I graduated with a degree in undecided
In August of 2009 I set out from Oregon on an unknowable journey. They’d given me a bachelor’s degree, and with it I knew that I didn’t know nearly enough to make significant decisions about where I wanted to live, what I wanted to do or even who I wanted to be. To this day I wonder if in the United States certain processes of higher education are not misguided–I was told time after time that ‘being undecided’ was OK. Sure, I chose my majors, but in the end I graduated with a very stark feeling of “what the hell did I just do?”
Maybe some of the other full-time students were glad to transfer into full-time jobs. But not me. I became a full-time traveler.
4 years later, after vagabonding throughout Latin America, and after trying to crew sailboats across the Pacific Ocean, I finally landed back in Lima, Peru, where I was happily sedentary. It’d be the first time I’d be in one place for longer than 3 months.
Fast-forward 7 months and I was back in the states. Another 3 months. Now I’m a full-time student, again. I’m in Barcelona, studying a master’s degree.
What the hell did I just do?
Well, I won’t go into details about that, but you can find out in Why I decided to study in Spain.
This article is meant to describe, I suppose, the feeling of going from utterly free vagabond to utterly broke, immovable student.
The university of the road
It’s common to hear stories about vagabonds, and to hear that their university is the road. I’ve heard it said over and over again, and I’ve uttered the words myself. Let me tell you what they mean by “university of the road.”
Imagine a classroom. What’s in a classroom? If you went to a typical US college, then you’ll agree that a classroom is filled with new people. Young people, expect for a few “non-traditional” students. But mostly there are only new, young people. Regardless of their individual life experiences, many of them have not seen the borders of their constructed worlds–those worlds that they’ve come to understand through their own idiosyncratic experience of life and the information poured into their minds by parents and teachers.
Now, enter the classroom an academic. This person is full of knowledge in some field, and it is his job to disseminate this knowledge to the new people (our full-time students) in order to prepare them for a profession. Whether or not this person has broken free from the academic box is irrelevant for the students present, because he will most likely not discuss those aspects of his experience. If he can, and if he does, he is a better teacher because he will be teaching not only for the profession but for life in general.
What happens in a classroom is a unilateral dissemination of information. It is unilateral because of the direction of knowledge (teacher to student), and it is unilateral in the singular context of the learning environment (be it white walls, burgundy curtains or a lecture hall of 500 chairs). Given, some professors know how to create a more interactive experience, wherein the new people share their own experiences thereby enriching the process of knowledge acquisition. But the truth is that University is limited by its own physical borders.
When someone says that they prefer the university of the road, they are talking about the limitless possibilities of experiences that the road brings. There are no walls. In university, your education is only as good as your imagination will allow. On the road, your imagination gets help from the diversity of life before your eyes. University tells you about life, but on the road you can live it.
Why is the road a better teacher than university itself? Well, it’s not. And here’s why.
The university of the road is a subjective experience because a traveler will only learn as much as he wants. If you travel with a closed mind you are a soaked sponge, unable to absorb any more. It all depends on the kind of travel.
I can conceptualize travel in many ways. Maybe I’m a trust fund baby with an inclining to visit Paris for the weekend. Or perhaps I’m a gap year student on the road to stay at hostels and get hammered. Maybe I’m a drone worker and have a two week vacation, so I bundle my travel guide, traveler’s checks and hand sanitizer and sign up for some all-inclusive safari expedition. I’m a travel blogger looking for an angle. I’m a photographer with a grant. I’m a vagabond.
The trick is this: it doesn’t matter how you travel as long as you recognize the tendencies of certain kinds of travel to pre-condition your mind to not be receptive. If you travel with goals and plans, it is harder to see the life in front of your eyes, especially if those goals and plans are superficial. What I’m trying to say is that looking forward to getting drunk at the Peruvian hostel with other Western travelers is a great way to waste your exposure. I would challenge you to be unconventional.
