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I skipped college to travel: Traveling the world instead of higher education

At the lowly age of 18 I decided not to continue with higher education with the desire to travel the world. This is how I turned my dreams into a reality and dealt with my struggles (mental, physical, and financial) along the way.

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What is a Gap Year?

Let's get into the basics before diving into my personal life experience: what is even a gap year? Most people have heard of a gap year but not many get the chance to actually experience it.

A gap year is when a student aged individual decides to pause higher education. Whether it may be immediately after high school or in the middle of college, to pursue other activities, more specifically travel.

During my travels, I met many German students my age and realized gap years are much more common and accepted than they are in other countries.

People and society tend to look down and frown upon gap years for social status reasons but I think they are one of the most freeing decisions a person could decide to make with their lives.

To have enough courage and be brave enough and not worry about what the crowd is doing, hop on a plane to an unknown place, is a superhero move.

The A star student that doesn’t like school

Everyone was extremely surprised when I told them I decided not to continue with higher education. I was someone who received all A’s and B’s, did sports, was in an array of extracurriculars and clubs, and overall did extremely well in school.

Everyone assumed a ‘smart kid’ like me wasn't the type of person to not go to school. I used to get that a lot, the “you’re not the type of person to not go to college, you’re not making the right decision”. But what does that truly mean if you think about it?

Society has this image of people who don’t go to college and or those who decide not to finish their higher education (dropping out) as bums, druggies, and lazy people who have no ambition. That image could not be any farther from the truth!

People decide not to go to college immediately (or ever) or university for many reasons.

In the USA, which is my country of nationality, higher education is extremely expensive and unaffordable for many.

Those funds lead to taking out loans which lead to debt that can take some people decades to pay off. That was a harsh reality that was not at all appealing to me.

I was only 18 having to make a major decision with my life and was not ready to put down tens of thousands of dollars, I mean how many teenagers realistically have that money?

A lot of people, like me, would simply rather travel and experience the world and learn in a setting other than a classroom.

Some people would rather work for themselves as digital nomads! If there is any college that legitimately offers a good entrepreneurship/self employment course I would love to know.

These self management life skills and the information are typically often learned acquired in other places. Whether it may be starting a t-shirt business, creating paintings, selling crochet hats, creating an ebook for vegan cooking recipes, or selling cute handmade stickers, there are millions of entrepreneurs out there without degrees or who are not using their degrees.

I’m not saying college is useless because that is far from the truth. College is a necessary asset for many jobs such as lawyer, engineering, and the medical field; but there are a field of work opportunities and jobs that are possible to obtain without a degree.



I’ve always been afraid of the ‘classic’ 9-5 lifestyle. Getting up to work for someone else with a cloud of debt over my head and a job that doesn’t even pay more than the loans I had to take out for a degree was always terrifying to me.

But the thing more terrifying than that? Not living my life the way I want to. Waking up to work behind a cubicle desk with a 30 minute lunch break, living to work for someone else’s dream.

I wanted to take control of my life and take a risk and... surprise surprise, the risk ended out okay in the end. Not everyone will choose the “traditional” setting or life path, and that is okay!

We are all like butterflies with our own set of unique wings. Some of us have beautiful stripes, and others may have spots.

Nowadays, everything is digital and work experience is preferred over degrees. Higher education is a beautiful thing and I certainly applaud people who decide to increase their knowledge further in a school or university setting ,but a degree is not a guarantee to success.

In the USA, unemployment is a constant issue of the country and many people who were overqualified with degrees were having to unfortunately work at supermarkets due to lack of work in their educational field.

As said before, there are so many ‘jobs’ or work opportunities to make money that do not require higher education. Making money while traveling is possible with freelancing gigs such as website design, virtual assistance, editing, content creation, and so many more..

Money is definitely an important factor, but it is not all that matters when it comes to planning a gap year



The difficulties of planning and not knowing what to do

Deciding not to go to college was hard enough, but people’s negativity and unwanted opinions certainly made it 10x harder for me.

I would always talk to my high school counselors and they never had any advice for me and told me to come back when I knew what school I wanted to go to.

Oftentimes, my nights were filled with crying, shame, self-doubt, and constantly worrying if I was making the wrong decision. Oh, if I could only go back to being 18 year old, give myself a hug and tell me that everything would end up alright.

