Notes On The Lessons Learned From Ditching University For Travel

University party

Who’s to say where the wind will take you
Who’s to say what it is will break you
I don’t know
Where the wind will blow

Who’s to know when the time has come around
I don’t want to see you cry
I know that this is not goodbye

Kite U2

Firstly I’d like to proclaim a happy graduation to all of my friends, especially to Adrian and Beth, two beautiful souls who have achieved so much in the last three years.

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I intended to write something to show what I’ve learnt so far from ditching the conventional and working abroad. As some of you know, I left university. The first time was near the end of 1st year, shortly after I turned 19, where I flew to Vietnam and missed my final exams. The second (and final) time was in 1st year again, just 5 months into a new BA.

Me and university just don’t mix. I adore learning- hence why I’m a teacher albeit of TEFL. I respect higher education, really I do. I want my younger siblings to attend the best uni’s, to get the best grades, to be the best they can be. But me?

During my time at university I almost always felt unfulfilled. There was only one time during a Social Psychology project in which I finally felt some meaning: I was to observe some social human interaction of my choice and write a report about it. I decided to write about the social nature of busking, in particular of street musicians. I looked at the norms surrounding it, the “rules”, I read and read and read every day and through the night until my eyes hurt. I got a first. Above 80%- publishable standards. And that’s just it. The grade scribbled on the cover sheet stapled to my project meant absolutely nothing to me. And that’s when I knew.

I had a yearning, no more than that; a burning, lustful, hunger that ached deep inside that couldn’t be ignored for three long, monotonous years. The world of surprise, unpredictable adventure was out there and I had to have it.

My time in Vietnam, Italy and Maldives have given me 12 months of living and working abroad, which is roughly the same as my time needlessly squandered away at university. Ideally this post would come after having spent 3 years abroad (the same time span as the average degree) but since all around me everyone I hold dear are graduating and I’m insanely jealous, I felt an urge to reflect on what I’ve learnt and whether I made the right choices.

I’m extremely proud of my friends, old and new, dressed in their black gowns and silly hats, proudly posing with satisfied mums, dads and grandparents outside of the academic department, inside the department, outside the lecture hall, maybe even inside the lecture hall, outside the pond, the university gates, drinking champagne and thanking God the horrendous ordeal of dissertation writing is over. While I’m green with envy and disappointed in myself for falling behind them, I am incredibly intrigued to see where the course of life takes them. Some have already started internships in the kinds of professions they’ve been dreaming of while others are still taking photos of their certificates (take a picture and it’ll last longer, eh?).

So What Have I Learnt?

Fun with new friends a party on campus. These guys never spoke to me again after I left uni on compassionate grounds.
  1. Those students nights out were really lame.

    All of my pictures in the file “University” are of me and/or friends either drunk, in the process of getting drunk, in a club, at a bar, on the smoking terrace of a bar, at a house party, or passed out. The greatest time of my life? Of course not! I was so lost, although I didn’t know it then. We drank to celebrate, we drank through heartbreak, we drank to make friends, we drank for the sake of drinking, a shot for £1- why not? The horn calls- another Jagerbomb! Those nights were pretty boring when I think about it… crawling from bar to bar on the governments money for no real reason except that we could.

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    A year of living abroad has taught me that a night out can be so much more than staggering to the closest chippy at 3 in the morning and ordering greasy chips laden in mayo and cheese or waking up next to a guy I probably shouldn’t have. I listen to peoples inspiring life tales. How did they get to be in the same country as me? How did I even get here? Together we talk and explore this crazy life. We enjoy a beer (or 3 or 4…) but, you understand, it’s not like student drinking- which is a tool for forgetting. Nights with my new friends have encouraged me to pursue new adventures, to learn how to dive, to look into working in South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, to go and au pair in the USA, to dance like you’ve been locked up all your life and you can finally release, let that beautiful hair go wild and connect with others on a truly deep and meaningful level. Then when we move on to the next country or place, we’re able to recall that wonderful night and smile as we remember each and every moment, the people who helped make that country feel like home.
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  2. University is a sombre bubble that radiates a false sense of security.

