I passed the CCNA exam and am now almost through with CCNP. I have noticed that even though I can read some books and pass the exams I still don't quit get it. It's real easy to memorize questions and become a paper tech but that's not what I'm looking for. The school I attend does have a rack full of Cisco routers and switchs but I find myself aimlessly typing in random commands with no goal. I have thought about getting my own equipment for some home practice but I'm afraid I will be in the same rut at my house that I was in at school. What is another way I can practice setting up different configs? Is this just something that comes while working in the industry? Or is there a way to practice and gain some useful experience?
Experience is always the hard part ...
Check with some charities or religious organizations, they are often happy to hacve some (free/cheap) help with their networking needs.
The only issue is that most places don't mess with standing infrastructure unless it's to upgrade or update ... which doesn't happen all that often.
So working the practice racks is still the most likely hands-on time you're likely to get.
There are books and web sites with scenarios; I used to try to replicate the setups in the books I was reading at the time.
You can always do paper slips in a hat ... or several hats ... like "LAN A," "LAN B," "WAN" and draw a couple slips from each hat and set up the network accordingly.
Try teaching someone the stuff you've learned, and set it up on the rack as part of the discussion. Teaching is a great way to learn, especially if the person you're teaching asks a lot of questions. I think you'd be surprised how one "simple" question can challenge your understanding.
You'll know you truly understand it when you can translate the tech-speak in the books to "common english" and explain it to to the non-technical people (versus just repeating the text of the book).
And, of course, there's always the forums here ... try answering a few questions. Take a question you are interested in and do the research to find the correct answer, and explain the answer to the OP.
As I think you're finding out, sometimes you have to make your own experience just like sometimes you have to come up with "something to do" at work when all the normal chores are done (notice many of the job ads have verbiage like "self-starter," "motivated" ...
Good Luck, Happy Holidays!