I knew I wanted to travel, I just didn’t know how to start, how to save up money for travel or knowing the right amount of money I needed. I had no guidance and had to rely on myself.

People’s opinions, including my family, had a hard impact on how I saw myself and the decisions I was making for my future. If I could go back, I would tune everyone out and focus more on myself and personal development. After all, it was my life and these strangers were not living it for me.

Having to ‘grow up sooner’

I remember telling my father about my decision to not continue with higher education and I remember him telling me I would have to grow up 5 years.

At first I didn’t know what he meant but after traveling and experiencing the world on my own outside of highschool, I started to realize what he meant.

My peers would get 4 more years to be a kid and make reckless decisions through the years of college, but I was immediately thrown into the cold world.

I started to work as a waitress in a vegan restaurant and had 30 year olds as my co-workers, it was a stun to see the world from a different point of view.

Although I feel like I had to grow up faster, those sacrifices younger me had to make benefitted me now. I’m 21 with no debt, a savings, and have traveled to about more than 10 countries and I’ve only just started.

Advice for highschoolers: What I would have done if I knew what I know now

Looking back at the habits of teenage me, I cringe at some of the decisions I made and also lack of preparedness for the lifestyle I chose. I’ll share four tips on ways I would have prepared for my gap year back in high school:

  • Stop listening to other people’s opinions, don’t even tell some people the decision to take a gap year. In the end it’ll save a lot of heartache and provide better mental health.
  • Start working from at least junior year (freshman or sophomore could be even better) to save up. By the time you graduate you’ll have enough funds to take off immediately instead of waiting a year to save up like I had to.
  • Write a list of dream countries you want to go to. Scan all the Worldpackers opportunities in those areas (volunteering in exchange for free accommodation) to see which you would prefer. Want to volunteer in a hostel? Or do you prefer a holistic center to work on your spirituality? Take notes on yourself and what you want to do.
  • Start journaling how you feel, even on bad days. Sketch a realistic plan for the first year of the gap you want to plan, including working, a realistic budget, how long you want to travel, where you want to go, and etc.


Saving enough money for traveling

Here’s where we talk about the hard part, the financial aspect of it all. To sum everything up, I had worked for about 8 months making smoothies, serving people food, and taking orders.

I worked for a basic minimum wage and oftentimes went home from work feeling extremely sad and unfulfilled. Even though I didn’t love what I did, I had to make enough money so I could serve my real and true passion of traveling.

I always have no regrets but this is another reason why I wished I had worked a little bit more in highschool, so I didn’t have to wait so long after graduation to start my gap year.

I picked up as many shifts as I could, it wasn't much after all considering I would receive about USD 64 from working an 8 hour shift. I stayed longer whenever it was needed and/or allowed and I was always looking for jobs that paid more; I was extremely determined to reach my goal and would not allow anything to get in my way.

My advice for anyone reading this, is to not give up even when times get hard. A lot of corporate and basic minimum wage jobs treat their employees badly (I would know) but don’t throw in the towel just yet until that financial goal is met.

Having enough money is absolutely key to enjoying a good gap year, even if it's just enough to afford an economy flight and some ramen noodles. 

It's best to set a financial goal. For example, “I’ll work until I have USD 5,000 in my bank account, then I can quit and book that ticket to Bali or Tulum”. It's always important to have goals in life but even more especially when planning and outputting a successful gap year.

I personally told myself I would work from right when I graduated high school in May up until my 19th birthday in January and took off for my personal world tour.

I had about USD 3,000 in my bank account which of course was not a lot, to some people I might have even been considered crazy. But it was enough for me and I knew I had to be as frugal as possible in order to allow my funds and budget to stretch as long as possible.

Another idea may be to pick a country that allows your money to stretch. There have been stories of people island hopping in Southeast Asia for nearly 6 months with a mere $2,000 USD through the insane talent of budgeting.

When I took off I was always looking for ways to save money while traveling if I wasn’t able to make money. Long story short and about 2 years later, I have adapted to a full digital nomadic lifestyle and am still on my technical gap year.

I used my skills, talents, and resources to find ways to make money online independently from working for another person- I wanted to be my own boss. It definitely was more difficult in the beginning but as time went by, more experience was gained.

