Posted by: Carol | May 31, 2011

Roadtrip Nation

For most of us, one of the greatest challenges of our lives is choosing a career – in fact, a Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that most adults will have held about 11 different jobs by the time they’re 44. I don’t find this terribly surprising, especially when I look back on my own career exploration opportunities as a high school and college student. In high school, I remember taking an “aptitude” test as a sophomore (which I later learned was sponsored by the U.S. Armed Forces) and some sort of quiz that surveyed my interests and then offered me some career suggestions, when I was a senior.

The result of the first instance was that I was barraged for a year and a half by mailings and phone calls from military recruiters (apparently, I had a good profile for an officer – little did they know I was a 5’2” Asian-American female who loved writing and the performing arts and had absolutely no interest in exercises like boot camp). The results of the second instance was that I received a list of possible careers that I might enjoy, the only one I remember being, “Art Historian/Museum Curator.” I remember this because I had no idea what an Art Historian did, and while I certainly enjoyed museums and was intrigued by the notion of curating one, I really had no idea what that meant either. And the list didn’t explain.

One of Road Trip Nation's 7 Green RVs

The college experience was even more interesting, as it was motivated by the fact that within a couple months, I’d be ejected from the campus and student life with my degree in hand, and I needed to have sense of what I was going to do (aka “a job”) with my Bachelor of Arts in English. I vividly remember my feelings of frustration as I wandered a large job fair hosted by my school. There were just a few options, it seemed. The military (again, and no, I was still uninterested), department store management programs (ick – I’d done my share of working in retail as a part-time gig, and I was quite certain I didn’t want to live with the pressure of meeting sales numbers all my life), banks (I could barely keep my own checkbook balanced), the FBI (…), the Peace Corps (interesting, but there was a three-year wait-list), and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), who was seeking emergency credentialed teachers (what seemed my only viable option at the time).

I ended up taking the teaching job I was offered after 40 hours of training by LAUSD. I’ll omit further comment on that particular aspect of my work experience.

Quite often, schools do the very minimum when it comes to career exploration, or stick with old tried-and-true but uninspiring activities like career fairs. And yet, it’s often through these activities and efforts that some of our students’ most important decisions are made – I quite literally spent years of my life working in a profession that wasn’t my first choice nor in which I particularly excelled, because of a job fair and what was on offer there. How, then, can schools make career exploration really meaningful to a young person – more than an hour’s activity on a random afternoon – and with students in middle or high school, where do you even start?

Roadtrip Nation may have a way.

High school students participating in the Roadtrip Nation Experience encountering the Green RV.


It all began with four friends who’d just finished college, but found themselves unsure of what to do with their lives (sound familiar, anyone?). They came up with the idea to carry out a project: go on a road trip across the U.S., to interview people whom they found inspiring, about their careers. They didn’t have many resources – no elite contacts, no funders (aside from credit card companies), and no filming or editing skills – but they had a plan and perseverance. Buying an old RV from parents, painting it green (it just happened to be what was on sale at the home improvement store), stopping at newsstands to “research” individuals and possible  interview candidates, and cold-calling the people they hoped to interview, they set off. It was to be the trip of a lifetime for them.

“We were out on that first road trip to hear stories about how people got to where they are today,” Brian McAllister, co-founder and Outreach Director, told me during an interview. The people they spoke with form an impressive roster: in that first trip out, they conducted interviews with Beth McCarthy Miller – Director, Saturday Night Live; Dr. J. Craig Venter – Geneticist, Decoded the Human Genome; Howard Schultz – Chairman, Starbucks; Sandra Day O’Connor – Supreme Court Justice, and many more. It’s pretty amazing, since they quite literally were picking up the phone and cold-calling these people, to ask them if they’d be willing to talk about their careers (“we got denied, maybe hundreds of times,” Brian remembers).  Speaking with a variety of people from many different walks of life, they discovered that the great majority of those they interviewed, regardless of their achievements and successes to date, had often struggled – especially early on in their lives – with knowing where they wanted to take their careers and how to get there. “Some of the most amazing and relevant interviews that we had on our first road trip,” recalled Brian, “were of people sharing their life struggles…the obstacles they had to overcome.  When you talk about some of these barriers that people had to get through, it really leveled the playing field for us. Sometimes we get this conception that people who are successful had it figured out, or they were privileged because they had other resources to lean on, and some of it was just grit! It’s a lot of hard work.”

