It wasn’t long before “the best years” of my life were over, marked by an oversized gown and a strange-looking hat in the early days of the Texas summer. Thousands of spectators were seated in my university’s academic quad to watch loved ones walk across a decorated stage, receiving, to some, one of the greatest educational accomplishments of life – a college degree. Though I received the same honor as the rest of the hundreds of college graduates that day, I spend my college years a little bit differently than many of them.
If you’ve been reading my posts on Twenty-Something Travel for a while, you know that I write primarily about juggling college and travel, and how to make travel a possibility with little cash in hand. But now that college is over, what’s next? Settling down? Working? Though the future is somewhat uncertain, I do know that I plan to continue incorporating travel into my upcoming job, my career, and my lifestyle for as long as I can.
Traveling during college has taught me a lot about the world and my place within it. It has also bestowed upon me certain strengths and characteristics that college never offered. Looking back at my college travels, these are a couple of my most important takeaways:
There’s Always Time If You Make It
Often I hear complaints that students don’t have time to travel. I hate to break it to you guys, but if you don’t have time now, you definitely won’t when you have a full-time job and potentially even a family later down the road. Free time doesn’t just magically come up exactly when you need it.
With travel, it’s not about already having time, it’s about making time. With that long weekend off from school, I’d jet off to New York. On a layover between cities, I’ll leave the airport and grab lunch on the town. During spring break, I’d find an affordable flight to somewhere exotic, like Istanbul or Buenos Aires, and buy it right away. Was going to a place for just a few days ideal? Of course not! But if you want to go places, sometimes that sacrifice is necessary. Plus, traveling in short bursts is a much more appealing alternative than not traveling at all, right?
The World Isn’t Perfect
Too many times I’ve had my college friends ask me questions about traveling, then say something like “why would you ever go there?” or “my parents think it’s too dangerous.” While in some cases, there are very great hazards to visiting a specific place (such as war, genocide, etc.), it’s always important to look at the world with an open mind. If we wait to find a place that has no problems and no social issues, we’ll be looking forever. However, if we go to a place because it is safe for tourists and we are genuinely interested in the culture and history there, then it’s much easier to stay alert and avoid risk. Yes, traveling involves taking risks, and because we live in a world with issues and protests and wars, we will be subject to some of those dangers. But by taking the appropriate precautions and being open-minded, we can truly make the world our oyster.
Everyone’s A Critic
When I was in high school, I used to enjoy taking self-portraits. To some this might seem like a narcissistic way of showing off or a strange, self-absorbed pastime. But for me, I enjoyed it because it was somewhat of a daily journal for me. I used these photographs to remember how I felt in a particular time in my life, and they worked for me.
Entering college, I got a ton of flack from people for everything I could possibly imagine – from having “parents who paid for my gallivanting” to “traveling because I wasn’t good enough to find an internship during the summer.” Even after my appendix had to be surgically removed in Thailand, I got nasty looks and derogatory statements from other backpackers because I had to trade my heavy backpack for a rolling suitcase for a few weeks. I’ve even gotten awful statements about living in Texas! At first it really hurt to hear those things, but as I began to travel more often, I got used to these jabs and shrugged them off as comments made out of jealousy.
In travel (and outside of it), sometimes you’ll be the butt of judgment from others. Don’t listen to them! If you are doing something you love and something that’s important to you, no one else’s opinions matter. After all, people can criticize all they want, but wouldn’t your time be more productive doing something other than listening to them?
Being Comfortable Alone
Many readers and fellow students ask me why I prefer to travel alone. There are a lot of reasons for this, but they all come down to enjoying the freedom that comes with being on my own. My first lesson in being independent came when I moved into my dorm in college. I had to manage my own time, get myself up in the morning, stick to my schedule and learn when to say yes or no. It was the first time in my life where I wasn’t depending on an adult to guide me through my day, and it was weird.
This is something a lot of other college students experience when they’re living away from home for the first time, but solo travel takes this feeling to another level. When traveling alone, sometimes you have to eat alone, explore alone, and approach other people alone. Sometimes unfortunate things happen and you have to deal with those on your own, too. It’s a lot easier said than done, but from all of my years exploring the globe on my own I have gained a sense of independence that I don’t think I could have learned anywhere else.
Slowing Down Is More Productive
A lot of Western cultures place an emphasis on constantly being busy, meeting deadlines, being punctual, working overtime, and cutting back on leisure activities. In college, my schedule ran basically from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed. Between classes, working three jobs, extracurriculars and homework, I didn’t really have a life except on weekends. At especially brutal times, I would regularly get only 3-4 hours of sleep per night. I was always exhausted. But all of the best and most successful people in my life, too, always seemed to be tired too.
When I began seeing the way other cultures operated, I realized that this sense of measuring success by how tired you are is totally unnecessary. I’ve learned that taking some personal time and not trying to do everything is perfectly fine. There were days in Southeast Asia where all I did was lie at the beach. On a short trip to Paris, I just walked the city the whole time without stopping to go to the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe. Travel has taught me that it’s perfectly fine to relax and regroup every so often. After all, life is too short to be tired all the time, and you won’t enjoy traveling or living as much if every single day is broken down into a rigid schedule. Allow yourself to slow down every so often and you’ll be much happier for it.
Travel Is An Opportunity
I’m always surprised at people when they tell me “you’re so lucky you get to travel so much.” And, while it’s true that I am fortunate to have had many opportunities to travel, I don’t quite consider it sheer luck. To be able to afford my college trips, I worked three jobs during each school year on top of classes and extracurriculars. I spent late nights entering contests online, applying for scholarships, and looking for volunteer opportunities abroad so that I could fill my breaks with travel and adventure. The point is that people who travel in college often have to work extremely hard to get there. They make time to travel. They sacrifice nights out at the bars and expensive brunch dates in order to save money to see the world. Just like any other activity that requires a lot of sacrifice, travel is an opportunity that we carefully curate and make our own.
Take advantage of the vast number of opportunities to go abroad in college. Travel isn’t something that just falls from the sky for free, but in college it’s much easier to find funds and scholarships that allow you to go abroad on someone else’s dime. Seek these out as much as you can, because once you graduate they won’t be available to you any more.
Looking back at my college travels, I’m glad that I chose to travel over doing something else. My time abroad has taught me so many life skills that I can use in virtually any career or position in the world. Yes, there were times when I missed out on a certain party or event that sounded like a lot of fun. But in the end, I wouldn’t have changed any of it, because through my travels I’ve found a passion for seeing the world that I couldn’t have gained any other way.