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Life after high school: Bachelor’s or boarding passes?

November 27, 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Lauri Corlett

It’s that time of year again. It’s time for senior students to start thinking about life after high school. University and college applications are due and students are patiently waiting to hear back from all of the institutions that they’ve dreamt about since they were young children. It’s undoubtedly an exciting time, but for many it’s also stressful and a time of self discovery.

With barely any experience in the workforce and minimal life experience, students are expected to choose a career path for what will essentially be the rest of their lives. I remember being in the same position not long ago. I would attend seminars and campus tours for universities across Canada, each representative providing me with an extensive list of reasons why I should attend that specific school.

I considered attending college for aviation or culinary studies, but having been an honours student my entire life and given the stigmas surrounding the education system, I felt obligated to receive a university education.

With the intent of completing a PhD, I had no time to waste. I commenced my studies at Western University at age 17, taking no time off after high school. Refusing to prolong my undergraduate career by taking a fifth year, I increased my course load each semester throughout all four years of my degree. I enrolled in courses for three of the four summers that I spent at university to accelerate the completion of my modules. After four torturous years, I graduated from Western University at age 21 with a Bachelor’s of Science, having completed an honours specialization in geology and a major in environmental science.

After graduating, I applied to various master’s programs and was offered three Master’s of Science projects, all fully funded by the federal government.

Exhausted from my undergraduate studies, it wasn’t until this moment that I asked myself if I needed a break from schooling. I began to question why I was in such a rush. More importantly, I began to question what I was rushing towards. Did I really want a stable career by age 25 with a standard 9-5 that I most likely wouldn’t enjoy? The path that I once dreamt of started to seem like a path to mediocrity. So I did what any young, recent university graduate would do. I booked a multi-month backpacking trip to Africa, using my student loans of course.

Terrified of what my family would think of putting myself into further debt, I didn’t tell anyone about my trip until the week of my departure (not recommended behaviour). To my surprise, my family was completely supportive of my decision. My mom told me that it’s important to travel while you’re young, before you settle into a career and start a family.

The preparation for my first backpacking trip wasn’t easy. My vaccinations cost upwards of $1,000 and my travel supplies were similar in cost. My destinations included France, Madagascar, Seychelles and South Africa. With Madagascar being the ninth poorest country in the world, I had to prepare myself for solo travel without cell phones, power outlets, internet or reliable transportation. Needless to say, I’m glad I did.

I registered for a forest conservation program on Nosy Komba island with the cheapest volunteer program I could find, IVHQ.

Appalled by the $900 additional cost to fly directly to the volunteer camp, I chose to take an overland bus from the capital, Antananarivo. “Bus” would be a generous way to describe this method of transportation. Twenty-three people were crammed into a fourteen seat van, along with two chickens. Most of the seats were made of wood and you were fortunate if you were given a seat with a seatbelt.

The commute was 32 hours and most roads were made of dirt with 100-metre drop-offs, but no guard rails. I was the only foreigner on my bus and the only person who spoke English.

The first evening, I tried to order a plate of sautéed vegetables and ended up with a plate of spaghetti. Upon entering the local bathroom, I didn’t find a porcelain flush toilet, but a dirt hole. The restroom facilities only improved throughout the duration of my trip. The second bathroom consisted of a jerry can placed behind a curtain, while the third was simply two bricks on a cement floor, which you were meant to stand on.

The bus only took me to a port, at which point I had to find a boat to take me to Hellville and then find a connecting boat to the island. Most of the boats were canoes with motors attached to the rear that had been constructed by Malagasy people.

With no internet and no cell phone, the only way I could arrange a boat was by flagging down a local who appeared to have a vessel. Using my knowledge from television and books, I knew that I should try to negotiate a cheaper fare. In Madagascar, there was no such thing as a schedule. The day started when the sun rose and ended when it set, everything between was chaotic and unscheduled.

“Mora mora” was a common Malagasy phrase used by the locals. The literal translation is “slowly slowly,” but it really just means that you need to be patient because your boat might arrive three hours later than expected. Arriving at camp, I was surrounded by sixty other nature enthusiasts and humanitarians (none of whom took the bus). Most people were of similar age, however, there were people at camp who were upwards of seventy years old.

My accommodation for the next two months was a small hut made from palm tree leaves and bamboo. My second night at camp, I was fortunate enough to find three Madagascar hissing cockroaches in my bed. From then on, I learned to close the window. Camp had no electricity and you could never expect a hot shower. Our meals were scheduled and the food was rationed to accommodate the large number of volunteers.

Breakfast was a baguette with jam, whereas dinner always consisted of rice and beans. Traveling has definitely made me appreciate new foods, but admittedly, it has also made me despise some.

Over the course of my volunteering, I made friends from all over the world. I dined with locals in their homes, swam with my first sea turtle, snorkelled with whale sharks, drank my first 1 L beer, saw my first pineapple plant, photographed lemurs jumping from treetops onto my shoulders, ate a banana straight from the tree and watched countless sunsets over the Indian Ocean.

Many people would have considered the living conditions to be squalid and I imagine this particular trip would be unappealing to most, but to me, it was perfect.

After volunteering, I explored northern, central and western Madagascar with two friends that I made at camp. I ventured down the world-renowned Avenue of Baobabs, strolled through the grey and red tsingy of Ankarana National Park and camped on the ocean shoreline at Lokobe National Park. This trip did exactly what my family feared it would— it jarred me and woke me from my complacent state of mind.

After this experience, my decisions were no longer based on career development and pursuing a degree in higher education, but rather based on pursuing happiness. I visited tourist attractions and well-known monuments on my trip to Africa and Europe, including the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town. This is where the first South African president and venerable anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 of his 27 years.

