Here I am; in the classic situation that an absurd amount of recent graduates find themselves in. We spend four, or usually more, years studying a subject that we chose pretty much on a whim at an age where we really don’t know much at all. We throw tons of money into getting this degree because apparently it’s super necessary (jury’s still out on that one).
But then what? Maybe what you studied is something you’re still passionate about, but maybe it’s not. Then you have to choose which draining and disheartening 9-5 job you should take in order to pay off your debt and try and make sure those last years weren’t a waste of time.
Or at least people try and make you think that. The constant, well-meaning, yet exhausting questions that family members ask about what your plans are, those friends who seemingly having it all together with their jobs lined up five months before graduation – it's too much. Everyone around you is putting the idea in your head that this is the only option but surprise, surprise…. It’s not.
It’s not the only option and if you ask me, it’s one of the worst. Here's why travelling after finishing my degree was the best decision I ever made.
I began creating my own path
Now, I didn’t have as much debt as the average post grad student, but it was still there. I wasn’t keen on letting that get out of control, but also wasn’t ready to commit to a job to help me pay it off. So, I got a job with AmeriCorps as a social worker helping patients from Latin America with various things, particularly the language barrier.. I have a lot of opinions on AmeriCorps, but that’s another time and place. What it did give me is the chance to move to Boston and get a taste of exploring a new place for a year, all while putting my loans on hold then throwing me some cash to help pay them off.
Can’t complain too much, right?
This was the perfect step for me because it was a “job”, but with an expiration date. Perfect for a commitment “phobe” like me! I explored and fell in love with a new city while getting to speak Spanish daily. I got my degree in Spanish but that was truly besides the point; I’m just utterly obsessed with the language (especially when it’s being sung by Nicky Jam).
A short-term contract in a new city was a great in-between step after college. It helped convince me how much I didn’t want a real job yet, while also getting me feeling just a bit more brave and a lot more curious to explore.
I learned to be brave
I came home for two weeks after a year in Boston before heading off to spend two months in Europe. I started the trip with one of my friend “soul mates”. Thank goodness for her. That first week together was amazing, but when she left, I cried for about 45 minutes in the Amsterdam bus station, absolutely sure I would die alone.
After that, I was never fearful or sad again.
Truly, I'd had a general sense of lacking. I didn’t think I would be able to take care of myself, and I was stressed about every little thing. I have a bad sense of direction and was nervous about just finding food every day, a situation not helped by my dozen or so food allergies. I also thought I would be lonely since I had a lot of homesickness when I studied abroad in Peru and Ecuador.
Looking back, it’s hard to describe why exactly I was so afraid, because that entire trip was absolute magic.
I stuffed my face with delicious food all the time (that I usually cooked myself because traveling on a budget, ya feel?), I never got lost, and I never came close to feeling lonely. In fact, I was sometimes overwhelmed by how much time I was spending with other people.
I’m a self-sufficient, brave chick with a ton of common sense. I already knew that, but I thought that in such a wildly new and unfamiliar experiences I would just fail. I’ve never been so terrified to do anything in my entire life, and that’s what made it so worth it. I’ve never felt more accomplished, and travel only pushed me further.
I’m coming for you, Pablo
So thanks to the media, many people only know of Colombia as a drug-ridden country that is full of criminals and is dangerous. Anyone who goes there is either crazy or has a death wish.
Well, call me crazy.
With my contract completed, I decided to move to Colombia to teach English for six months. The experience overall had its ups and downs, but I learned a ton and looking back, I miss it every single day. I met another one of my absolute friend soul mates who I can’t imagine not ever knowing. That’s really one of my favorite parts of traveling; I have met people who I either spent five minutes, a few days or longer with who have expanded my views, taught me things about the world and myself but mostly, brought so much fun to my life.
I stopped caring about what I “should” be doing
Should. Should. Should. That’s really all anyone tells you; what they think that you should do. Making decisions based on what you think you’re supposed to do is dangerous.
