Diversity and Democracy

The Student at the Center

Higher education and I have a contentious relationship. I have associated higher education with both opportunity that I have embraced and elitism that I have resisted. When I was younger, I struggled with the idea that to be successful and valued, a person had to follow what I saw as the conveyor belt—the plan created long ago to categorize individuals and uphold power imbalances. To me, education felt political, and that feeling enhanced the tension I was experiencing.

When I first enrolled in college, I took several general education classes. I tried to be engaged in the material, but none of it felt particularly relevant to the work I was doing or wanted to do. During the day, I worked; in the evening, I learned. It felt as though higher education required me to check the rest of my life at the door. I memorized material, took exams, and wrote papers, and I ended my first year with As and Bs. But I didn’t continue in college, because my disconnected life left me feeling quite empty.

During my break from higher education, I discovered College Unbound. Crucially, nothing in College Unbound feels disjointed: all of my courses are connected through a project, generated entirely by me, that guides my learning. My project (essentially, my passion) is a lens through which to see course content and a way of meeting degree requirements. The degree itself is highly customizable to accommodate my schedule, my career, and my other commitments while supporting my well-being. At College Unbound, I can’t simply memorize content and pass tests. My courses require continuous reflection on how my studies connect to my work outside the classroom, giving me a real stake in each course. The program structure encourages personal growth through thoughtful participation and sharing among students and faculty. Sharing requires vulnerability, building trust among individuals while inspiring investment in one another’s successes.

Currently, I am a law enforcement advocate employed by Day One, a sexual assault/domestic violence agency. In collaboration with detectives in the local police department, I serve as a liaison for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child molestation, and human trafficking. I guide these individuals through the criminal justice system by providing crisis intervention, legal advocacy, court accompaniment, and appropriate referrals for community support. This work connects directly to my College Unbound project, Aporia Collective. I am working with three other women to create a zine (alternative magazine) for teenage girls who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence. Much of the zine consists of narratives and artworks submitted by women survivors and victims. The primary goal is to provide language for young people to discuss the structures of violence and their consequences for identity. Experiences of violence are personal, but they are also political; refocusing the conversation from the self to the larger structures can provide a language for survivors and victims to describe what happened to them while also seeing their experiences objectively. We hope to distribute the zine at children’s advocacy centers throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

As part of my curriculum, I recently co-designed an independent study called Dance as a Practice of Freedom. The course included a physical dance class where I received private lessons from a professional dancer. It also involved a dance theory course where students explored the relationship between identity and dance history, as well as the meaning of specific bodies in motion. Through this course, I realized how dance heals and repairs the connection between body and mind, giving individuals ownership of and presence within their own bodies—a crucial outcome for survivors of sexual violence. I now plan to integrate dance into my future professional practice. After graduating from College Unbound, I plan to earn a master of fine arts degree in dance, something I had never viewed as a possibility. My goal is to become a dance therapist who teaches trauma-informed dance lessons to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

College Unbound allows the most marginalized individuals to have a shot at earning an education. Within my cohort, students often say that we are literally living our projects and our courses. The return is real. Three-quarters of us have changed careers and found new jobs more aligned with our goals and our passions. I feel as though I have been able to uncover who I really am—but I had to learn how to see myself differently before that could happen. At College Unbound, students are made to feel that we are valuable and that our richly complex lives can be part of what we study in the curriculum. I can’t imagine a higher impact.

Editor's note: For more on the College Unbound experience, read the article accompanying this essay in this issue of Diversity & Democracy.

Lauren Roy is a College Unbound Student.

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