How a full-time traveler might see the world
I was a traveler for years of my life, but only after already experiencing college. So now that I’m once more a full-time student, I can tell you with certainty that it is harder to return to school than it is to the road.
At least in my small life. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a difficult shift if I had traveled for longer, and if I had reached that point where I felt that I should stop. But I only stopped because the practical part of my mind still holds sway. There are things that are holding Mayra and I back from the total freedom that the road can offer–and until we can rid ourselves of these burdens, the road would never be for me like it once was. So this is a means to a beginning. I still want to hike onto the Asian content beside her.
So let me be frank. How did I see the world as a full-time traveler?
There were no boundaries.
National borders are lines on a map, and though they remain lines on a map, I’m now beholden to them. As a traveler, borders are porous, regardless of the processes that you must go through in order to make them so. Borders represent new chapters, and you see them often. I remember sneaking into Paraguay, or dashing across the southern Mexican border without giving much thought to stamps.
Visas were trivial.
I can only speak for Americans, since every nationality must endure varying restrictions in each country. Visas, and however much they cost, were trivial. They were simply a reality that I recognized with passive interest. I want to see them that way still. But now, as a full-time student I had to go through the process of getting the Spanish student visa. I had to buy health insurance. I had to apply for the NIE once I arrived here. Basically, I had to recognize how controlled this world is. And this is the same kind of process many go through just to get tourist visas (those that I have the luxury of calling trivial).
Time was trivial.
Time had no limitations for me on the road. The university of life and the road depends greatly on relinquishing any idea of appointment and time. You cannot be in a rush. You cannot plan for time. I went with the flow in a very pure sense of the expression, and I loved it. Now as a student again, I see time fly like never before. The days are spent in books and working on projects. I see Mondays, and I look forward to the weekend. A full-time traveler lives in a blank calendar, except for when he wants to be somewhere for a cultural event of some kind, or if the seasons will affect his decision-making. Time was trivial and it was incredibly freeing. Now, I see time as clearly as I hear the ticking of a clock.
I could go anywhere.
A traveler sees the world as accessible. He is not beholden to obligations of space, just as he is not beholden to a time-is-money conceptualization of time. Even if I’m talking about within a single country, a traveler will be free to decide to leave and go north, and he is just as free to decide to stay on a little longer. I could go anywhere. Now as a student I must recognize vacations, when I don’t have classes. These are my free days, and I can’t just go anywhere.
I had few routines.
Routine is time’s treadmill, and the more routine you have, the quicker time jumps into step. A full-time traveler sees incredible increase in routine when he returns to the conventional world. In my case, of course. Becoming a full-time student means adopting a routine; otherwise, I risk failing and not attaining that thing that I’ve decided to be so important for some situations: a higher degree. On the road, the routine is the tent, the food, the walking. When a routine is malleable, which in the traveler’s case is true, then the possibility of life grows exponentially. Here, I have a schedule.
Everyone could be in my story.
One of the most important aspects of travel is the possibility to bring anyone into your life. In our cocoons of sedentary life we are comfortable with what we have–and I’m no exception to this, despite my experience on the road. Despite that experience, I can still happily neglect the possibilities that strangers might offer. I’m less receptive to new encounters. Maybe it has more to do with my personality than with the shift from travel to student–but I do see at least some correlation. On the road, I interact with more people, and with each interaction, I have a completely open disposition that would allow them (or even draw them in) to be a part of my life in some way.
So why am I now a full-time student?
Like I say, you can read about it here. Also, this decision will help me get back to the road in a much more comfortable way than I had been. I was not traveling truthfully because my mind was on a girl. I’m with that girl. In order to take her with me, we need to free her from constraints, and having masters degrees will help to cut the time it will take in half.
Life as a full-time student is not better or worse than the life of a traveler. What you can learn in one is wholly different from what you learn in the other. But I’ll say it. Something, somehow, makes me adamant that traveling with a truly open mind is worth years of schooling. If you have traveled heavily in your life, then you know. But can you explain it?