but this also applies to Regional Learning work
  • Operations – Advance Work (travelling to a tour city one week in advance and setting up there), Bus Team (coordinating weekly travel), City Coordination Team (daily announcements in the morning)

When I was travelling, we had a dedicated Project Time 3 hours a week for internships and classes (the Operations internships worked differently). In the new program, I think the Project Times will differ slightly – some people may work on an internship while others do community service, for example.

How many internships can you do?
In my semester, there were 2 rounds, with each round lasting half a semester. Theoritically you could do 2 different internships, or just do the same one twice. You could also use a round as a Special Project time. The Operations internships work differently, so you could be an Operations intern while being some other intern too.

What's a Special Project?
Special Projects are basically projects developed by the students themselves. There's a wide variety of projects based on the student's ingenuity – our semester had a Language Exchange, an in-house magazine, me trying to do NaNoWriMo (that didn't work quite so well), business discussions, prep work for future countries, feedback collection, a documentary, and loads more.

Some Special Projects are worked on during Project Time; others, such as organizing a get-together or doing a one-time thing, are worked on some other time. In the new program, there will be some time provided for personal projects, so (unlike before) Special Projects and internships shouldn't be clashing.

What sort of project can I do?
Anything! As long as it's not illegal and doesn't harm anyone, feel free to start up your own project, or work together with other crew members for a group project. Self-developed projects are highly encouraged and supported in Up With People.

How's the performance like this time? Still a major musical?
Not quite that big. Every week, at the end of the week, there will be a Celebration – an hour-long (ish) performance and event to bring everyone together. The performance includes music, singing, dancing, sign language, multimedia, acting, public speaking, and a host of other things brought in by the crew – ours had a fashion show and Korean drums.

The Celebrations also include some time after the show for mingling, admissions presentations, interviews, and sometimes a World Expo, which showcases the talents and productions of the crew (this was when our fashion show and Korean drums, amongst others, came in).

In our time they were free – I think they still may be, though there are plans for some Celebrations to be benefit concerts, to raise funds for a local charity or community organization.

EDIT: Here is some new info courtesy of the Premiere. The show will now have two extra elements:

  • A Culture Jam, which showcases the cultures of the cast members – in our Premiere we had a swing dance, a Moroccan song, a "Europe" dance (with an Argentinian song), and a Japanese song. This will change according to the representative cultures of the crew members.
  • Added involvement of the community. The focus of the shows now are on the local communities – highlighting the great things they do. Community groups will be invited on stage – to perform, to talk about their activities, to promote themselves. They will be able to set up booths during the performance day too. In the Premiere, we had two local Moroccan performers, the Words Can Heal group (with the Boys & Girls Club), the Rocky Mountain Children's Choir, and much more.

I'm not sure if there will still be a post-show World Expo. There would be some mingling time, but nothing's planned yet activities-wise.

Who decides what happens in the Celebration?
The basic structure is developed by the Creative Productions people over at the Up With People HQ. (hello Nina, Eric and Michael!) However, there is definitely room for improvement and improvisation – for instance, in our Celebrations in Japan, we included a group Japanese song after it was suggested to add something in a different language. Also, the World Expo concept was wholly developed by the students. The Celebration aims to incorporate the talents of the crew while connecting it to their activities in the city, as well as the goals of Up With People.

Do you have to be really good at singing/dancing/juggling/[other performance skill] to be in Up With People?
Not necessarily. There isn't a tight audition process. Generally they just want people who are open and willing to learn new skills – and the show's not that hard to do really! Those who are really stage-shy can also be part of the tech crew, managing lights, sound, and video (amongst others), so there is – as one of our songs go – room for everyone.

Who do you live with?
The crew lives with host families – people in the community who house them for a week. The range of families differ – typical nuclear families, majorly extended families, single parents, gay families, missionaries, college students, anyone and everyone (as long as they're sane and safe).

Sometimes there will be more than one crew member in the house; sometimes the crew member is hosted alone. Sometimes students get hosted with staff. Once in a while (especially towards the end), the group gets to live together in a hostel. Some crew members opt to live with family or friends in certain cities, which is possible.

