What I Learned by Ditching College to Travel at 18

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

There are 7.4 billion people on Earth. In the United States, there are over 324 million people. In such a vast society, you would think there would be a variety of educational paths, considering that each individual learns and processes information differently. While college may be the right fit for many students today, it certainly isn’t the case for all of them. And for some, college may be right at some later point later in their lives when they have a strong sense of what they want to study and do for a living, but not immediately upon graduation from high school.

Today, millions of college graduates are underemployed or unemployed.[1] The average class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year.[2]

via Slate.com

Along with financial and job challenges, mental health issues among college students have skyrocketed in the past decade.[3]

However, cost analysis and mental health issues aside, how relevant is a twenty-first century education today? Do the skills learned in college transfer over to the digital, modern market place? College is supposed to be an environment where students develop critical thinking abilities, widen their perspective, and gain valuable skills. Does earning a college degree guarantee that graduates will have learned these skills?

Some of the today’s most influential, innovative thinkers have openly voiced their dissatisfaction with our education system. Peter Thiel, the cofounder of Pay Pal, compared college to being “as corrupt as the Catholic Church was 500 years ago.” Gary Vaynerchuck, the serial entrepreneur and business personality, called college “the biggest racket.” James Altucher, the entertaining hedge fund manager, entrepreneur, and author, has also spoken out about the impracticality of college. Altucher also made an interesting point in his blog:

“Kids at 18 have no idea what they want to do in life. The world is a very big place. Its bigger than five classes a day on philosophy or chemical engineering.”

These statements have tremendous relevance for me personally. At the age of eighteen, I became severely anxious and depressed during my first semester of college. I was frustrated with the path I was on. I felt conflicted investing myself physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially into something I had barely thought twice about after high school. Partying was fun, but I couldn’t help but think how four years of this was going to stimulate me and prepare me to be a critical thinker and global citizen. My classes were unfulfilling, and I began to question the direction of my life.

At the time, I didn’t think there were other options. I thought college was the only way to learn and make it in society. What I craved most was to truly live with passion and curiosity. I craved to experience new ways of life first hand. I craved to stretch the limits of my perspective and challenge my worldview.

The day I boarded a one way flight to Guatemala to start my travels

So, after an unfulfilling semester at school, I took the leap. I opted out of school for the second semester and came home, determined to travel and begin my real life education. I had a little under $4,000 saved up from working, and I figured I could make it stretch through volunteering. After hours of research, I stumbled upon Workaway, a cultural exchange site that offers different types of volunteer work all over the globe in exchange for food and accommodation. I hit the jackpot. Workaway would allow me to travel on a shoe-string budget, while also being able to foster bonds with local communities through volunteering.

Two months after I came home from school, I hopped on a one-way flight to Guatemala with a backpack and no phone. I chose not to bring a phone, as I didn’t want to be distracted by social media and what was going on back home. I wanted to experience life in the moment. I was eighteen, ambitious, and slightly naive (ok, maybe a little more than slightly…). After spending four incredible months solo backpacking and volunteering throughout Central America, here are three of the most valuable lessons I learned from ditching school to travel.

1.) Nothing Can Substitute for Real World Experience

While I love to read and watch documentaries to learn about other cultures, none of these “activities” allowed me to truly know and experience what it was like living in another country. I had taken three years of Spanish in high school and stopped at the end of my sophomore year. Other than “hola” and “gracias,” I didn’t come away with much else. After living with a local family in a rural Guatemalan town for six weeks, teaching English, and playing soccer with the locals, I learned more Spanish than during all three years of high school combined. By immersing myself in a culture and lifestyle where people only spoke Spanish, I had to learn in order to connect with people beyond the surface level.

After leaving this town, I pursued a variety of experiences that fascinated me, broadened my horizons, and gave me insight into my own psyche. From spending a week in the jungle exploring ancient Mayan ruins, building a cob-based eco-lodge on a deserted beach in Nicaragua, living on a self-sustaining spiritual island community, and on a raw plant diet in Costa Rica, I learned through experience and meeting people from all over the world and different walks of life — none of which could be substituted for by simply studying books and watching television.

2.) You Can Take Your Life in Any Direction

When you are young, your mindset is malleable. The belief system you adopt in your late teens and early twenties can significantly influence the rest of your life. My major dissatisfaction with college is how it can confine thinking and inhibit creativity. In certain ways, it creates a “conveyor belt” mentality, where students conform to a belief that there is a relatively narrow path that they must follow.

The people I met traveling completely shattered my belief that there was only one way to live. I met a couple from Switzerland who had been living out of their backpacks for ten years, traveling the world and working online. I met a man who lives in the jungle full time, working at the campsites. He loves it. Do I see myself living in the jungle the rest of my life? No. But acknowledging the reality that I could, along with being exposed to vastly different ways of life, expanded my perspective of what is possible.

The way people live is neither “right” nor “wrong.” It’s just different. And, from an equally important perspective, it varies not just from person to person, but on an individual basis as a person grows, learns, and may decide to change the way they live. This observation was liberating. I realized that people, even those with little educational or financial resources, have the power to take their life in multiple directions — and in the United States, the opportunities are vast.

There is no life “rulebook” dictating how you have to live.

3.) Embracing the Unknown & Following your Gut Can be Life Changing

It was unbelievably hot…the closest I’ll ever come to being the Jungle Boy

At eighteen, boarding a one-way flight to Guatemala, alone, with just a small backpack, no phone, and limited knowledge of Spanish scared the shit out of me. But it was equally invigorating as it was frightening. This was the first time I truly understood the phrase if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.

Without much of a plan, I arrived in Guatemala. I had to somehow make my way to a rural town in the North — a town where the homes have no addresses. What was supposedly a nine hour ride turned into a fifteen hour bus journey, after being stuck on a one way road for eight hours in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Despite the language barrier and various bumps in the road, I eventually made it to my destination. It was accomplishing tasks like these that birthed within me a new sense of self-confidence that I didn’t even grasp at the time.

Going off the beaten trail, and pursuing a path I found fulfilling, empowered me in a way that nothing else had before. Stretching the limits of what I previously deemed possible inspired me to continue living in accordance with my values. I realized that taking the first step is often the hardest part of any major decision. Despite all of the challenges I faced during my travels, the action of taking a leave from school and booking my flight was the hardest part.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” I would never have learned the things I did, or found the confidence I have now, if I had not taken a leap of faith and left school. Only by persevering through our fears, listening to our inner voice, and taking action based on the path we believe is right for us, can we fully begin to grasp our potential.

[1] Weissmann, Jordan. “44% of Young College Grads Are Underemployed (and That’s Good News).” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

[2] “U.S. Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2016 | Student Loan Hero.”Student Loan Hero. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

[3] Sabatke, Sarah. “Mental Health on College Campuses: A Look at the Numbers.” USA Today. Gannett, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

[4] Leef, George. “College Degrees Aren’t Becoming More Valuable — Their Glut Confines People Without Them To A Shrinking, Low-Pay Sector Of The Market.” Forbes. N.p., n.d. Web.