Graduating from college can be unexpectedly depressing. From the time you're born, you're on a mission to learn, learn, learn, and then suddenly you're flung out into the world with no class schedule or textbook and no teacher to ask questions. The constant wheel of hard learning stops turning, and you're free to be a dumb American.
Of course, soon enough you realize that your education never stops. And now you can actually learn things you're interested in. And there are so many things—so many fascinating, wonderful things—you can learn in Seattle. And they don't require a lifetime of debt.
Like, did you know that you can learn how to administer first aid to your cat? (You can, by taking Pet CPR and First Aid at CPR Seattle.) You can also learn how to dye wool using mushrooms (Dyeing with Mushrooms at Puget Sound Mycological Society), flirt (Flirting 101 at University of Washington's Experimental College), incorporate Zumba moves into your sex life (Break a Sweat: Zumba-Inspired Sex at Babeland), write a screenplay that doesn't suck (Writing a Screenplay That Doesn't Suck at Hugo House), and drum like James Brown's funkiest drummers (James Brown Drummers: Funk Drum Grooves Workshop at Seattle Drum School).
Dan Corcoran decided he wanted to learn something far more basic—how to survive. At age 19, he went out hiking one day in southern Indiana's Hoosier National Forest when he took a wrong turn. He ended up lost for five hours in the dark, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. "I was mildly hypothermic and really dehydrated," Corcoran told me over the phone. "I was kind of freaking out."
Corcoran eventually got his bearings and found the right trail after walking for several hours through the cold, dark forest. But the experience stuck with him. "We spend so much of our life in control, and then you step off the trail and suddenly you don't have control anymore."
Hoping to avoid such a situation again, Corcoran, who had studied biology at Indiana University, did some research and discovered the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington. With a sister who lived in the Seattle area and a longtime desire to move out to the West Coast, Corcoran relocated and began attending the program. For the last 12 years, he's been one of their instructors—a "survival skills specialist."
The 30-year-old nonprofit school offers many programs to connect adults and kids with the natural world, from weekend workshops to yearlong programs such as the Anake Outdoor School and the Wildlife Tracking Intensive (which teaches students how to read animal tracks). The curriculum for Anake Outdoor School covers topics such as how to deal with wildlife hazards like poisonous plants and cougar encounters, how to identify edible and medicinal plants, how to recognize bird "language" that might alert one to predators in the area, and how to live primitively, among other skills.
About 35 to 40 people enroll in the Anake program every year, and Corcoran says it's a mix of veterans (they can use their VA benefits to attend the course), young people who aren't quite ready to go to college, retirees, and twenty- and thirtysomethings who are "going through a quarter-life crisis" or have decided that "the corporate world isn't working" for them.
Some end up starting their own wilderness survival schools, while others go into permaculture careers. One student featured in a video on the school's website says the skills she learned will be used toward living in a remote part of Alaska as a retiree.
But for most people, it's just a way of reconnecting with nature. "We're not saying quit your job and become a hermit," said Corcoran, "but having a little bit of wilderness is good medicine for everybody."
Seattle Central College just created something called the Innovations College, which includes a food-business incubator, distilling class, artisan-cheese class, and real-estate class.
Traditionally, adult education programs have been the stuff of personal enrichment—painting and language classes, for example. But administrators are rethinking their models, says Gabrielle Bachmeier, the director of continuing education at Seattle Central College. "The education industry is going through a transition period," she said. "We're all going through a process of redefining who we are in the age of social media and technology."
In Seattle, that also means responding to shifting demographics toward young tech workers—people who are looking for professional development but also "unique" opportunities and "delivery methods that are innovative and fun and fresh," said Bachmeier.
Innovations College interim director Lisa Babinec said the distilling course, which launched in June, was created in response to the thriving distilling community in Seattle. Seattle Central is the only place in the United States that's accredited to offer the Fundamentals of Distilling course, which is also taught at the Institute of Brewing & Distilling in London.
The Food Business Incubator, taught by Ana Sainz and Peter Lewis, was first offered this past spring. "The curriculum is designed to help students who want to start a food business do the difficult background work it takes to bring their concept to fruition," said Lewis, who opened the original Campagne on Capitol Hill and has worked as a consultant for such restaurants as Smith, Oddfellows Cafe, and Terra Plata.
The intensive class covers concepts such as permitting, licensing, developing mission statements and business plans, negotiating leases, designing spaces, among others. Anne Fennessy attended that inaugural class because she has always wanted to be a cheese maker, and she's now in the process of launching her artisan cheese business, Urban Culture Cheese.
Although she initially entered the class wanting to create fresh artisanal cream cheese, she changed direction after she developed her business plan and realized that she'd have to work 24 hours a day in order to turn a profit. "I realized that the cost going in, the amount I'd have to make and move was really overwhelming, so that's when I realized I'd have to make aged cheeses," she said. "Learning the difference between a hobby and a commercial business was really amazing."
She said she's already gotten interest from local grocery stores and chefs but is in the process of figuring out whether she can consistently and sustainably manufacture her product. (Right now she's making cheese in a condo in Pioneer Square and just rented a location in West Seattle that she's in the process of setting up.)
Meanwhile, she's still running her consulting company full-time. "You know you're doing the right thing if it gives you energy," she said, explaining that she has no problem waking up at 2:30 a.m. to turn her cheese. "That's why people go into restaurants, because it gives them energy and joy, because I don't know how the hell they make money."