Does the crew get to choose their host family?
Not necessarily, and often they won't know who the host family is until they get there. This is mainly due to timing constraints and is based on how organized each city is. Sometimes crew members request a certain family (if they're connected to said family), or they would be hosted with a family that matches their interests. (The Utrecht team put me in a family whose parents worked in computing. Interestingly, both my host mum and host dad were more interested in creative arts instead. Worked out really nicely.)

Once in a while there will be requests to be hosted with a certain crew member, though it's not always a guarantee. There are special allocations made for crew members with dietary restrictions, allergies, and religious & health requirements, depending on how necessary and available it is. (So asking for a dogless house because you have an allergy to dogs is fine; asking for no pork because your religion forbids it is fine; asking for a house with Internet because you need to write weekly blog entries might not guarantee you getting what you want.)

If the host family turns out to be unsafe, or otherwise unsuitable, and there are no other options, the crew members are allowed to switch host families.

Who travels in an Up With People crew/cast?
About 50-100 young adults, aged 18-29, from all over the world, with all sorts of backgrounds. Included in this are staff members (from 20s to mid 30s), also from all over the world with all sorts of backgrounds.

What are the advantages to travelling with Up With People?
Tons!

  • Making friends with all sorts of people from all around the world
  • Having a new home and family in 7 different countries
  • Learning all sorts of new skills
  • Knowing you're appreciated (our group is an especially appreciative lot)
  • Developing initiative to start your own projects and ideas
  • Gaining TONS of experience
  • Seeing many parts of the world
  • Learning more about world issues
  • Having loads of fun
  • Very interesting resume-booster
  • Gaining confidence
  • Gaining personal strength
  • A broadened mind
  • Being more independent

just to name a few!

Any drawbacks to joining Up With People?
There may be. The experience isn't all roses – there will be hard times too.

  • An unsuitable host family
  • A crew member you just can't get along with
  • Lack of time
  • Exhaustion and stress
  • Occasional confusion – "what's going on?"
  • Projects that seem pointless
  • Occasional disorganization
  • Homesickness
  • Culture shock
  • Miscommunication
  • Occasional lack of personal freedom (in Japan it seemed like every second of our life was planned, which frustrated some people)

Basically, what you get out of the program depends on how you see it. It's a matter of choice. There will be days when you're all "YAY I LOVE UP WITH PEOPLE" and some days where you'll be "ARGH I HATE THIS PROGRAM LET ME GO HOME". You really do experience just about every emotion available, and it's really up to you to make the best of what you have.

Don't despair though; there's tons of people around who are willing to help you the best they can and listen to you as much as they can.

I heard Up With People is a cult!
Ha! Not at all. (I've heard the same though, even now.)

Many people have this impression of Up With People being this squeaky-clean, "world peace and flowers and happiness" hippie idealistic group. Idealistic we can be, but we're not exactly Stepford-ish. We are such a diverse group of people with all sorts of beliefs and ideas; sometimes we don't even agree with each other. This diversity is encouraged, and flourishes in the program.

Up With People is not affiliated with any religious or political group, and they don't push any ideology on you. Rather, they encourage you to share your beliefs, learn about other's belief systems, and explore them together. Some of the most meaningful and popular service & regional learning projects included visits to mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, and even centers for Hare Krishnas and Free-Thinking Humanists to learn more about their philosophies and way of life. In my semester, we even had an afternoon where people came up and talked about their beliefs and religions, fielded questions, and held discussions.

Cultural events and holidays are also celebrated, or at least made known: some of us got to visit a mosque in Utrecht during Eid (Hari Raya Aidilfitri), and we had some Christmasy things going on. It's up to the individual crew members to share their culture and beliefs with others; everyone's willing to join in.

It's true that (in the US anyway) many Up With People events are generally held in churches. That's because they're usually free, or at least low cost. We don't get bombarded with church or Christian doctrine, though, and the type of facilities do differ – massive stages, stadiums, schools, all sorts.

Freedom of religion and belief is supported, protected, and encouraged.

EDIT: Up With People was affiliated with Moral Re-Armament, a Christian moral-values organization, during the early days. This may have accounted for the conservative, religious, "culty" feel of the earlier programs. The affiliation was broken in the 70s/80s and they went their separate ways – so the Up With People of now is quite different to the old Up With People in many ways.

