Learner Voice: A Conversation with Alex Dombi

Learner Voices   28 August 2018
By Alex Dombi, Big Picture South Burlington


I went from a one-way style of thinking—I’m going to learn this thing in school and then I’m going to leave and move on with my life—to a full, critical-thinking, “I can solve my own problems” state of mind that I will carry with me well-beyond my time here.

Alex Dombi
Rising Junior

This summer at Education Reimagined’s Learning Lab Training, we had the chance opportunity to connect with a local learner, Alex Dombi, who currently attends Big Picture South Burlington High School. We first met Alex at the 2018 International Seminar on Amplifying Student Voice and Partnership.

Alex spent her first year at Big Picture South Burlington participating in a virtual internship with other Big Picture learners from across the country. As a group, along with their mentors, they dove into the effectiveness of the Big Picture Learning model. More specifically, acknowledging the limited research on long-term internships (LTI), they wanted to lead the way in “examining the individual dispositions, mindsets, and skills promoted by specific features of the LTI experience that contribute to student-school engagement and progress in academic and vocational development, and, over time, entry into and success in post-high school education and work.”

With the context set, check out how this project shaped up in the eyes of this inspiring young learner.

Q: What did your academic journey look like before attending Big Picture South Burlington?

A: I was born in East Hampton, NY, and I moved to Vermont when I was two—I’ve lived in the same house ever since.

I grew up attending the traditional public schools. I was one of those kids you didn’t have to worry about because I was doing alright. Of course, I resented homework and the typical assignments, but I was doing really well academically up until freshman year.

Freshman year was the turning point in my life. I stopped being engaged in my learning. It was a clear shift from not liking homework to hating it. For me, disliking something shows up in the form of fatigue and not wanting to take action. Once I go from disliking to hating, the thing I hate becomes a source of worry and anxiety. Overall, homework made me resent my teachers. I knew I shouldn’t resent them because they’re amazing people and they have so much information to share with me. But, I couldn’t help it.

That year, I heard about my local Big Picture school through my guidance counselor. She was asking me how my freshman year was going, and I told her I was getting good grades, taking honors classes—same old, same old. She commented, “You don’t seem too happy about it.” I told her it wasn’t suiting me anymore. With that, she suggested Big Picture.

It was the last week of school and the deadline for enrollment had already passed. I went to the advisors of the Big Picture school and I told them, “I know the time for enrollment has passed, but I also know this is a really good fit for me. Let’s have the interviews. Let’s do the admissions process and see how this goes.” They let me do it. And, thankfully, I got into the program a week after I applied—which is pretty lickety split.


I think it’s in the nature of every learner-centered person that they already assume the positive contributions a student is going to make, until proven otherwise.

Alex Dombi
Rising Junior

That entire summer, my mind was scattered with a million different ideas of what I would do with my newfound freedom. It had reignited my love for learning. I’ve always been a hands-on learner. My father was an engineer, and he taught me a lot when I was younger. That was something I always enjoyed—learning and feeling like I was gaining new knowledge all the time.

So, that entire summer, I had all these ideas, but I didn’t have any particular plan for my first internship. As my first year at Big Picture went along, it got pretty late into the year, and I still didn’t have an internship picked out. I talked to my advisor, and he asked if I had any interest in working with a woman (Beth White) I had talked to a couple of months ago about a STEM project. At that time, I couldn’t even remember who she was.

But, I thought it was worth some exploration. I met with her again on a Zoom call, and we discussed a project that was going on with a few other learners. They had spent the fall getting the structural components of the project figured out; I joined them in the spring and knew immediately it was what I wanted to participate in.

Getting to know Beth White more and discovering how many different careers she has had was a big moment for me. I always thought of career paths as one-and-done—you do this for the rest of your life. This always freaked me out a bit.

I don’t have any idea what I want to do when I’m older. I have two older sisters who know their identity—“I’m a stay-at-home mom” or “I’m a computer engineer.” It was Beth who showed me that I don’t need to stick with one thing. All of a sudden, that fear of being tied to one task for the rest of my life disappeared and opened the door for me to explore this research project without needing a specific path for it to correlate with.

Q: What does the day-to-day look like for this project?

A: During the school year, I spent 80 hours dedicated to the project. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my entire school day was dedicated to working on the project and that would typically start with a Zoom call with all the student researchers.

We would review what we had accomplished in the previous week, create agendas for what we wanted to talk about during the current week, and we’d look at a worksheet or two to get our brains churning. Finally, we would set our task list for the week ahead. The majority of the time, the worksheets we created were looking at the framework of the project, as well as its outcomes. We collaborated on them in order to further understand what we were studying.

That system of communicating virtually—and doing a virtual internship in general—with a concrete structure definitely helped move everything forward smoothly. On non-internship days, I spent my time completing other assignments, while also digging into John W. Creswell’s book on research design—a good book but super hard to understand.