High School Students Checking Out a Roadtrip Nation RV at the El Camino College Counselor Conference in April 2011.

“When you hear some of this, it really kind of breaks down that conception of, ‘oh, they had it all figured out.’  Everyone has gone through a period of ambiguity or a period of character analysis, where they really had to figure out who they are and where their interests are, ” he added.

They documented all their interviews with a video camera, but without any real idea how they were going to use the material: “there wasn’t a business plan. We just kind of ran with it.”  That changed when they were in New York City, where they ran into a writer for Forbes magazine, who found their story interesting. She wrote up a small piece about their trip, and when it was published, it started a ball rolling that led to a book contract with Random House, a documentary film called “The Open Road,” covering their first and original road trip, a television series with PBS, and an educational curriculum that works with schools to help teachers facilitate “Roadtrip” career exploration opportunities for their students.

Roadtrip Nation Today

Roadtrip Nation is now in its seventh season of its television series on PBS, and though the original four friends are no longer taking road trips themselves (one has found her own road as a teacher, and the other three are still with Roadtrip Nation) – every season, they send new groups of college students off to do their own road trips in one of seven green RVs. They provide students with a blueprint, on how to identify people whose careers resonate with their own interests and passions and then, how to conduct their own Road Trips, by contacting those individuals, conducting interviews with them about their careers and personal journeys, documenting their experiences, and sharing them with others via Roadtrip Nation’s various media channels (all the videos of interviews are archived and available for free viewing here – do check these out. I spent hours watching them – they’re fantastic).

Jane Smiley's advice. A large portion of Roadtrip Nation interviews actually happen in the RVs, and guests are invited to autograph the RV's walls and ceiling after each interview. Some of the older RVs have had their ceilings replaced multiple times, to allow more interviewees to sign. All the older signed ceilings are on display at the Roadtrip Nation offices in Costa Mesa, CA.

As valuable as these experiences were and are for college students, the Roadtrip Nation team soon realized that a younger audience could probably benefit from these experiences as well. When one of their advisors forwarded them the The Silent Epidemic report on dropouts by the Gates Foundation, they found the impetus to take action. “It just blew us away,” said Brian. “The biggest thing that got us were the reasons why these students were dropping out – they didn’t see how their classes were connected to the real world and they didn’t have opportunities [for] real world learning…the same reasons why we took our own road trip.” Wanting to do their part to stem the dropout crisis, they began to develop a classroom curriculum (the Roadtrip Nation Experience) that would help high school teachers scaffold the experience for their students. Aligned with California’s CTE state standards and incorporating both class work with real-world projects (students are guided through the process of researching, contacting, and interviewing people in their own local communities about their career paths and life journeys), this multi-media curriculum allows students to fully participate in the Roadtrip Nation experience (hence the name of the program), creating their own media content and uploading it to the website to share with other students.

All the materials (there’s a workbook, online coursework, and a DVD) are engaging and interactive, as well as created by the Roadtrip Nation staff, whose average age is 25 years old – a point of pride for the organization, that believes in tapping into the creativity and skills of the younger generation. Currently, there are about 25,000 high school students across the country participating in the program, with about 15,000 of those in California alone. While there’s a cost for the program ($25 per student), there’s also support available for schools and districts to make the curriculum more affordable and accessible.

For more information about the Roadtrip Nation Experience, click here or contact Jimi Spatharos by email: or  phone: 949.764.9121, ext. 212. To learn more about the Roadtrip Nation organization, check out their website:

Then, go on and help your students define their own road in life.

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