Keep reading: 12 cheapest places for digital nomads and 14 TOP cheapest countries to visit as a Worldpackers volunteer.



My first domestic trip: Sunny California

Although I am of Caribbean descent, I grew up with my immigrant parents in a small southern suburban town. It was a very quiet lifestyle, not the place for a risk taker or adventure lover.

I was growing bored with life and the perfect white picket fences and wanted a change of scenery but also people. I decided at 18 after a summer of working and saving to take off to another state to test and see if solo travel was for me. Traveling domestically before taking the international leap is a better decision in my opinion, it was a smoother transition for me.

After research, I decided to follow my heart and desire to go to sunny California. The USA is a massive country and the majority of Americans never get the chance to see the country’s entirety.

Out of all the amazing cities California had to offer, I settled on Los Angeles as my first domestic trip.

I traveled to LA by myself for one week and absolutely loved it! Such a different culture from where I grew up, so vibrant and filled with bubbly people.

I stayed at a hostel in Hollywood and met people from all over the world! I got a chance to try so much vegan food I had never seen back in my small hometown and went sightseeing all over the city.

After my week was done, I was ecstatic. I knew solo travel was for me and decided to keep working to pursue my dream to see the world.

Although I paid for a one week stay at a hostel that totaled around USD 250, you can stay in Los Angeles much more affordably with Worldpackers! Help this hostel right by the sunny LA beach in exchange for 25 hours of reception and cleaning help per week.



My first international trip with Worldpackers: Ocho Rios, Jamaica

I didn't discover the amazingness (word only found in the Tiffany dictionary) of Worldpackers until a few weeks before my 19th birthday.

I had booked another domestic trip for a few months in San Francisco, California but I needed a place to go before that trip. After long thoughts, ups and downs, I decided to reconnect to my roots in Jamaica, and Worldpackers allowed me to do just that.

I stayed at a hostel that was a 1 minute walk away from the beach. It was surreal, I felt like I was in paradise! I traded the USA’s harsh winters for sunny days and green coconuts.

In exchange for a free bunk in a co-ed dorm, I managed the social media of the hostel and occasionally helped at the reception desk. It was my first work-exchange experience with Worldpackers and it was simply amazing.

Unfortunately, that same position I had is no longer available on the Worldpackers platform but traveling the Caribbean islands on a budget is totally possible!

There are also so many other volunteering opportunities in Central America & the Caribbean such as helping out in a hostel in Puerto Rico, joining a bed & breakfast in St Kitts and Nevis, or building websites in Saint Lucia (if heading there, check out the St. Lucia travel guide).

What is volunteering/work exchange?

As you’ve been reading along, you have probably noticed my mention of “work-exchange” or “volunteering” many times and wondered what that even is. 

There are many different types of volunteer work. It could be helping out a school, an NGO, or taking things the more traditional way and volunteering in hostel. Worldpackers offers thousands of different opportunities in hundreds of different countries, and it's up to the individual to determine which style suits them the most.

If you still have any more questions, doubts, or fears about volunteering in another country, you can read: Traveling with Worldpackers: your top questions answered.

Perfect volunteering opportunities for a gap year

One thing people that decide to embark on a gap year all have in common is the crave for freedom and love of travel.

There are hundreds of countries and thousands of cultures in the world, it's difficult to simply choose just one destination to travel to and begin the out of classroom experience.

No worries, I’ve got you. Here’s a list of continents to inspire you or at least begin the brainstorming process of a gap year.

Volunteering in Europe

A continent that is so small and quaint yet offers many cultures and languages as well as adventures to the average traveler.

This continent has a reputation for being friendly to solo female travelers and traveling throughout the land is a breeze as they have a transcontinental train system. 



Work exchange in Asia

Asia is another major destination students like to hit up to enjoy their gap year. Not only there are many extremely affordable countries (like the ones in Sotuheast Asia), there is a lot to learn in any of the countries that an individual decides to go to.

Of course there are so many countries in this beautiful continent but we’re going to talk about some popular destinations well known by a multitude of tourists.

Thailand

A country where your money will be sure to stretch a far way and offers many beautiful sights, this is a tourist destination loved by many. Explore and choose from 57 volunteer opportunities in Thailand.