This book played a huge part in me learning how to read and comprehend scientific writing. This was necessary because all of the student researchers are at different ages and levels when it comes to certain types of language. The book ensured that we were all in the same conversation. We had a separate reading group on Thursdays where we would discuss our answers to a weekly question reinforced our reflections on Creswell’s work.

Once a month, we would have an “all call” for everyone who was working behind-the-scenes in support of our work. This would include all of the student researchers (of course) but would also add the advisors from our respective BPL sites and university professors. These calls were amazing because we had this community of people who were motivated to see this project to completion and were providing all these resources to keep us moving forward.

The mentors involved in the project were translators between the student researchers and the things we didn’t yet understand. When we ran into blocks or we couldn’t tease out the next logical step, they were right there to walk us through what needed to be done.

Q: What would make this project feel complete for you?

A: That’s so tough. I finished my 80 hours, but I kept moving forward and working with Beth. I spent most of my summer with her. For example, I presented at an event in June called the International Seminar on Amplifying Student Voice & Partnership. I got to hear from a wide range of stakeholders what they thought about our research and how it could be moved forward.

For this project to feel complete, I’d like to finish a case study I’m doing with one student. They had both a personal and virtual internship, so the case study is about finding out how the structures differ in their benefits. I want to get that done because it’s been drawn out longer than expected. Once that’s complete, I’ll be able to say, “I did this” and I can show it to the world.

Q: As a learner and as a person, how did you grow throughout your first year at Big Picture South Burlington?

A: I experienced a dynamic progression in who I am as a person during my first year at Big Picture. I went from a one-way style of thinking—I’m going to learn this thing in school and then I’m going to leave and move on with my life—to a full, critical-thinking, “I can solve my own problems” state of mind that I will carry with me well-beyond my time here.

I initially joined the project because I really needed an internship and needed to fulfill my 80-hour requirement. I got into the project, and it seemed really interesting. But, I was constantly overwhelmed. I had a lack of confidence in my ability to participate in scientific communities because I’m more of an art/music-based thinker. I paint and play instruments constantly and that makes sense to my brain. Scientific reading and writing definitely don’t make sense.

For the first couple of months, I had some resentment toward the project. I didn’t realize it was a misplacement of my frustrations with myself that I was projecting onto other people. I feel like if I had this opportunity again, it wouldn’t happen the same way because I’m a different person today.

Q: What do you feel like your art-oriented mind was able to bring to your team?

A: I worked with a lot of really smart people, and they were always thinking logically. Whenever they were seeking solutions, they would think logically and say, “This is the next step.” I was the person who would bring up a weird solution that would take a little more time or a little more work that would sometimes get us to the same point. It might even provide solutions nobody else thought of. My contribution, in this way, diversified the work.

Q: With the university researchers you worked with, how do they see your contributions as a young learner?

A: I think it’s in the nature of every learner-centered person that they already assume the positive contributions a student is going to make, until proven otherwise. We all came in with the mindset and belief that we could provide a new perspective, and I felt we were really treated like equals.

I ran monthly calls, designed agendas, and responded to emails just like anyone else. The real-world learning aspect of the whole thing took this internship from “I got my 80 hours” to “I can feel like an adult and feel confident with that identity.” That was the most beneficial part of this experience—raising my confidence level. I now know I can present in front of a group of my peers and whoever else is in the crowd.

Q: What has your experience been like discussing learner-centered education with other learners who have not had a learner-centered experience?

A: I had the opportunity to present at a local conference, The Power² Summit, where most of the room was filled with learners who hadn’t experienced learner-centered education. I quickly realized the language and acronyms I use on a daily basis were not going to make any sense in that room.

I believe learner-centered people need to find ways to make the language more accessible to everyone in the room, so everyone has a fair chance at understanding. At the 2018 International Seminar on Amplifying Student Voice & Partnership, we were trying to create a set of learner-centered vocabulary that would make more sense to the broader public. Starting with “learner-centered” itself, that makes sense to us. But, there are many different ways that phrase can be interpreted.

Once we brought in the students and had them talk about the words they don’t personally understand, we could elevate everyone’s understanding by simply having peers educate peers. While we didn’t leave with an answer, I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

Q: Given everything you’ve experienced in your first year at Big Picture South Burlington, how would you like to see internships adapt and evolve in Vermont and beyond?

A: I think internships are amazing and are the best educational experience I’ve ever had. I would like to see the focus turn to bringing the internship experience to more rural locations. I’m so lucky to live in the city and to have the University of Vermont, St. Michael’s College, Champlain College, downtown in general, and so on. But, I feel the real need for internships is in communities that don’t have these local resources.

Most of Vermont is nothing but trees. If the students who live in those areas had the opportunity to utilize the resources available in Burlington through virtual programming, then that would help bridge the gap with the current challenge of bringing in high school internships.

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