I graduated high school and did everything the “right” way. I filed my FASFA; I applied for scholarships; I pulled out loans. I spent two years as a full-time student, fumbling and stumbling my way through confusing exams, never-ending essays and all-nighters spent studying or crying.
I worked during that time too, anywhere from 30–42 hours a week. Despite the long hours, the free time I never had, and the dark circles that became a permanent part of my aesthetic, I only stopped long enough to indulge in a fantasy-like week of Spring Break, something every college student hopes for.
I almost never stopped studying and I never stopped working.
When I finished my associate’s degree and proved to myself that I really could do two things at once, I came to realize two years had passed me by, yet I had seen nothing but the inside of classrooms, coffee shops and restaurants.
I listened to countless lectures and I could repeat random facts of information. I knew the smell of espresso and the exact pitch the steamer would reach when the milk hit the perfect temperature. I could predict just when and where the usual customers would sit when they came in for their Saturday coffee.
Besides that, I had seen, heard and learned very little else.
Although I had been working and saving the last two years, I lived like I was a poor college student. Despite the amount of money I had, I spent very little of it (which came in handy since I am now truly living like that). I learned there was a difference between want and need, and if it wasn’t necessary to my survival or my happiness, I never gave it a second thought.
But then I quit my jobs, said goodbye to my income and spent my summer traveling.
Over the three months of my summer, I visited 17 different states. I followed the footsteps Confederate and Union soldiers had once taken in the streets of downtown Gettysburg. I tried authentic gumbo and visited old plantations in muggy Atlanta. I set my eyes on the green of the Pacific Northwest and experienced the famous coffee of Portland.
I watched the endless thunderstorms roll through the corn fields of Nebraska. I brought the sin to Las Vegas. I rescued jellies on the beaches of Santa Cruz, and I learned first-hand just how terrible the inflation of San Francisco really is.
I returned from my trip broke and jobless, but the things I experienced I could never have learned from my textbooks, my coffee shop or my restaurant.
Traveling not only opens you up to new places, new people and new outlooks on life, it teaches you lessons about yourself (and the world). Once you begin to see what else the world has to offer, your worldview changes forever.
This is the best way to discover that no matter where you are in this world, there are going to be good and bad people everywhere. Traveling tests your people skills and your bravery in more ways than one when every familiarity is suddenly challenged by a new area, a new culture and new people.
Because of that, wherever you go, you have the opportunity to connect with the best of the best, and it’s eye-opening to realize no matter where you go, you never escape the worst of the worst.
Wherever traveling takes you, no matter who you meet and no matter what you see, you’ll realize that a lot of people have it a lot worse than you. Poverty and homelessness go much deeper than the old man begging for money on a corner. Seeing the world makes you see the real struggles happening to other populations that you had never even thought about before.
Traveling allows you to see all types of people in the world and you quickly realize that everyone is chasing everything they desire. Before you know it, traveling teaches you to understand strangers.
The things you experience while traveling will become more meaningful than you could imagine. You gain a deeper appreciation for the world each time you travel and you realize how much beauty really can be found anywhere.
It is true that college students have loans to pay, instant ramen to buy and textbooks that cost hundreds of dollars. But no matter your financial situation, no matter how “broke” traveling may make you, you should travel whenever you have the chance. And you should travel often.
Some things are priceless: No matter how many hours are spent in lectures, how much research is put into an essay, and no matter who you meet during your workweek, there is no greater teacher than the world itself.
You’ll never be able to experience all it has to offer stuck in your dorm or behind a counter.