I went cage diving with great white sharks in Gansbaai, South Africa and completed my first scuba dive in the ocean waters surrounding Mahé Island, Seychelles. After returning to Ontario, I decided to move to Whistler, British Columbia, stopping throughout all of Canada on the way. I spent ten months living in Whistler, where every week included a backcountry trip into the alpine, whether it was on foot or on a snowboard. I climbed dozens of mountains, including the well-known Black Tusk, Wedge Mountain and Panorama Ridge. I hiked the entire Howe Sound Crest Trail and tried surfing for the first time in Tofino on Vancouver Island.

In April 2017, I embarked on another two month adventure to South America with an Australian that I had met in Whistler. We traveled to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, stopping in Mexico on the way. Similar to Africa, language barriers were always present and there was an undeniable culture shock in certain communities. I completed a four day trek to Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the world…

The trek included fifty kilometres of hiking, six ziplines, white water rafting and sixty kilometres of downhill mountain biking. I participated in the morning stair climb to the Machu Picchu ruins, which only 200 out of 3000 daily visitors complete. I then proceeded to climb Machu Picchu Mountain itself, which only 100 out of 3000 daily visitors attempt.

While in Peru, I visited the famous Rainbow Mountain in the Andes, hiking to an elevation of 5200 metres above sea level. I swam with sea lions in the Galápagos Islands and visited the salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia.

I recently returned to Ontario and explored much of the United States along the way. I watched Old Faithful erupt in Yellowstone National Park and I stood beneath the monumental Mount Rushmore.

On November 27th, 2017, I will be traveling to Australia on a one year working holiday visa— my biggest adventure yet. While overseas, I plan to participate in more volunteer programs in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, as well as complete a solo backpacking loop throughout Southeast Asia and New Zealand.

My friends and family have always told me to create a blog and share my travel experiences, but I’ve never felt inclined to do so until now. This is primarily because I have come to realize that there are many misconceptions about traveling. The most common misconception is that it’s easy. Other misconceptions are that you need to be wealthy to travel extensively and that you cannot travel alone, especially as a young woman.

Several times a week I have people tell me that they are envious of my lifestyle and wish that they could do what I am doing. Admittedly, I can become irritated when I hear these comments because there are very few obstacles facing others that I have not overcome myself. I want others to understand that traveling is attainable, but also that it does not come without sacrifices.

In Whistler, I moved five times in ten months because of the housing shortage. I spent weeks at a time living out of my 1999 Toyota Tercel because I could not afford the outrageous rent prices after funding my travels. I am often working menial jobs for minimum wage and have always had at least two jobs since graduating. Most of my work weeks are sixty hours long and even then, I am always in debt when I return from backpacking.

I have gone nearly a year without seeing my family and friends and a lot of my relationships from back home have been tested. I’ve missed family celebrations and holidays, births and even my own university graduation. Traveling requires you to constantly rebuild your friend group and involves frequent, difficult goodbyes.

Maintaining a relationship sometimes seems impossible because you are constantly moving and have an insatiable desire for adventure that is seldom possessed by others.

As a solo woman in her twenties, I have inevitably been in uncomfortable situations. On many occasions, I have been scared and my only wish has been to return to the comfort and familiarity of home. I have declined entry-level jobs within my field of study and have rejected academic opportunities that would undoubtedly help shape my career. I have been subjected to judgment and scrutiny by my relatives and peers, many of whom tell me that I am not setting myself up for a prosperous future or using my education to my advantage.

No, backpacking is not easy. But despite all of these things, I would not change anything about these past two years because they have been the best of my life.

In the past 14 months, I have made friends from nearly every continent in the world and have been inspired by every single person that I have met abroad. I have gained countless new perspectives from experiencing different cultures. I’ve learned about religion, history, biology, environmental sciences and geography by experiencing it first-hand. I’ve improved my communication and interpersonal skills, while learning new languages. I have become very independent and have learned how to handle myself in stressful and uncomfortable situations. I have gotten certifications that I could have never received in Ontario, all of which will benefit me in the future with respect to career development. I have built relationships with people in different fields around the world, which will be vital in regards to networking when I become a working professional.

The stories I could share about my travels are endless. I could fill this entire paper talking about my time abroad, but there are no words that will ever recreate any of the experiences that I’ve had. Traveling imparts people with life experience, but also teaches infinite lessons that cannot be taught within the walls of a classroom. I have learned more in the past fourteen months abroad than I ever did in a lecture hall.

Most people perceive traveling as a way of postponing adulthood and escaping the ubiquitous lifestyle that often accompanies it. I cannot stress how false this assumption is. Traveling can play a crucial role in building both your character and your resumé.

The purpose of this article is not to deter students from obtaining higher education or discourage any particular type of lifestyle. I intend on returning to school to complete a Master’s of Science at the University of Victoria in May, 2019. The purpose of this article is to remind young adolescents, such as myself, that it is acceptable to strive for something beyond the norm. It is appropriate to have a different concept of prosperity and happiness in comparison to others.

To all of the students in a quandary, who are feeling ambivalent in regards to post-secondary education, remind yourself that you are young. Remind yourself that the world is also your classroom and that this is merely the beginning of the rest of your life. Success is not to be measured by your academic credentials or bank account statements, but rather by the ability to reflect on your life and be proud of your accomplishments, whatever they may be and however insignificant they might seem to others.

Decisions are not to be made with the intent of satisfying the expectations of others. Margaret Young once wrote, “Often people attempt to live their lives backwards, they try to have more things and more money in order to do more of what they want so they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need in order to have what you want.”

It is far easier to settle in life than it is to leave our comfort zones. These times might be stressful and confusing, but they can also be the best times of your life.

Follow my adventures on instagram @lauricorlett or visit www.instagram.com/lauricorlett



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