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Taking a Vocation: Augmenting Your High School Education

In the latest episode of Making Ways, I sat down with printer and artist James Tucker, the owner of San Francisco’s The Aesthetic Union, to get a closer look at the timeless process of letterpress and the uncharted waters he navigated as a designer (as well as those encountered when he lived on a boat in the San Francisco Bay). Tune in to hear more about James’s fantastic journey from the Christmas tree farm in New Jersey where he was raised to the solo expedition to San Francisco that ultimately led him to open up his own shop and print studio.

During our conversation, James shared that he had a difficult time in high school. “I didn’t realize [at the time] that I was not not good at learning,” he explained. “I was just not being taught the way my mind wants to be taught.” A guidance counselor suggested he attend a graphic design vocational school to supplement his high school coursework and pursue his interest in drawing and design. When James took up the offer, he began to flourish. James said of this experience, “It’s remarkable that Monmouth County in New Jersey [where he grew up] actually has these public programs to help kids get placed in a precollege stream. This public vocational school program put me on the right track and really prepared my portfolio to be reviewed by colleges. It put me in a place where I could actually go somewhere.”

James’s experience not only is a lesson in finding a strong mentor, or in this case a supportive guidance counselor, but also proves the power of supplementing an everyday high school education with a program that can give you a chance to explore a passion and build up the skills that can pave the way for a creative profession. As James explains, “It was great. Half a day I would go to the vocational school, and the other half I would go back to normal high school. . . .I finally got A’s. They taught me graphic design, really from scratch.”

Vocational school programs can augment high school coursework, offer an intermediary on-ramp to a four-year college, or even replace a traditional liberal arts education by offering technical training in a specific field of study. In an article in US News & World Report on the subject of vocational schools, Kathy Demarest, spokeswoman for the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District—a county in Massachusetts that has a high success rate with vocational placements—explains the benefits of vocational schools: students “not only get the work-based experience [but also] get the soft skills training for employability.” In the same article, James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, argues that finding the right intersection between passion and profession can be a great motivational driver. “You can’t predict the future in terms of the labor market,” he says. “But you can know your child and what really motivates them.”

James’s vocational training helped him find his lane with art and design, but even so, the reception he received when he went for portfolio review days with colleges knocked him off his feet. “I went to these portfolio days that colleges have—you bring your portfolio in, and there’s 10 or 12 colleges there, and you sit between three professors, and they give you feedback. Everyone I brought my stuff to was like, ‘Here’s an application. Come in.’” James’ ability to double down on his interests in high school and build his graphic design skills at vocational school opened up a world of opportunities. College hadn’t really been an option before, but now he was greeted warmly by some of the top art and design schools in the country. Ultimately James attended Ringling School of Art and Design before moving on to the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he received his BFA in printmaking. Today James’s art and prints have been shown around the world, and he continues to thrive, pushing letterpress to new ground at The Aesthetic Union.

So if you seem stuck in a career or if the traditional educational path isn’t working for you, see if a vocational school in your community offers courses in your field of interest. It may help you find your professional lane and set you up for college success studying what you love.


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