Dear Iowa BIG Students: 2019

This is an open letter to current, former, and future Iowa BIG students. Sometimes you just need to make your position known. For someone who works at a school like BIG the message manifests itself in so many different ways on the daily that I just want to say it in writing once:

I care about your joy and passions, but I care a lot more about exposing you to a community that will help you identify the joy and passions you don’t even know about yet. Sure, every teacher says this, but the stats in favor of Algebra II serendipitously exposing that zeroes-of-a-polynomial passion are pretty weak.

I care about you finding the pilot-light of internal motivation. This is why we don’t give points and running grades; no, not because BIG’s easy or feckless. Internal motivation is hindered by an external numerical judgement, you are not a car’s brake system; you’re a person and you deserve the kind of feedback that people grow from: verbal, written, personalized, and contextualized. I’ve seen hundreds of students find a power source within them that can’t be extinguished, and none of them needed points or a GPA to do it.

I’ve seen a student take the seed of a documentary about conservation and family and grow it into a hundred-hour, 15 person team of happily busy learners.

I’ve mentored a young woman who, in five months, built a network, brand, and conference that pulled national politicians in to answer meaningful questions about defining success for young women.

I’ve seen students become functional in four computer languages in as many months because the elementary students they were serving simply “Had questions about it.”

I’ve seen a young man learn microeconomics and high-frequency stock trading in order to leverage a secondary name-brand clothing market to make money for charities serving people who struggle with necessities.

I’ve seen almost drop-outs buy-in.

It goes on and on, without grades, without bells, without classes or books.

So, why are we giving you so much “free” time? Free time isn’t the same as freedom. It won’t seem so open when the fire is lit. You’ll find yourself consumed: you’ll tell us what bothers you, what makes you mad, what you can’t believe you have to inherit from adults, and we’ll listen. We’ll find the organization for you, we’ll find, buy, or scrap the resources you need. We’ll involve you in step zero, and, I promise, that free time will evaporate into a vapor of effort. We’re open 9:00-5:00, but we’re thinking about you, who you need to meet, and how you can have the biggest win 24-7.

You probably won’t write a paper arguing Hamlet’s sanity, unless, you know, that makes sense for your project. You will write hundreds of professional emails, dozens of one-page briefs, and, if you want, you’ll help assess the sanity of a modern political system in order to help the current city manager in their effort to engage in a new revitalization project inspired by something from Denmark, for example.

So, I just need one thing from you. Don’t treat the faculty like we have a plan for you that involves some pre-determined spate of work. We don’t.  Just tell me what you love, what makes you mad, and what you hope to change, and the work will follow.

I promise.