Brian Gil-Rios is currently a senior at Big Picture Learning’s MetWest High School in Oakland, California. He is spending the fall semester at the Woolman Semester School, where students from high schools across the United States study social justice and environmental sustainability together while living on a farm in a residential community in Nevada City, California. We sat down with Brian to learn more about what it’s like to transition from the hustle of a metropolitan learning environment to one which, as Brian admits, benefits from a certain level of calmness.
1. If you had one word to describe Woolman, what would it be?
Relaxing. I come from a city, Oakland, where there is constant noise from cars, construction and people. In Oakland there is never time where it's totally quiet, no silence. You can’t just go sit under a tree or walk through the forest. At Woolman, like in silent meeting, I can really focus on myself and that helps me not feel stressed. I see that I don’t have to worry too much. Plus, there are hammocks around!
2. What has been most surprising for you at Woolman?
The people. Before I came, I was thinking okay – 15 students, interns, staff – I never thought I’d connect. I’m from Oakland, they won’t understand. But we’ve actually had similar experiences and I’m learning different things from everyone. We’re interacting from different backgrounds. When I visited Woolman before this semester, I saw the community interact, everyone seemed really close. Now I see that process working, people are getting closer.
3. Do you have a favorite memory so far?
Finding the Crystal Tree [a famous but secretive spot on campus]. I explore the woods here two or three times a week, sometimes just for 15 minutes and sometimes longer. Literally, yesterday, I found it. I wish I could have just stumbled upon it myself, but there were some other people there and I could hear them so that’s how I found it. There are other places I might find myself, like the old structures that students have built. But you know, it’s like that phrase, “it’s about the journey, not the destination”.
4. How would you describe the Woolman community?
As a whole it seems like Woolman functions because each individual is a part of what makes it whole. If you miss something, like Shared Work, we might actually have trouble filling that hole. And if someone is having a hard time, we communicate with each other – we’re united. And it is united, we have meetings to talk about our ideas or to work things out. Everyone has a voice and the community will try to meet their needs as well as the community needs.
5. How do you see yourself in that community?
If something arises that I’m passionate about, I’ll speak about it. For the most part, I agree with the things that are happening, so I don’t always speak. My nature is to be quiet. I know it might sound like I’m contradicting what I just said about community, but I think my voice feels represented here and if it doesn’t, then I share.
6. Can you talk a little bit about the classes at Woolman?
I came to Woolman already knowing about types of oppression. But here I’m able to go deeper, share what I know and help facilitate. In Peace Studies, I facilitated an activity from my organization Bay Peace, and students asked where I had learned that; which was cool! Peace Studies is helping me think about justice and injustices. The homework is hard, some of it is grad school level! That on top of SAT’s, math, work from MetWest – juggling all of it has been a challenge. But I’m not stressed about it because I’m here.
7. Have you learned any concepts that give you a new perspective?
My Global Thinking class has really opened my eyes to recent events. In each class, one person is asked to give an explanation of a current event with three sources. It’s the same issue, but from different sides. You really see how media portrays different things to make it look good or bad depending on what they want to show. You really see the bigger picture. The issues feel far away, but it’s good to have the knowledge of what’s happening all over the world.
In the first two weeks [of Global Thinking], our homework was to trace our clothes – how many miles they had come – and it was crazy to see how every part of our clothes comes from a different place. The zipper might be from Texas, the cloth from India or Bangladesh, then it might be assembled in China and finally shipped to the store where you buy it. You really see how the world is connected through one piece of clothing.
We’re also really connected through technology. You can literally talk with someone anywhere in the world through a screen. When I think about it, it’s cool but crazy.
8. Why do you think doing a semester program is a valuable experience?
The reason I came out here to Woolman is that I wanted to be away. I’m not running away from Oakland or my problems, but I want to be independent. I want to be myself. Here everyone looks out for each other. It’s a different lifestyle. I never thought I’d be eating different kinds of food every night. We’ve only been here a month and it’s amazing to see that I’ve actually adapted to being here! I think it’s important to have an open mind and to live differently in terms of your daily routine. I came here thinking, “Okay, it’s going to be different”, and that mentality, being open, that was really important. I might have been shy at first, but I was just getting used to everything. I wouldn't say I changed myself to be at Woolman. I just got used to the change.
We invite you to learn more about what makes the Woolman experience special for students like Brian. For more information, please visit semester.woolman.org.