All you ever should do is create your own path, but I know that’s not easy to trust in at first. Especially after graduating, it’s hard because many people have an overwhelming amount of debt. You want to make sure that all of the years, money, and energy invested was not a waste. Every step of your life has been planned out thus far, and all of a sudden, every single door is open. It’s easy to do what everyone else is doing.
I finally figured out that what you do after earning your degree doesn’t matter. It won’t define whether or not all your efforts were “worth it.” Why not just look at earning the degree as the culmination of all the effort? I mean, that is what it is! We’re constantly trying to make more out of things and never focusing on the simplicity of it all. If you are able to stay dedicated and focused long enough to earn that degree, then celebrate it. Be proud of yourself. If you happen to use that degree, well then it’s all just icing on the cake!
Now, I’m not saying it’s a good idea to graduate and sit around. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but it’s helpful to do something. Babysit, serve, bartend; putting yourself out there in any way will lead to meeting new people. Eventually you might meet someone who says something that just clicks with you and all of a sudden you know exactly what you want to do, instead of what you “should” do.
I’ll never forget when I was a junior in college and got some interesting advice while flying home from Denver. The woman next to me and I got to talking about life (as I usually do with most people in really any situation). She was working on a vineyard after receiving her degree in sociology. She informed me that a degree is really nothing but proof to employers that you can commit to something for four years. She was happy, and that was enough for me to take that advice and let it sink in.
“…a degree is really nothing but proof to employers that you can commit to something for four years.”
I pursued what I really wanted in life
One of my biggest fears was feeling like if I didn’t get a job immediately after college, then I would fall behind. I worried that future employers would think that I was lazy, or unreliable, or a whack job for deciding to pick up and travel for a while. I wouldn’t be gaining any professional skills or be doing anything “worthwhile.”
The decision to ignore all of these worries took a while, and SO much talking. I’ve never understood those people that process internally. They are probably much easier to be around than I am, because I will talk every single one of my family and friends ears off until I figure out an answer. I find that this helps to gain new perspectives both from hearing myself repeat the issue, but also from any little bit that an outside person tells me. Figure out what you need to do to find your true path – and do it. Talk, be silent, meditate, read, get a hobby (or a shrink)… just find your truth.
It really isn’t necessary or good to overthink all of this. No decision defines you or your life, and it’s never permanent. You can decide to travel or work or do whatever you want and then leave. Head off to a country and just see what happens. If you don’t like it, go home or go elsewhere and hope for better luck!
What it came down to for me was that I felt like it was now or never. Too often people that want to travel just keep putting it off for various reasons. I knew that I wanted to see more out there, and what better time than now? I was completely unattached; no people, places, or things that I had commitments to. When would that happen again? Jobs would always be waiting for me… having the freedom and capability to travel would not.
I traded plans for adventures
What in the world was I thinking when I thought travel wouldn’t lead to learning anything valuable, I have no clue. I learned everything. I am as type A as they come, honestly. I used to never be able to do anything without planning it in advance, just because I needed to mentally prepare (type A/semi-insane… same difference).
Before I left for Europe I had my first few cities planned out. I was so stressed that I didn’t have the whole two months planned. Shortly into my travels, I ended up completely regretting planning any part of the trip. It was so much better to just wing it. The freedom to meet new people and choose to travel with them, or have the option of heading to a bus station and picking a city to go to on the spot, was new and exciting.
I ended up loving having no plan. I could go anywhere whenever I wanted. I became so much more adaptable and flexible during those times. Now it’s hard for me to commit to anything because, I mean, who knows when I’m going to change my mind? There’s zero room for wasting a single second being stuck in something that isn’t making you a better person or teaching you something. If it doesn’t serve you in some way – walk away.
I was transformed by other cultures
Travel taught me to understand the world and different cultures in another way. Hearing how other people live and what they value in other parts of the world shifted my own views on what is important to me in life. I learned that I fully reject the work culture in the United States. It’s insane and unhealthy, and we’re all going to live short and unhappy lives at this rate. I want no part in it.
