Unlocking the Door to My Future

Learner Voices   05 January 2017
By Jemar Lee


But, I could never convey how I actually felt. I would have recognized the trap I was in.

Jemar Lee
Learner, Iowa BIG

I never anticipated joining Iowa BIG would have nurtured me into the person and learner I am today.

Before joining Iowa BIG a year and half ago, my journey through the traditional education system was very rough. To say I disliked the traditional style of schooling would be an understatement. I felt trapped and was without purpose.

With my increasingly fiery dislike for school, I became a rebellious and misbehaved student. As early as elementary school, I would shutdown, refuse to do my work, and lash out at my teachers. Naturally, all of these actions led to consequences. It started small with having my recess taken away or my mother having to pick me up from school. Then, as I grew older, the punishments turned into detentions and suspensions. I found myself being escorted out of my middle and high school being told, “Jemar, don’t come back until you get your act together.” This message played on repeat for years.

It was always disappointing to know the people who cared about me—my teachers, friends, and family—had to watch all this happen. I was commonly asked, ”Jemar, what is it that makes you so upset?” or “what makes you dislike school so much?” But, I could never convey how I actually felt. If I did, I would have acknowledged that I didn’t like the way I was being taught and that my school wasn’t the right fit for me. Simply put, I would have recognized the trap I was in.

When I expressed these feelings less directly, I was told, “Jemar, this is how school is. Get used to it—you have many more years to go,” or “Jemar, look at all the other kids that got through it. You will too.” So, what did I do? I pushed through it. But, pushing through didn’t make things better; it made them worse. I acted out even more, started losing friends, and saw my GPA begin to drop. My quality of life began decreasing to the point where I started seeing a psychologist and counselor.

Shortly into my sessions, they realized nothing was wrong with me mentally. Everything simply boiled down to my dislike of the school system.

The sessions ended, and I went along hoping things would change or school would magically become different. I hoped I would find a style of education that would work for me. With those intentions, I hunted and fought to find a solution to my problem. And, one day, it finally arrived.

The Wait Was Finally Over

During my sophomore year, I was introduced to Iowa BIG. I learned about their mission to develop students who were makers, designers, storytellers, and social entrepreneurs by creating curriculum with businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. My days of looking at white walls, white paper, and listening to colorless lectures would soon be over. I would be learning out in the community or within a dynamic working space that invited collaboration. Every day, I would be doing something with a purpose!

Iowa BIG’s mission immediately clicked with me. It was the solution to all of my problems with education. The ones I could never fully express.

I joined Iowa BIG as soon as I could, starting the second semester of sophomore year. At the time, as excited as I was, I could not imagine how big of an impact the program would have on my life. Within my first few weeks, I quickly started to blossom as a person and learner. I switched from hating school to loving it.

Exploring My Passions

The first project I did at Iowa BIG focused around my passions—architecture and interior design. At this time, Iowa BIG was exploring design concepts for a brand new space. As such, I was given the opportunity to create a floor plan that would accommodate all Iowa BIG learners and staff. After a lot of research and putting my knowledge and skills to the test, I presented my design to the building owner and manager. My design was not only taken into consideration, but it was actually fully implemented!

Now, you might be wondering, “Was your floor plan really built or were just bits and pieces used?” No. My floor plan was exactly what was used! To see my floor plan, as a 17-year-old, brought to life was a dream come true! From that point on, my confidence soared.

I continued working on my skillset in partnership with the city of Cedar Rapids. My team worked with them to redesign a farm zoo called Old Macdonald’s Farm. In just six months, I went from dreading any type of school work to working on two passion projects I would have never had the opportunity to pursue in my traditional education environment.

In just my first semester at Iowa BIG, I reached heights I never thought were possible.
At just 17, my dreams were already becoming a reality. I never actually thought they were possible, but thanks to Iowa BIG, they are.


My eyes have opened up to a whole new world, and I now see the stories I was once ashamed to share are pivotal in helping the learner-centered movement grow nationwide.

Jemar Lee
Learner, Iowa BIG

Dreaming Even Bigger

This summer, I came into Iowa BIG with even bigger and better expectations for myself.

I started the semester by furthering my passion for architecture. Working with a team, we started a project called “The Sleeping Giant.” We are working in partnership with Shive-Hattery—an architecture and engineering consulting firm—to create a 3D model of a pedestrian bridge we are hoping to have built in Cedar Rapids. Our goal is for this bridge to bring more attractions and life to the downtown area of Cedar Rapids.

Of course, architecture isn’t my only interest, so I decided to take on a new field by working on a magazine called Zealist with goals to have it published in eastern Iowa. Zealist is “a collection of creativity—celebrating culture and what makes us human—to build community through expression.” Our first publication will feature empowerment, diversity, and nostalgia. Anyone is eligible to submit their writing or art that relates to one or more of the set themes. We are hoping this magazine counters the negativity many other magazines swarm our society with nowadays.

Jemar, The Professional

Even with these exciting projects underway, the best had yet to come. In October, I was invited to be a student representative in Washington, DC at SparkHouse—a student-focused conference put on by Education Reimagined. Over the course of two days, I spoke with people from around the nation about learner-centered environments, how they’ve helped each of us individually, why we think we need more of them, and how we can lead the charge.

In those 48 hours, I was touched by how these unique environments have affected so many people. This allowed me to reflect on how much my own learner-centered environment—Iowa BIG—has affected me as well.

I’ve taken a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about how much I’ve grown and what I’ve accomplished in the past year. I particularly remember sitting in my hotel room on the last night of SparkHouse thinking, “I want this to go nationwide, so all students can excel like I am. I want to and will make this available to students across the nation!”

I expressed this thinking the next morning to the Education Reimagined team who not only kept their promise to stay connected and work with me but invited me back to DC to join a visionary leader meeting where we explored ideas on how we think this movement should move forward. Remember that Jemar who used to throw desks at teachers and run away from school? Now, picture him sitting in rooms full of education professionals, voicing his opinion about a topic that means so much to him.

I’ve gone from hating school to loving it, from being escorted out of school by police officers to networking with adults and students from all over the nation, and traveling the country and speaking in front of over 100 community members on the importance of learner-centered environments. I’m working on many things in order to make a positive impact on my community. If you knew me back then, you would have never thought I would be doing any of this, and I wouldn’t have thought it was possible either.

That’s why I believe every Jemar out there who feels they can’t thrive in the traditional education system should have the option to experience a learner-centered environment like Iowa BIG or whatever fits their interests. If you still don’t believe in the impact it can make, look at all of the incredible things I’ve accomplished in less than one year, since discovering Iowa BIG. My skills in architecture, public communications, and overall professionalism have grown beyond what I thought was possible. Through my new academic experiences, I have learned brand new things about myself, others, and life in general.

My eyes have opened up to a whole new world, and I now see the stories I was once ashamed to share are pivotal in helping the learner-centered movement grow nationwide. My advocacy for improving the education system for all my peers and the generations behind me has only just started, and I won’t stop until every student has the chance to blossom and thrive just like I and many others have in learner-centered environments!

As a personal note, I want to give an enormous thank you to Iowa BIG for keeping their faith in me and Education Reimagined for putting their trust in me. You all have opened my eyes to life in a whole new way. I love every part of my education now, knowing I have a purpose. You all have helped me reach new heights of success and happiness I would never have been able to otherwise. My dreams are coming true. And, it’s only the beginning. Thank you!

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