    What would a middle-of-the-range university degree really teach me? I got lazy. I learnt that nothing mattered much. If I missed a lecture I could go online and download the powerpoint. If I ran out of money I knew it wouldn’t be long before Student Finance would come in. If I didn’t do the reading I could pretty much blag it in the seminar (and if I did do the reading, certainly no-one else would have and it would be the dullest hour of my life). I could do an essay the night before and still get a first.

    Sure, university taught me some necessary skills… like how to use a computer, manage my time (especially in those last few hours before deadline when I have half an essay to finish), a bit of budgeting, how to write in the correct way for the best grades…. Um, I’m really trying to think what else. I’ll come back to this. 296657_2292161817430_1389999858_n 480609_10150884890556626_871186660_n

    When I start to feel the pang of regret come and ruin my day, I like to ask myself some questions, questions to my other-self, the one who didn’t leave and successfully graduated along with her friends:

    Congratulations… you’re an academic! But can you pass the exam of life? Can you work independently, forget that, can you sit alone in a coffee shop or a stool at a bar and not feel a need to stare mindlessly at your phone? Can you uproot your entire life, far from the known and understood? Can you integrate in other cultures or suffer through language barriers? Do you have ‘friendship clicks’ or can you get chatting to the guy selling the newspaper, the woman on the seat next to you? Are you naïve and ignorant when it comes to other religions or politics, tending to stereotype or make racist remarks, or do you respect them? Do you know what’s going on in the world?

    I once knew a girl at York who didn’t know who Obama was. Was it her fault? I guess not, as university (at least not the kind I experienced) doesn’t require one to know about the world- only the grade requirements needed to push past the average Joe. The thing is, which I’ve now realised, university would have left me completely unprepared for the kind of lifestyle I want. The life I am lucky enough to live is one that takes a bit of guts and a lot of passion, interest in how the other lives and wanting to experience that for myself, it requires the letting go of my past, of doing things the way I’m used to, of whatever I took for granted, and fully embracing a new and exciting way of living. Every day my body tingles with electric wonder as I imagine myself in different parts of the world making a catalogue of memories that’ll flash past my eyes on my deathbed.

    Then I see my other-self again, post-graduation, at first happy and proud feeling the doors around her fling open and welcome her in. Flash forward a bit and there she is, with her soul crushed, having been slowly swallowed up into the conventional, somewhat robotic, meek existence that, ironically, all the travel writers and friends around the world who inspire me managed to escape. She would then go and “quit the 9-5” and discover what living really is.

    Therefore, I’ve simply taken a short cut. If all I’m doing is living the kind of life I would live anyway after graduation, why waste the £30,000 and all those years of misery? Let my place go to someone who wants the kind of life that university helps to set up.

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  4. Just because I failed university doesn’t mean I’m a failure.

    During university I had some rough moments. It’s easy to get caught in drinking and drug abuse when you’re lost and vulnerable, far from home with a painful relationship and broken promises. Breaking up with my first real boyfriend was an experience that in one sense, utterly destroyed me, while in another, made me who I am. We were stupid to go to the same university. But when a friend of his tragically died back in our home town, the grief was unbearable. I spent every waking moment worried that he too would end his life.

    I tried therapy but I knew he was seeing the same campus therapist as me. I’d spend the whole hour asking how he’s doing, did he eat? He looks too skinny. Did you tell him to get more sleep? Please tell him I’m worried and thinking of him. That he doesn’t have to walk the other way if he sees me in the common room or in the smoking area. That I just want to know if he’s OK. “He’s OK, Sarah.” She would repeat, “let’s just concentrate on getting you physically and mentally healthy”. “I can move on once I know for sure he’s not going to die.” And that’s when I was diagnosed with anxiety and paranoia and bla bla bla, put on compassionate leave and left the country in order to undergo a somewhat spiritual journey and learn that, despite my unfortunate experience with men- as a child with my unstable stepfather and now as a young adult, I can be happy. I’m allowed to be happy. I’m of some worth.