I’m not afraid of anything anymore. My friends sometimes question how I can move to a different state or country without knowing anyone… live with strangers and figure it all out. None of this fazes me anymore because of traveling; in fact, they’re not even thoughts that cross my mind. My personal limitations as to what I can do and where I want to go have become endless.
I also started to see my own country through others' eyes. Yeah okay, we’ve been making a few major faux pas's here as of late, whatever. No one and no country is perfect, but it’s good to recognize where we’re failing and understand how others view us (hint: also applicable on a personal level).
An Aussie I shared a room with in Prague informed me that their Aboriginals were classified as “flora and fauna” until 1967. Meaning these humans were considered plants and animals, which is pretty horrid (no offense, friends – I’m still trying to move down under one day soon). All countries have things to be ashamed of, but we can only try and learn to move forward even wiser.
I made memories to last a lifetime
I’ve been so deliriously happy with every choice that I have made. That doesn’t mean I’ve been happy for every second while I was traveling (Colombia my love, you tested me). But, I look back at the last three years so fondly, and every memory makes me smile; even those of people projectile vomiting on the bus while going through winding mountain roads in South America. I miss those times too.
I remember sitting on my rooftop in Colombia, eyes closed just listening to the cars and people going by underneath me.
Laying in a hospital bed in Colombia after my roommate accidentally gave me a laxative to “cure” my traveler's stomach illness.
Sitting on buses through Germany with a bunch of burly Czech men crushing beers at 10:00AM.
Meeting a lovely young Hungarian girl on a train in Austria who made me a bracelet while we chatted about our lives (we still keep in touch over a year later, and when I lost my bracelet, she mailed me a new one).
Discovering how much I like English accents in men…
It’s one of the most bittersweet feelings. I want to be in countless places all at once, which is impossible and sad, but I can’t believe how many places and people are out there that are now a part of my story.
I happily take the bad with the good. Maybe not everything I learned is transferrable to the workplace. But it doesn't have to be. It just is what it is. I learned what I learned, and those lessons have inherent value, regardless of whether they ever serve me again in a visible way. Honestly, any employer who doesn't recognize and value the skills gained from travel isn’t the type of person or organization I want to be working for anyways. It’s not where I belong.
These lessons serve me in the way I conduct myself, my sensitivity to others who are different, and more, so that I embrace what is different; something we sorely, sorely need more of, not only in my country, but also in the world. I’m not sure when people started lacking compassion for others. Or why people are so afraid of change. Hello? We’d be nowhere without change.
“Honestly, any employer who doesn't recognize and value the skills gained from travel isn’t the type of person or organization I want to be working for anyways. It’s not where I belong.”
I learned to just go for it
I still feel lost a lot of the time, and unsure of where I’m going or what the plan is. Actually, I don’t want a plan. Those never work out anyway. The only thing that really matters is what feels right. Learning to tune into exactly what feels like the right path is for you will lead to very few regrets, if any. Something doesn’t work out? It’s okay, because you still had the courage to do something that most will never do.
Sure, some people are content to stick with the routine and the mundane. They can be happy like this. Good for them! But if you are not sure what you want out of life, then forcing yourself down the standard path will only lead to unhappiness, and that painful feeling that you’re missing something.
“But if you are not sure what you want out of life, then forcing yourself down the standard path will only lead to unhappiness, and that painful feeling that you’re missing something.”
I’ve gained experience, knowledge, worldliness, and a new hunger for more of the world that makes it hard for me to stay in one place for very long. I didn’t know a single person going down this path when I chose it. None of my friends or family really understood, so although they were supportive, I had to figure it all out on my own. This only made the lessons learned and fears conquered even more valuable.
If you’re even slightly considering traveling after graduating – for goodness sake, do it. Travel is more than a cliché, new, “it” thing that people do just to get the picture to post to social media. It’s dirty, uncomfortable, tiring, and real. It’s going to require some sacrifices that lead to gaining absolutely everything.