What I Learned From Traveling With A Little Money and A Lot of Love

I got the idea to study abroad in Australia in the 3rd grade when I was given an assignment on the countries of the World. I learned about koalas and kangaroos, but what I loved most were the beaches. Australia, literally, had beaches everywhere. And as a 3rd grader living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, beaches were few and far between. While I didn’t understand the concept of “studying abroad”, I did know that I wanted to go to this magical place called Australia with kangaroos, koalas, and beaches.

Fast forward 10 years and I’m a senior in high school, about to leave for Madrid, Spain as part of an exchange program through my school. How did I get here? I just applied. Shady Side Academy, my alma mater, had a very competitive exchange program that a majority of my classmates planned on participating in. I never assumed I’d be accepted, but I did know I was going to try. Like Australia, Spain was a far away land that had pretty people and provided an opportunity to see something different than what I was used to. So I applied and a few weeks later I found out I had been accepted and had an exchange student, named Carlota, on her way to live with my family and I for 2 months.

Carlota and I exploring Pittsburgh

But along with her coming to stay with us, I too, would be going to stay with her family later that year. This desire to travel took my parents by surprise, at first. No one in my household owned a passport and the idea of me going to a country that was an entire ocean away was something that took time to process. By no means are they alone, though. Only about 46% of the American population owns a passport, 40% in my home state of Pennsylvania.

Top and Bottom 5 States by % population of valid passport holders. Data from http://www.theexpeditioner.com/2010/02/17/how-many-americans-have-a-passport-2/

It never occurred to me that so many Americans had never left our country. Growing up, I was surrounded by people my age who were constantly traveling. I felt like I was the only one without a passport.

I don’t come from a wealthy family. When I learned I could go to Spain, my mother wasn’t working and my father was a teacher. However I went to school with millionaires, kids whose parent were CEO’s of insurance companies and the Rooney’s, who own the NFL franchise, Pittsburgh Steelers. I’d been going to school with the same people since I was 7 years old, so I lived all my cognitive life with individuals who were leaps and bounds more financially stable than I. And while it was hard to see all your classmates with 4 pairs of Uggs and the newest iPhone, there is something to be said about growing up surrounded by possibility. They could go to Paris and Greece, so why couldn’t I? I credit much of my dream to travel to the environment I grew up in. Even though I wasn’t going on international spring break trips every year and didn’t own a summer house in the Hampton’s, I was going to go to Spain.

Catedral de Toledo | Toledo, Spain

And I did.

Applying for an exchange trip with no idea how you’ll pay for it is something kids do. There is no thought of plane tickets or living expenses, you only see the possibilities. And to this day, I thank my immature self for just going for it. Had I told my parents I was planning on applying for this program, like most people would, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the green light from them, because there was no doubt it would be expensive. Instead I applied, found out I had been accepted, and only then did I let them know someone would be living with us for 2 months. Someone they would have to feed and take care of and show that part of the World to. Having Carlota stay with my family turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences, though, and not just for me, but for my family as well. She bonded with my brother better than I could’ve ever expected. He taught her how to play American football and after a few weeks into her trip, he was introducing her as his other big sister. All because I just went for it. Her staying with us turned out to be easy, but getting me to Spain was something else entirely.

In the 12th grade I had no money. Not like college, where you have some money, just not a lot. I literally had 0 dollars to my name. So how does one go to Madrid without money? You get a job! The first job I’d ever had to be exact. I worked the entire summer as a camp counselor, earning less than minimum wage to help fund my trip. But the money I made didn’t even put a dent in the cost of a round trip flight. What it did do, though, was show initiative. My family could tell I was trying hard to make this dream of mine come true and that led them to help me. Before the summer began, my grandfather agreed to pay for my flight as long as I was able to pay back half the ticket price. When the summer ended, he told me to keep the money I had made and to have a good time.

Similar to Spain, the summer before coming to Australia I got my 2nd job at McDonald’s. It wasn’t glamorous and I’ll never look at a burger the same way again, but it paid. 3 am to 2 pm every day, with Monday and Tuesday off. And even after slaving away at McDonald’s, I had only just gotten enough to pay for a housing deposit and a visa. I still had to buy two plane tickets and needed money to live. There was no turning back. I had already applied and been accepted to study at La Trobe University and I told all my friends, and more importantly my home university, that I would be gone all semester. So, I sat down one afternoon in my apartment, with a pen and paper and wrote to all 6 of my grandparents asking for $500.

I am a special case, in that, I come from an extremely large family and we’re all very close. My biological father wasn’t in my life and my mother started dating my stepfather, who I call “Dad”, when I was only a few months old. Although my biological father wasn’t around, his mother has always been a part of my life. Along with my maternal grandparents, I also have my Dad’s parents and his stepfather, giving me 6 grandparents in total (I get confused sometimes too, refer to picture). But while my family is rather large and most kids can always count on their grandparents for money, I didn’t know what they’d say. 4 of them are retired, one was remodeling a home and the other had just moved, so money was tight. I knew we would all be together later on in the month to attend my brother’s graduation, so I waited until then to seek out their responses. And a few weeks later, I walked away from that graduation with 5, $500 checks and a sense of accomplishment, because I really was going to Australia.

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary | Gold Coast, Australia

And as I sit here, enjoying a warm Australian afternoon, I realize how close I came to not experiencing this place. How it could’ve gone side ways and my grandparents could’ve said no or my parents could’ve decided it was just too far and too long of a trip. But I also think about the unexplained blessings. A month into my trip, my school gave me a huge scholarship for being one of only 5 students to go abroad this semester and that’s a majority of the money I use to live off of while I’ve been here. Family members and friends have continued to send me small amounts of money during my trip and I’ve made it almost 4 months with less than $4k. It could’ve gone wrong. And to anyone traveling, make a plan and make it early. Know where your money can and will come from and budget. But don’t let money be the reason you don’t go. Take that leap of faith and decide, I’m going to do this, because that’s really all you need. 3rd grade me decided traveling was a possibility in a life that hadn’t seen much traveling at all. 3rd grade Kelcei decided she was going to try to make her dream come true.