A Note to My High School Self, Four Years and Many Passport Stamps Later
Time flies when you're seeking new experiences and trekking untrodden corners of the world. A few months ago, I graduated college. Now I'm living in New York, working a real grown-up job, and learning to find balance between my career and my travels.
Week by week, I'm learning to navigate this new world of adulthood. As I stumble along the way, I become increasingly self aware of the new opportunities for growth that lie ahead of me. While I work to pave my future, I find myself more and more grateful for the experiences that have threaded the tapestry of my past. In college, I traveled independently; I became a fervent collector of cultures and experiences.
My identity today- this weird brand of obsessive traveler- came entirely at the expense of one decision in my past: college. And by expense, I'm talking lack thereof. This is my plea to every high school junior or senior caught in the crossfire between the school of your dreams and money. If you have the luxury of deciding between scholarship offers, pick the one that will graduate you with the least debt. Student loans are the mortal enemy of unobstructed access to the world. And, at the end of the day, travel will teach you more than any top tier university could.
If nothing else, this post is a letter to myself four years ago. This is everything I wish someone had told me when I was a high school senior facing what I realize now to be the most decisive, gravitational decision of my life. Take this for what it is: advice. Only you can make the best decision for yourself.
For my four years of college, I had the world at my fingertips. The money I made from working part time jobs went directly into my savings account, not student loan payments. I mused over unfamiliar cities freely from the other side of my computer screen and in-person, too. With time, I learned to hack the otherwise ostentatiously expensive travel industry to fit my frugal, college-kid budget. My scholarship-based college decision graduated me with a degree I'm passionate about, zero student debt, a generously padded savings account, and more passport stamps than I can count.
Rewind to the four years before that. I was in high school. I was numb to any future that laid beyond whatever "top tier school" I had my sights set on that week. My sense of self in high school was rooted in my GPA, how many AP classes I took, and how many bullet points I could squeeze onto my two page resume. Unequivocally, I was the poster child for the "well rounded" student that the college admission counselors carried on and on about.
Yet, as I quickly learned, the absolute very best you can be has its limitations. I got in to all but one of my top tier schools with varying levels of scholarship. To my dismay, the school that best positioned me financially was the same in-state university that I had sworn off very publicly. No amount of scholarship seemed to justify setting aside my lofty college ambitions. Perhaps it was pride, perhaps it was a genuine belief that college diplomas are created inherently unequal, but I couldn't stand the thought of "settling".
This mental parasite of "top tier" infected my rationality. I saw no issue in blowing through my college savings and taking out student loans in some cases. By some miracle (read: continual crusades from my money savvy parents), I begrudgingly made the "financially mature" decision. I forewent enrolling in the top-tier schools of my dreams for the state school that would graduate me without student debt. I was devastated, disoriented, and on the brink of an identity crisis. Dramatic, right?
The funny thing about human nature is our tendency to fill our raw voids with emotion. My first semester of college was spent wallowing in self-pity, anger, and resent. I made myself miserable every chance I got. Surely, I convinced myself, I would be so much happier if I just transferred schools! Many transfer applications, acceptances, and one housing deposit later, someone imparted upon me the simplest token of wisdom: the grass is greener where you water it. Suddenly there was ceasefire in my brain. I decided not to transfer. Instead, I became fascinated with the world. In the midst of losing myself, I found the shell of the person I am today.
This worldly fascination is really where my story starts. Inevitably, I quickly fell in love with every corner of the world. The more I traveled, the more I realized just how little I knew. Unfamiliar cultures and foreign cities became my addiction. I learned to prioritize the depth of my experiences rather than the distance covered. As I nourished my sense of adventure, I grew to value the financial guidance of my parents more than anything.
Following the very scholarship I resisted has, quite literally, taken me across the world. That's the painful irony of it all.
If you hear nothing else, hear this. Save your money. When you spend it, spend it sparingly. Prioritize travel responsibly. Remember, memories multiply with plane tickets, not college tuition.