I finished the second semester of my first year of college a few weeks ago, and I must admit it feels SO great to be done.
About a year ago I was beginning a many months journey of living in Eastern Europe and that June I found myself in Bulgaria once again contemplating the idea of going to school. Yes school, school. Like with textbooks and tests and assignments and stress and homework. It seemed like a fabulous idea to me, although many might wonder why any teenager in their right mind would CHOOSE to have a mountain of stress and homework to add to their daily routine. But here’s the thing, I was/am a worldschooler, which means that for the year and a half before my decision to go to university I had been making all my own educational decisions, taking in lots of magical cultural goodness, and probably doing exponentially less homework than your average 16-year-old. I like to call that year my “gap-year” because my personal feeling was that despite learning every day (as humans tend to do naturally regardless of the situation), I didn’t have very much to show for myself.
Anything tangible at least… because deep down I definitely believe that my experiences will serve me better than my shiny college transcript.
Still, I think most people reading this will agree that we live in a world where having a college education is the norm. It’s hard to find a job nowadays that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree at the very least. And as I’ve learned from 2+ years of world-travelling, going against the norm is not the easiest path in the slightest. I made the decision that college was something I wanted to do and applied to Front Range, a community college in Colorado, the last state where I lived in the US.
(For my Non-Americano readers, a community college is a 2-year school where the exact same classes are taught as those in the first years of a normal university, but with an added perk: they won’t put you into lifelong debt!! Read on…)
Front Range costs about $300 a credit, with the average class being 3-4 credits. For my last semester, my grant total in tuition cost was $4,460.00 including textbooks and fees. I took 4 classes. Quite a lot of money… but luckily I and thousands of other Americans qualify for what is called Financial Aid. This is a special parental-income based grant that the US government pays out to students in need. So yes, the US government does help out a little with paying for college (THANKS!). However, there is a catch. Unless you were lucky enough to be awarded an exceptional scholarship (or go to a community college), it’s highly unlikely your tuition is less than the maximum $5,000 dollars per semester that the US government gives out. According to the College Board in 2017, the average cost of a public university of in-state students is $9,000 (excluding required dorm housing, food, textbooks, and transportation). For out-of-state students, this number doubles. And for a private school the average tuition (once again, just for classes) is $32,000.
Comparatively speaking, my $4,000 are mere pennies, and I take online classes and live at home which means I don’t have to worry about lodging and food. And here I should mention that the extra 100s of dollars leftover after my tuition is paid actually go into my bank account, so each semester I get paid to go to school.
So there you have it, the first hurdle of my college experience was paying for school. Had I not been able to have my education completely paid for I’m not sure I would have been able to attend. I definitely didn’t have that type of money in my account at 16, and pulling out student loans didn’t feel like a great way to spring myself into adulthood.
The second challenge was getting into this school, with the added struggle of living 1,000 miles away as a minor with no high-school diploma. The second element ended up being pretty easy. All I had to do to prove I was ready for university was take a test called the Accuplacer remotely proctored in Sofia, Bulgaria. It accessed that my math and English skills were up to par and just like that I could enroll in English composition 1 and algebra. My parents had to sign a permission slip because I was still a minor and I became a college student!
(Side note: Interesting tidbit about the American higher education system is that it’s a lot like our high school. The first two years you take the same core classes as everyone else (English, Communications, Math, Science, and History) and only during the second two years do you really begin to take the classes that apply to your chosen major. This is why it really doesn’t matter if you go to a community college for two years, because when you transfer to a fancy four-year school like UC Berkeley or MIT and take the classes that really matter that school will be the one awarding you your finished degree.)
My first semester I took lots of boring classes and in all honesty didn’t learn much (or anything??). Most of school was completing the required discussions and assignments and quizzes by the deadline. Despite not learning anything, I worked A LOT. I had papers due all the time, and math homework took me ages to complete. But lucky for me and unlike most college students, I did all these things from the comfort of my bed in Bulgaria… and Bosnia, and Croatia, and Serbia. School was at times a drag, but I liked the structure and feeling that I was accomplishing something.
What I really learned during that time? Eastern Europe is unlike any other place in the world. Goats milk is an acquired taste… Each country has its own history, its own hardships, and its own triumphs. The scars on these lands from many years of Yugoslav wars are still fresh, but healing slowly with time. Each family was touched by it in some way, and each country has their own perspective as to how the war started, who took the most… and who took the least. There are still active minefields, you’ll probably never find yourself in one, but they are there. Bread is a food group, and cherries never tasted so good in my entire life.
By the time I had finally gotten into the groove with school, my term projects were due, exams were taken, and I was choosing my courses for the Spring 2018 semester which I was to start while living on my own in Spain as an Au Pair.
This time around I decided I would take 8-week classes, giving me a huge break in between semesters to enjoy Spain and have lots of free time. I took English II, political science, geography, and post-16th-century world history. The class I thought I’d like the most, political science, I liked the least, and the class I thought would be an easy-A, geography, ended up being super fun and interesting. I loved all my term projects, especially a 15-page semester-long project on the fashion export industry in Bangladesh that I wrote for English class.
I started all these classes about halfway into my time in Spain and it went pretty well! I learned to juggle my social life, 6 hours I spent working with my host kids and 2-3 more spent freelance teaching with hours upon hours of school work. I stayed up very late most nights but nonetheless made honor-roll, learned Spanish, and had an amazing experience I think I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Cafe con leche probably saved my life during these months!!
As I was entering the last month of classes I reunited with my family, did a workaway in France (which could be its own blog post), and flew back to America. April and May were two months of road tripping around the country. I wrote papers from highway rest-stops and Mcdonalds and even visitor centers at national parks. Then we had bonfires in the desert, hiked to the top of mountains in Utah, and drove for hours and hours through some of the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen.
Now I’m on a break until the end of October, where I’ll be able to study once again with the background noise of Spanish conversation on the Canary Islands.
My university experience right now is very different from that of the average student, but I love it. People have asked me a few times if I feel like I’m missing out on the “typical college student life” and my honest answer has always been in line with what I used to say about missing out on high school. The things I sacrifice are a choice, and I love what I gain from living unconventionally. I’m not sure I could even handle staying 4 years at one school. I love meeting new people all the time and being in new places, so I don’t mind the instability so much. Maybe that will change around my 3rd or 4th year of
school, but right now I’m really happy.
This year I’ve learned to get the most out of my new conventional education within my unconventional life. I’ve eliminated any remains of my subconscious fear that being a worldschooler would make higher education impossible, and now the future looks pretty exciting too. I’ve got lots of passion projects to complete this summer, finally found the excess energy to read again, and am moving to another continent in a few months!
Thanks for reading as always and happy travels! xx -Izabel
Published 28.6.18 from Boulder, Colorado, USA