Interestingly enough, Moral Re-Armament seems to be going through some changes of their own, though there are still news releases about them wanting a "God-driven" country and then trying to tie Up With People up with it. Oh well.
What happens after the program?
After the semester, everyone in the crew is automatically a member of the Up With People International Alumni Association, which is free for life. In the Alumni Association, members will be able to network with other alumni, keep up on current developments, and participate in activities such as reunions and the Community Action Project, whereby groups of alumni will travel and do community service in various regions.

There will be a Crew/Cast Representative for every crew (I'm the rep for mine) whose job is to keep in touch with everyone, update the crew on further news and developments, and organize activities and events (reunions, service projects, etc). Everyone will generally keep in touch with each other in various ways – email, Yahoogroups, websites, phone, IM, mail, anything and everything.

Some former students have gone on to be Up With People staff members – whether on the road or in the offices – while others have had interesting careers:

  • Natalie Wilson, an elementary school music teacher who teachs jazz to fifth & sixth graders
  • Hollywood star Glenn Close
  • Singer Sherry Boyd
  • Anja Adams, Assistant Director of CSI: Miami
  • Tim Murtagh, New York-based web developer and gallery curator

as well as mayors, performers, creators, teachers, business people, activists, psychologists, police officers, media people, and all sorts of people. (Including, we speculate, Baljit Bhath, future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.)

What sort of people get accepted into Up With People?
The basic requirements for joining Up With People are:

  • Aged 18-29
  • Completed high school
  • Proficient in English (though we'd had quite a few people for whom English is a second language and they cope fine)

Other requirements include:

  • Willingness to try new things
  • Flexibility
  • Stamina and good health
  • Good communications and leadership skills
  • Open-mindedness
  • Interested in community service and travel
  • Wants to make a difference in the world

I'm homeschooled/deschooled! Can't I join Up With People too?
Fair question, and I don't think they'd use that against you. You can always ask the Admissions people – they're good with questions and feedback.

So how do I apply?
Follow these steps:

  1. Go to their online application form (free last I checked)
  2. Fill up the form (you can take your time with this)
  3. Send it off
  4. Wait until an admissions person contacts you for an interview
  5. Do said interview (usually by phone or in person)
  6. Wait about 2-3 weeks for your results
  7. If accepted – congratulations! You will receive a lot of information and forms for enrollment (though you're allowed to change your mind about enrolling). Your admissions person will also be in touch with you should you need help.
  8. If not – it's ok, you can always try again.

Do I need to prepare anything for the application?
Not really – you don't need to prepare certificates or exam results or anything of the sort. You do need to find someone who can be a good reference for you (teacher, boss, colleague, etc) – on the form will be a section to put contact details for your referee. There are also some short essay-type questions for you to answer on the application form itself.

How many As do I need to qualify for Up With People?
It doesn't matter. They don't ask for grades; rather, they value your life experience and your willingness to grow and learn.

How much does it cost?
One semester costs US$11,800; a full year is US$19,500.

SO MUCH!?! What for?
We had to pay US$14,500 during our time, so at least it's cheaper! As large as it looks, the money goes to fund all sorts of things – housing, transportation, meals, certain activities, and the services of a full-time travelling staff. Crew members also get occasional allowances for food, transportation, and projects if needed. It actually costs more for Up With People per student than what we pay for.

Are there any scholarships?
Up With People does offer scholarships based on need and efforts to raise the money. They also provide plenty of resources to raise money, such as a scholarships guide and a list of fundraising ideas (PDF file), some of which are absolute genius. Many people have used other scholarships to pay the fees too.

When is the deadline?
Up With People works on rolling admissions; they process each application as it comes in. It's recommended that you apply between 6 – 12 months before your desired travel semester (January and July), though there have been some people that applied and got in weeks before they had to travel.

How long is a typical Up With People day?
Usually a day lasts from 9 am till 5 or 6 pm, though performance days can go up till midnight. Some days have long evenings, which last to about 9 or 10 pm, and occasionally (especially on travel days), the day starts a lot earlier.