Indonesia

Bali is just one of the thousands of islands in Indonesia. Travelers can help teach English, stay by the beach, or practice their photography and videography skills with the opportunities for volunteering in Indonesia.

India

With over 200 volunteer opportunities to choose from, India is an extremely rewarding and affordable destination waiting for those on a gap year. 

Check out all the volunteering opportunities in India.

South Korea

Whether you want to experience the capital of Seoul or teach English at a strawberry farm, there's a wide range of volunteering opportunities in South Korea.

Want to know more about traveling Asia? These are the cheapest Asian countries.



Volunteering in North America

North America is not just the United States. Of course I’ll talk about some amazing volunteer opportunities to spend a rad gap year in the states, but we can also explore the other options on this beautiful and vast continent.

Hawaii

One of the 50 states of the USA, is nearly everyone’s dream to experience Hawaii at least once, and rightfully so.

We all recognize Hawaii to be a bit more pricey destination but cost significantly goes down when not having to pay rent by work-exchange. It's possible to budget travel in Hawaii during a gap year! 

Discover all the opportunities for volunteering in Hawaii.

USA

The United States is such a wide and vast country that it would take months and maybe even years to truly explore each of the 50 states.

Even though discovering all the beauties of this huge country may not be possible for all travelers, I will highlight a few that are sure to leave its mark on the heart.

California is a state that many foreigners and citizens flock to in search of cultural exchange and sunny weather. It's a super chill place to meet new people and experience a laid back lifestyle. To do so without breaking your bank account, you can be part of one of the volunteering positions in California.

New York City definitely has hustle and bustle vibes but is such a diverse and rewarding place to be. NYC is definitely one of the more expensive states in the USA but is made a lot more affordable through work-exchange in New York. Plus, these are the Cheapest places to live in New York.

If snow is your thing then Alaska is definitely for you. A state that's super cold and distant, the government pays people to move there, has a lot of gorgeous nature to get lost in within a gap year. Bring a coat and enjoy volunteeringin Alaska.

Interested in more work-exchange opportunities? Check all the volunteering positions in the USA.

Canada

Live the hostel life at this Canadian longboarding hostel in Victoria county. 

Enjoy Shawnigan Lake on your days off from agricultural and animal care duties. 

Enjoy the fast paced city of Montreal at this fun rooftop hostel in downtown. 

There are many more volunteering positions in Canada to choose from.

Mexico

Experience mountain living at this hostel in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. 

Be a part of one of the largest cities in North America, Ciudad de México. Volunteer at a hostel and learn about the historical culture of the famous Mexico City. 

Get a full on cultural exchange by volunteering in the beautiful western state of Oaxaca. 



Volunteering in the Caribbean/Central America

Whether you want to relax by Drake’s Bay, soak up the sun by the Caribbean sea or look for sloths in La Fortuna, Costa Rica offers many posibilities for volunteering!

A USA territory with its own national identity, Puerto Rico has stolen the hearts of many. Enjoy living by the beach or practicing agriculture on the mountainside by volunteering in Puerto Rico.

Soak in the beauty of Lake Atitlan while learning how to (or practicing) speak Spanish during a Guatemalan work-exchange experience.

There are hundreds of work-exchange programs in Central America.



Volunteering in South America

A continent known for the Andes mountaing range, empanadas, and cute alpacas, South America is a spot where tourists and students taking a gap year typically flock to.

Their economy allows for stronger currencies such as the US dollar or European Euro to stretch far making for a more lengthy gap year.

See the historical and jaw-dropping Machu Picchu and have a volunteer experience in a hostel while learning about the history and culture of the Incas.

Climb the snowy mountains of Patagonia in Argentina while volunteering in Bariloche

Take a picture by the equator or see the Amazon rainforest by volunteering in Ecuador

Besides what we have seen, there are also volunteering positions in Africa, Oceania and Middle East waiting for proactive travellers.



My decision of traveling the world: Overall lessons learned

Still with me? After going on the journey of the ups and downs, ins and outs of my decision to not continue with higher education, the best piece of advice I can offer is to follow your heart.

If I didn’t trust my gut and how I felt, I would probably be miserable as I would be living a life controlled by someone else. For anyone of any walk or phase of life, find a way to do what you love and you’ll see how much happier you become. 



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