    The second time I failed university, was, as I mentioned, when I received excellent grades and felt nothing. A numbness like no other. My work that I had put my sweat and soul into had been judged and had passed the set criteria. This saddened me so much- maybe I’m crazy- but I realised that I didn’t need to be validated, not academically anyway. Since we’re 5 years old we are scrutinized down to how we dot our I’s or how old we are when we can tie our shoes. We’re constantly labelled and categorized and stereotyped. Since leaving university and really beginning to live, I know that family and friends struggle to respect what I do. I’m a university drop-out, I’m just a TEFL teacher, I’m going through a faze, I’m still lost and don’t know my place in the world. Actually, I’ve never been more sure. And that to me, is my most prized accomplishment. University offered me a place that I didn’t want. I’m sure I’ll spend the next few years in different countries working different jobs and learn more than university could have ever taught me. I can’t wait for the follow up post!

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    4. Never give up.

    OK so I gave up with university… but in doing so I learnt to never give up on myself. I used to lock myself in my en-suite of my university accommodation and self harm. How fucking pathetic and immature is that? As an English kid I’ve been sickeningly fortunate. If I was born in another country I might have had my virginity sold to a business man, or be sold altogether to some kind of farm or to the sex trade. It might have been illegal for me to go to school. I might have been married off and had a baby when I was still a child. I could be living in the slums of India or Philippines or trapped in the bloody battles of Syria, Afghanistan or Gaza.

    Right now the English language is all I have to offer anyone but this is just the beginning. I’m not saying I’m going to change the world- but if I can change the worlds of a handful of people- if I can help, volunteer, encourage, coach, inspire…. that’s worth more to me than a plastic scroll and a silly hat ever could be. I wish employers could feel the same instead of filtering people like me out. 2014-05-13 22.23.57
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Who’s to say where the wind will take you
Who’s to say what it is will break you
I don’t know
Where the wind will blow

Additional lessons from leaving university to travel:

  • I smoked almost a pack a day at university. I quit not long after I left.
  • Independence.
  • How to move on (and be strong)
  • That I don’t need a man as much as I thought. (Still a little)
  • Real friends don’t care about something as insignificant as having BA on my resume.
  • The ones who do care can go to hell.
  • Be happy where I am.
  • Focus on the positive.
  • Stop worrying about the future.
  • If something in my life isn’t working I need to be responsible for it. I can’t blame anyone.
  • University is a wonderful and powerful accessory. It both unites and divides us.
  • People’s opinions are just opinions!
  • Ignore the boring drama.
  • Be more creative.
  • Don’t be jealous of other people my age- you’re in Maldives, idiot!
  • All families are dysfunctional.
  • Maturity.
  • How to take control.
  • Financial independence.
  • It’s not that I don’t want to learn. I want to study languages, read more, get more teaching qualifications (CELTA, Young Leaners Extension), learn how to dive (and possibly in the future learn how to teach diving), and study a range of other disciplines too, from international relations to volunteer management.
  • And lastly, each struggle happened for one reason or another and ultimately brought me here. So I’m grateful for that.


What did you learn from university? Do you regret ever going (or not going)? Are you currently happy with your lifestyle or are you also looking into work or travel abroad? Are you an ex-pat with a similar situation? And, if you didn’t go to university, have you found that it’s seriously damaged your opportunities in life or quite the opposite? And if you fancy reading more of my university rants, you can check out my post Does A Degree Truly Indicate Candidate Quality? or stay posted to see my travel experiences thus far and if in the end my lack of degree stops me from doing what I love.


Hi! I'm Sarah. I dropped out of university tired with the mundane life I was living in England. Now I'm an aspiring ex-pat of the world, having already lived and worked in Vietnam, Italy and Maldives. I'm using this blog to document my experiences and hopefully inspire others!

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