How does the group travel?
Between cities (and countries in the case of Europe) the group travels by bus, though we have travelled by train once. Between continents, the group travels by air (economy class lah).

Will I need a student visa?
No – a tourist visa works just as well. (At least for now)

Will I get college credit?
That depends on your college. Up With People does have partnerships with Hawaii Pacific University and Carroll College to provide college credit for those that travel on the program. For other colleges, it's a case-by-case basis. Up With People can help provide syllabus information and other help should your college require material.

I'd like to be involved in Up With People, but not as a student. What can I do?
There's plenty! You can:

  • Be a staff member
  • Be a host family
  • Donate or provide sponsorship
  • Be part of the Local Organizing Committees (the people that organize the crew's work in each city)
  • Be a university partner
  • Spread the word!

Their Get Involved page has plenty of ideas on how to be further involved with Up With People in other various ways.

Does anyone else from Up With People have a website I could visit?
Sure! Here are some links to people I know:

I have more questions! Who do I ask?
If you want more information about Up With People, you can:

So there you have it. All you need to know about Up With People…as far as my brain allows anyway. Feel free to comment with questions, updates, comments, anything.

Up, Up With People
You meet them wherever you go
Up, up with people
They're the best kind of folks to know
If more people were for people
All people everywhere
There'd be a lot less people to worry about
And a lot more people who care!

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Tuitioned Out

Education Malaysia recently published some articles related to tuition in Malaysia – how an average of RM4 billion per year is spent on tuition, and the general trend of tuition in Malaysia.

Definition: “Tuition” in Malaysia refers to extra classes taken after school for various subjects, usually those tested in major national exams. This can vary from one-on-one tutoring to actual tuition schools. It’s pronounced as “tuyshen” here (even if the correct pronounciation is closer to “tu-i-tion”) and is optional (but common) in most places.

Often, instead of going over the material thoroughly in class, things get taught very quickly and the students are told to attend extra tuition after school for more information. (In my school these classes were made compulsory for the most part.) Sometimes students are put down for not attending tuition (whether they wanted to or not). As a personal example:

In Forms 4 & 5 I was in the Literature class – the last class. I went there by choice; most of my classmates went there because their PMR grades were apparently not up to par. Before the SPM (O-Levels), they made after-school tuition classes compulsory for Bumiputeras (plus me). I came for a few classes, saw nothing happening, and stopped going. A few months later, one of the administrators came to our class and tried to compare our tuition attendence to our mid-year grades. Grades were pretty similar (low) for everyone else though she picked on those who, like me, skipped the tuition classes. She then got to me and noticed that I was top of the class and had better grades then everyone. She looked at me and said that my grades would be so much higher – if I came to those tuition classes.

That just reinforced my beliefs that the classes were pretty much useless. They weren’t interested in how you were learning the material; you don’t come to class, you are stupid.

When I was at school, I did take some tuition classes – a couple of months’ Bahasa Melayu (Malay Language) tutored by a friend of my father’s in primary school, as well as various extra classes provided by my secondary school – compulsory to “Bumiputeras” and unaccessible to the rest. (as explained above)

(Technically I’m not a Bumiputera since I’m not Malay and not a citizen, but being legally Muslim I got slotted in anyway. And our Maths teacher wanted it to be open to all, so she didn’t really care who registered as long as they showed up.)

I’ve never been to an actual tuition centre, and whenever I got the chance to skip out of those “compulsory” classes at school, I did. I still did pretty decently. (And my SPM grades never did matter anyway, so it’s a moot point.) I learnt things on my own; reading, going online, watching TV, talking to people. I didn’t need tuition classes; I had a world of information around me.

There is some value in tuition classes – if you’re really interested in learning the material, or if you’re genuinely struggling and would like some help. However, the current approach to tuition is fundamentally flawed.

