In this keynote address at Deeper Learning 2015 in San Diego, the author describes how his pursuit of an interest developed into a thriving business, a passionate career pathway, and admission to the college of his dreams.
Hello, my name is Luis Del Rosario. I am 17 years of age. Right now I am a senior at the Met High School in Providence, R.I., and today I am going to tell you how I was able to find my passions through sneakers.
Growing up as any kid in the south side of Providence, style and game was everything. I had several collections of sneakers before I ever had a collection of books in my house. Although I was a pretty smart and successful student in school, to most kids and me, school seemed like a place where you were just forced to go. The day-to-day culture was more of a social competition of who had this and who had that, than it was a place to learn. However, my curiosity in footwear came from more than just trying to impress my friends. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning stage towards building my aesthetic as a fashion designer.
Let me speak a little bit about where I am right now in my education. I came back to the States just a few weeks ago from volunteering to help build a playground in a small village named Zinacantan in Chiapas, Mexico. We created an entire playground made from recycled tires and other materials for a new community center that had just been built. A month from today, I’ll be debuting my upcoming winter collection in my very first full fashion show at the Rhode Island Convention Center, where I’ll be showing 20 of my original designs along with a gallery of my artwork. In two months I will be finally graduating high school, and in the fall, I’ll be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Design.
I’d like to explain to you how in these past four years I was able to turn myself from not knowing where I was going in life into the person that I am today. Before I came to the Met, I didn’t have that much engagement with what I was learning in school. The work was just numbers, facts, and memorizing answers. Most of the time I would bunk and leave early because I just wasn’t engaged and had no interest in going to school.
In my first year of middle school, during our last recession, my family and I were going through a tough time financially. My mother’s business got destroyed, and we were moving from place to place, even staying in people’s basements, but when we did have a place to stay even if for a few weeks, my mom would drop me off to school every morning, and I would literally stand there in front of the school, waiting until she turned the corner so I could walk right back home. That’s how much I didn’t care—it came to the point where I just wouldn’t go to school.
Eventually my mom started to catch on to what I was doing, and she just couldn’t manage with everything that was going on, and while she was trying to get back on her feet, I was sent to the Dominican Republic to live with my father so I could catch up on school over there. That turned out to be just a waste of time, really, because I ended up not going to school while I was there either.
But of course, with actions like these come consequences, and I was facing the reality of having to repeat the 6th grade. However, when I came back to the States, my mother made some phone calls, pulled some strings, and let’s just say she got the job done so that I would go back to school the next year with my regular class.
Now, fast forward two years later. The first day I arrived at the Met, I was asked what I wanted to do with my life. When you’re a kid you get asked what you want be when you grow up, and you automatically say something like a doctor or a police officer. But at 14 when you have someone asking you serious questions like “what do you want to do with your life?” or “ where do you want to be in 10 years?” or “What is your passion?” it takes more than a couple seconds to find an honest answer.
I couldn’t think of an answer right away but I knew I had this one thing that I had built a curiosity and knowledge about throughout my whole life, and when I was asked again what I wanted to do with my life, I said I wanted to become a sneaker designer, not knowing that that moment of self-declaration would bring me where I am today.
From the start of freshman year, all students at the Met are required to find an internship that matches their interests. At the time I couldn’t find an internship with a shoemaker, but I had the opportunity to join a college-level entrepreneurship program that was taught in our school’s eCenter (the Met Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) to create a business plan and potentially start my own business.
Now let me say, coming into the Met and Big Picture from the traditional systems of education, when I was told I was going to write a business plan, pitch it in front of investors, and launch a business, I didn’t think we were actually going to write a real business plan, pitch in front of real investors and launch a real business. I thought it was going to be just like a regular course where we were just doing things for practice. But let me tell you, going through that entrepreneurship program was one of the hardest, yet best things I’ve done as a high school student.
By incorporating my interests for design, I created a business plan for my own line of t-shirts with designs that featured QR codes on the sleeve, so when scanned it’ll bring you to our website and tell you a short story of the t-shirt’s design. I presented my business plan at the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship’s Annual Business Plan Competition, where I came in third place and was funded enough money to launch the business. In the first month I sold about $1000 worth of t-shirts, reaching a broad range of customers through setting up booths at conferences and directly selling in my community and online social media.
