Ever since I was a kid, I always had my life planned out. I loved education. Anything that I was taught, I soaked in like a sponge. There was never any doubt in mind that I would go to university and study for a degree. I knew how life worked. You studied hard in school to get into a good university. You graduated from university, to get a good job. With this job, you earned decent money which would buy you a big house in a nice area. Queue marriage, children, Mediterranean cruises and retirement. Life mission complete.
I fell for this, hook, line, and sinker.
I graduated with my upper second class honours degree in 2012. I remember sitting in a crowd of my fellow students, counting down the names until my own was read out. As I walked towards the stage, my only thought was, ’please don’t let me fall over in these heels’. And that was that. This was the moment everything in my life had been leading up to and all I could think about were my bloody shoes.
After leaving university, I became quickly aware that life isn’t as simple as I had been led to believe. There was no walking into the job of my dreams, no big house and no London wage. It could be argued that there were several reasons for this, my socio-economic status, my experience, the competition…the list goes on. Looking back, one major problem was that I never really knew what it was that I wanted to do. Naturally, I’d thought about it; it is impossible to go through the British education system without being regularly reminded that your current choices will affect the rest of your life. The thing is, having spent pretty much all of my time in education with just a few part-time jobs alongside, I had no real experience in anything, least of all life.
So what happened next?
When people ask me what the 3 best things I’ve done in my life are, I tell them:
- Going to University
- Moving to China for a year
- Going backpacking for the first time
This is my list so far, though these milestones are not necessarily valued in that order. For me personally, university was the place that I first started to discover who I am. It gave me not only a degree but the confidence to be myself. But what should I have got out of it? University was meant to be the first step towards the ultimate goals: financial stability and career prosperity. However, with tuition fees now at an all-time high and degrees being widely distributed, gone are the days where there was a clear path to success.
After finishing education, there was no way I could afford to live on my own. This meant I had no choice but to return to the nest that I thought I’d flocked for good. I took the first job I could get, working as part of a production line in a factory. As I worked, I applied for an endless stream of graduate jobs, none of which were successful. Whilst higher education developed my academic skills and helped me grow into a capable young woman, I ultimately disappeared into the ever-growing pool of graduates.
After a few months of factory work, I managed to secure a teaching position in Wuhan, China. (It is important to mention here that whilst at this time you didn’t need a degree to teach in China, the whole process was made a lot easier for me as I did have one.) This meant I was able to move into my own shared apartment abroad and start managing my own money. This experience forced me to acquire far more adult life skills than I would have ever gained living in my Mum’s house.
Living and working in China gave me the chance to try a career I would’ve never had the opportunity to sample at home (not without a lot of money and a PGCE at least) and the skills I developed in this work have proven to be invaluable. For anyone who struggles with public speaking, I would highly recommend you try your hand at a bit of teaching! Adapting to a new culture was also a massive learning curve for me. Dealing with a whole manner of culinary surprises (cough, horse tendon, cough) as well as the etiquette rules caused me to make lots of mistakes which whilst embarrassing at the time, taught me so much in the long run.
After my first taste of expat life, I couldn’t wait to get back out on the road again and have travelled at every available opportunity since. Obviously, not everyone wants to lead a nomadic lifestyle but any kind of travel is crucial in allowing us to broaden our minds and challenge our preconceptions.
So should we bin off uni for travel?
My personal opinion is no. Maybe a degree won’t guarantee you a well-paying job as it once did, but the university experience will enable you to grow and develop both personally and professionally. For me, it could be argued that working in China was the catalyst in sparking my travel passion. However, I think it is too simplistic to attribute this solely to my Chinese experience. Realistically, without university, I may never have developed the confidence that I needed to bite the bullet and step out into the unknown.
I can honestly say that the opportunities I have had through travel have been some of my most defining moments. Travel has taught me that education is all around us, it is in the people we meet, the things that we see and the experiences we have. It teaches us how to relate to others, develops our compassion and helps us find our calling. Whilst travelling isn’t always full of Instagram sunsets and postcard beaches, even the bad experiences will prove their worth. Through my travels, I have had the privilege of learning from the best teacher there is – the world.
Regardless of the path that you end up following, it is important to remember that you don’t necessarily need to choose between travel and university. These two things are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately, if you keep an open mind when it comes to all kinds of education, you are sure to get the best of both worlds.
What are your thoughts on education and travel? How have your travels affected your life?
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