  • As mentioned earlier, teachers would opt not to teach the material in class properly because they expect everyone to come to the tuition class anyway. This is deliberately witholding information and knowledge for some other purpose (usually money) and is unfair for those who can’t afford, or don’t want to go to tuition.
  • Current tuition classes are less about learning the subject and more about “how to butter up the examiners by answering questions in such a way that they will give you higher marks”. Students get sent to tuition to find out exam “tips”, figure out what chapters to read, ignore the rest. Surely if you’ve properly learnt and understood the material, you don’t need to rely on tips and will be able to answer anyhow?
  • Related to tips – tuition classes emphasize memorizing random information, instead of thinking critically and working out answers and solutions. No one’s really learning things; they’re just being spoonfed informationt that will be forgotten after the paper is handed in. Wht’s being learnt here?
  • Most tuition centres/classes focus on subjects such as Maths and Science, with very few for Art and Literature. Sure, there are plenty of creative classes around (yay for them!) but they’re rarely taken as seriously (except, perhaps, for Music). If it doesn’t make a big difference to your exam grades, it doesn’t matter. (Heck, try finding a tuition centre that teaches something not in the examination!)

In the mad rush for grades and scores and tips, people – students, teachers, parents, whoever – forget what school is there for: LEARNING. Now it’s become a cattle race, with everyone trying to outdo each other on who has the most As – without ever really thinking about whether anyone’s really truly learning anything. So what if you won’t ever understand the basics of thermodynamics because it’s never completely explained in class, or won’t appreciate the philosophy of Socrates and Plato because there’s no school or class that teaches it? As long as you get straight As in the exam, that’s all that matters, right?

This response by one person that wrote in to the NST regarding tuition (letter link doesn’t work now) sums up my quibble with tuition (and with the general Malaysian education system) very nicely:

Knowledge by itself is of no use, unless that knowledge can be applied to answering exam questions. You cannot compare the quality and level of school exams to public exams. School exams are full-dress rehearsals. A lot of teachers don’t understand that. They set questions that do not resemble the real thing.

To echo Tony P, truly “a sad view of education”.

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Edu Roadshow Summer 2006

Vanessa over at CAL Chronicles is organizing a summer roadshow for secondary school students in Malaysia.

From her post:

When: Summer 2006 (May – September 2006)
Where: All around secondary schools in Malaysia
What: Promoting alternate ways of obtaining higher education to students in secondary schools in Malaysia. We give them the information they need on admissions, financial aid, scholarships etc.
Who’s involved? : Anyone studying outside Malaysia who wants to share experiences and encourage more Malaysians to aply to their university/country. Anyone who wants to be a part of a good thing. Anyone who wants to have fun and be doing something worthwhile as well.

Visit the link for more information and how to contact her if you’re interested.

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Thoughts On Education (well, mine at least)

So 2006 is here, and I am at a crossroads when it comes to education.

I’m not 100% sure what to do with regards to college. At this point I’m hearing a lot of opinions but I don’t even know what I want for certain. Or rather, how to go about it.

I’ve never been one for conventional education. I do well, but I never really learn anything from it. Whatever I’ve learnt, I’ve mainly learnt through my own means. Reading my own books, going to museums, going online, talking to people, actually doing it.

My Up With People trip has just reinforced that. “Experiential learning”, they billed it – and experiential it was. Finally I had a name to my learning style.

The only real reason I entered college was so my parents could stop bugging me about it. (That, and I didn’t know what else to do with my time.) It wasn’t bad – I did have a good time there while it lasted. However, it rather became apparent that I was outgrowing it. My best friends were graduating or moving away; the Clubs (which I was so active in) were crumbling to dust; efforts to make it more involved in worthy causes were not working. It became a place where your style and your looks mattered more than what you actually do. It was well established that I and Victor were the most productive people in the college, but our backing (Zuki) had left, and so did Victor, and I can’t do things all on my own.

The snafu with my grades in mid 2005 broke the deal for me. Accusing me of plagiarism without proof, essentially. AFTER we had been graded for it. Just because I used more of my own ideas than those from another source. For a place that billed itself as “creative”, it sure didn’t really appreciate actual creativity.

I had always promised myself when I entered college that if another opportunity came along, I’ll take it. Ever since college started – the first week, even – I’ve been looking out for said opportunities. Various talent shows. Writing gigs. Kickstart. Not all of them successful. Even before my Foundation year ended, I was itchy to get moving, and looked for something to do, that opportunity – that wouldn’t reject me for once.

I found Up With People, and they took the risk to take me in. It has paid off immensely. I have had the time of my life. And now I am even more convinced that the path I’m trying to take is truly the one I’m meant to take.