Let me remind you, only nine months before I had a vague idea of becoming a sneaker designer, and suddenly I had a full on business to run while I was still in my freshman year. It was a moment of self-awareness when I discovered I was able to combine my passions for fashion design and incorporate it simultaneously with a career in business.
As the school year progressed, I attended an after-school sewing program where I was learning how to sew and create my own garments. When summer came, my passion and commitment to fashion was expanding, and I was practicing everyday, so that when I returned to school in the fall, I could use the skills I had been gaining and apply them to take my business a step forward into a new venture that I called Austoris Alterations.
Unlike my previous business, where I was taking designs and printing them on t-shirts, in Austoris Alterations, as I became better as a sewer, I took unwanted garments from customers and redesigned them for a new look. I ran the business for about a year as it became more successful than the t-shirts, until I started to find new ways to further build and evolve my skills in design.
My first big step into the fashion industry was with my internship at Brown University’s Rites and Reasons Theatre. There had been a student who had studied there from the Met, who introduced me to the director, who gave me the opportunity to work with the lead costume designer, Lisa Batt-Parente, during the season’s play of Welcome to Wandaland. It was during this time that I started to become more serious about my education and skill as a fashion designer.
Working as an assistant to a costume designer taught me the importance of quality detailed work, as each costume was hand sewn to the actress’s exact measurements. I remember sitting there for hours, hand-sewing embellishments to a robe. And as I continued sewing stitch by stitch while still running Austoris Alterations, I noticed myself becoming better and better. I started excelling greatly in school and all I wanted to do was grow, so I explored other ways to learn. After research and a talk with my advisor Andrew, I enrolled in my first college class at the age of 15.
I was studying under two intensive fashion design certificate programs, one at the Rhode Island School of Design and the second at my dream school, one of the best fashion design schools in America, Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. I traveled every Saturday from Providence to New York City at 3 in the morning on the Greyhound bus to make it each week so I could study fashion design at Parsons.
During my time there, I had the opportunity of meeting Tim Gunn, the host of Project Runway who was the former dean of the fashion department at Parsons. After I told him a little bit about my work and the Met/Big Picture, he complimented me on my dedication and the concepts behind my designs. Eventually, one class led to two, then three, then ten, and as I continued to learn, my designs were becoming more sophisticated and more detailed.
I was doing research one day on some of today’s most successful designers to get a sense of what they were doing at my age that I could use to my benefit. I discovered a month-long fashion design summer program at the OTIS College of Art and Design that Alexander Wang took when he was 16 in Los Angeles. I found out about it early in the year, and I began to raise money so I could have the same experience of intensively studying my craft for the entire summer.
After that experience of using industrial sewing machines, creating elaborate fashion illustrations and professionally constructed dresses, as my skills noticeably increased, I felt like I was at a point where I could begin selling custom pieces to customers, made by me. So I transformed the business once again to now offering handmade custom women’s wear of my original designs.
This development into making handmade couture led me to a new internship, which I still attend, with a fashion designer, Angela Zampbell, where I first started out as a sewer in her wholesale and retail productions. Now in return for my services, I am able to use her industrial equipment as an open studio to create my own collection for my upcoming show.
If it hadn’t been for the Met and Big Picture I wouldn’t have been able to go through so many transformations and discoveries within myself that have allowed me to find my true purpose and gift in life. I am grateful that I am able to learn in a space that encourages me to branch out and discover new ways to learn and to take what was a small interest in sneakers freshman year into now, four years later, building my career as a fashion designer.
I am grateful that I am at a school where sewing can be considered just as important as any other course. And it’s not just me. There are hundreds of kids who are all following their passions and doing great things at the Met. I have a friend in my advisory who just came back from teaching a business course in Dubai. He wants to become an architect, and he’ll be off to USC soon. I have another friend who’s raising money to teach Zumba classes to schoolchildren this May in Trinidad. With all the different things that each of us do, we were never told that it was impossible, and this is what the Met/Big Picture structure has allowed us to do: to think big and always keep going. And to me, that’s the purpose of an education.
The best thing of all is that last week I found out I’d been accepted into my dream school—Parsons, The New School for Design. Thanks to the Met and Big Picture I’ll be the first in my family to earn a college degree.