Now I am at a crossroads. I have two main goals for the year:

a) Attend the UWP Prestaging in Denver in April
b) Get a job as Road Staff for the July 2006 semester

(a) is within my control – I don’t need to be approved to show up. What’s stopping me is the general lack of funds for such a thing. I need around US$2000 and that’s for the cheapest tickets. That’s about RM8000 which is money I do not have. So I need to find a rich benefactor job.

I’ve actually already been offered a job, by Channel [V]. Production Assistant. Pay and the work itself would be crap, I know, but at least it’s something. (And I’ve practically been someone’s Assistant for the past couple of years anyhow, so it’s not foreign to me.) I might actually go into tutoring too, to support me.

(b) is harder, because it’s not confirmed. I don’t even know what sort of jobs are open; that will only be announced in April. On the one hand, I have an advantage in that the UWP office is already very familiar with me and knows my interest and capabilities. (Also, our Program Manager is the one doing the hiring, and he knows me very well, and we get along great.) On the other hand, just because they know me and like me doesn’t mean they’ll hire me – and with the new changes, I might lose out…lack of degree and age being bigger issues. But I’ll still try.

The idea was to get a job for the first half of the year, try to get enough money for the trip to Denver in April, go to Denver, work on the prestaging, apply for Road Staff job, get said job, travel with UWP for the later half of the year.

If the job doesn’t go through, I might stalk the crew still apply for university. Most likely in Australia, since it’s cheaper and they’re more flexible with application dates. Unless there’s some nice alternative uni elsewhere that offers me a full scholarship and is very flexible with dates. It’s a shame most of these places are in the US though and are stil subject to such asinine regulations.

But do I really want to go? Or am I just going because I ought to and apparently I’ve promised to do it at some point? Will I really be able to give my all? Will I actually learn?

Even in the old college, I have at least a semester to do – the one I deferred to go to UWP. Theoritically I should be returning in February, that’s when it starts. But should I? Do I even want to? Or do I want to go through the same trouble I did the first time round?

At least with the foreign uni it’ll give me a chance to start over. Give me more flexibility. Learn something I now know I want to learn. Combine various fields. (Queensland University of Technology‘s Interdisplinary Creative Industries degree is intriguing.) And just the experience of being elsewhere will provide stimulation.

My dad is stuck in the “listen to what my friends tell me” phase. Apparently a random friend has told him about the University of New South Wales and he’s been bugging me to go there, no matter what I tell him. I’ve checked it out; it doesn’t offer the flexibility I was looking for. But he’s not willing to budge.

It was listening to my dad’s friends that made my sister not do architecture, which she’s always wanted to do, and go into science instead. All the way to Ph.D. Still she wasn’t satisfied. She did a part-time course in Science Communication. Still not enough. Now she’s looking into art school, possibly design. I ask her, why not just do architecture now that you have the chance? She tells me, by the time she’s done, she will be 35 and apparently too old for a career.

I don’t buy that. I don’t buy the notion that the only reason to go into universities is to get a job – the common Malaysian mindset. I don’t buy that careers have an age limit. I don’t buy that degrees are the only way to get a job or even a guaranteed way. I don’t buy into this obsession with conventional education and a piece of paper that decides your life.

There was a discussion in Ask Metafilter some time ago about something similar – the poster was asking, should I stop college and travel for a while, or should I just go on with college even when my heart wasn’t into it? One person responded – if she sees a resume where that person finished a degree and then spent 5 years travelling, it seems “shiftless”. If the person spent 5 years travelling, and then completed a degree, it says “grown up”.

What happened to learning for the sake of learning? Why does everything have to tied in to money? Why should there be such a rush?

I don’t mind degrees but I mind mindlessness. I’d rather be the sort to get a honourary degree for all the things I’ve done in life, rather than sacrifice wonderful opportunities just to get that paper. I’d rather actually experience life and take my time with things like degrees, than put life on hold for a ‘degree’ that doesn’t even guarantee I’ll get the experiences I yearn for.

I’m at a crossroads, paths covered by fog. Which one will unfog itself – or which one should I start walking on already?

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