As you may know, I have just started studying a master’s degree in international journalism at Cardiff University. The idea of being on campus is exciting for me, as I have spent the past five years studying remotely. (Even if it’s 2020 and I’m still going to end up having a lot of classes online.) In the meantime, I thought it would be a good occasion to reflect on the very unusual way I obtained my bachelor’s degree…
A couple of months ago, a lovely surprise came in the mail:
My Bachelor of Arts in International Studies.
Okay, I admit it wasn’t really a surprise. I had been notified about my impending graduation during the summer, although I knew long before that I was going to get it, because I worked really hard for it.
Back when I was still living in Ecuador, my amazing friends even prepared a fake little graduation ceremony for me. (Now that was a surprise!). They did it because they knew the pandemic was going to prevent me from attending the official one.
Sure, it took me a bit longer to get an undergraduate degree than most, but my circumstances weren’t exactly ‘normal’.
You see, whilst the majority of people (before COVID-19) got to socialise with their fellow students, do some research in their university’s libraries or prepare their exams from the comfort of their homes, I was instead more often than not socialising with people who didn’t speak my language, learning about the world in the most unexpected places, and writing essays in dorm beds or bus stations.
I know that the degree itself might not have that much value in today’s world, and even less when you consider that at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of paper that says I’ve read a lot of books and I’ve successfully written a bunch of essays over the past few years. But to me, it means so much more. It is a symbol of the long way I’ve come, ever since I chose to obtain it in a very unconventional way.
Today, I’ve decided to honour this journey by retracing the series of events that led me to become a part-time student, part-time traveller.
I’m aware that many of you probably have a broad idea of why I chose to leave, but here are some juicy details about how it happened, in the dramatic style that seems to define most of my life events.
Let me tell you the story of how it occurred to me to study a bachelor’s degree while wandering the world…
… or how crossing paths with a sociopath was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
Things didn’t start out this way. Six years ago, after having taken a gap year to travel for a few months, I had freshly arrived at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland. I was following the same path than most of my classmates from high school, and had chosen to move to a city where I could get a higher education (there are no universities in my region).
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, so I took the advice from a career councellor who had told me I should do “something social”. I listened to her, and because I don’t do things halfway, I signed up to major in social work and social politics, with a minor in social anthropology. Surely that would be social enough, right?
The first six months, I was an ideal student. I didn’t miss one lecture, and I aced all of my exams at the end of the semester. The only problem was, I was miserable the whole time. Ever since I had returned to Switzerland from my five months on the roads, I couldn’t shake the constant feeling that something was wrong with the society I had grown up in. I didn’t feel like I could be myself. Furthermore, I just couldn’t be okay with what now appeared to me as such a luxurious lifestyle, after witnessing the absurd inequalities of our international system.
When the Christmas holidays came about, I thus jumped on the occasion to escape from my boring routine and flew to Morocco for three weeks, alone, on a whim.
In Essaouira, I met a group of travellers who were planning to go on a road trip together. They offered me to join, and so I did. The group was made up of a lovely Lithuanian couple, as well as two guy friends who lived together in Belgium. One of them was from there, the other was American. His name was Kyle.
Kyle was no ordinary traveller. As soon as I met him, I was amazed by his unusual life story. He told me he worked as a journalist for the BBC, and he had already travelled in over 60 countries. At the time, that number was surreal to me, and I was in awe. He spoke of many unique adventures, including his time in the Middle East, and especially in Israel and Palestine. That’s where he got the keffiah that he constantly wore around his neck. He also used to be a soldier, and that put him in many crazy situations. He was just one of the most badass people I had ever met.
And then Kyle told me something that would change my life forever: while he wandered around all of those places, he was PhD student at a renowned university.
“How is that even possible?”, I asked. Kyle thus explained to me that certain institutions allow their students to pursue degrees remotely, that all they needed was a laptop and a regular internet connection.
For the rest of the trip, I thus couldn’t stop contemplating the window of possibilities that Kyle had opened in my mind. Until then, it had seemed that I was facing a black and white situation: I either continued my studies in Switzerland, or I quit them to keep travelling and learn about the world. Suddenly, there was a third option… I could do both at the same time. This was a game changer to me, because I deeply believed in the importance of getting an education when I had the will and the opportunity to do so, but I also couldn’t see myself going through with them in an unbearable state of depression.
There was another detail about Kyle that captured my attention: his tattoos. He had a bunch of them on his arm, but one in particular resonated with me. It said ‘Why not’ in Moroccan Arabic. The same two words that were written on the front door of the hostel where we met, in the place that gave me my first real sigh of relief in months, where I felt like I could finally be myself again…
That sentence now echoed inside of me all day long.
Kyle and I ended up having a short fling, that I didn’t want but didn’t prevent from happening because I felt very intimidated by him. I believe I adopted a clear body language showing that his advances weren’t welcome and were making me uncomfortable, but he took advantage of my lack of self-assurance at the time that prevented me from openly rejecting him. I was young and impressionable, MeToo wasn’t a thing back then, and I had never really been encouraged to stand up to men. I nonetheless kept my distances after that, and I insisted from the start that I never intended for this to turn into anything more serious. I was ashamed of what had happened.
Flashforward to a few weeks later. I had gone home to Switzerland, and I was back in my apartment where I didn’t feel at home (and which was actually kind of haunted, but that’s another story). I had also stopped going to class, because it didn’t make any sense to me anymore to learn about social work in a classroom. So instead, I just laid there, on my couch, wondering what I should do with my life. I didn’t have the courage yet to take the decision that my heart was yearning for.
Kyle had mentioned that he was planning on coming back to Europe, and he wanted to visit me in Switzerland. I offered him to host him at my place, thinking he would stay for two or three days before going back to Belgium. Despite the discomfort I had felt in his company, I was actually rather excited to see him, because I thought it could help me take my mind off things and remind me of the world of possibilities that was out there.
Little did I know that, back in that hostel in Essaouira, Kyle had announced to everyone that we had fallen madly in love and that he was coming to Switzerland to officially move in with me. Yes, you read that right. It turns out that Kyle was actually insane.
Thankfully, I became aware of it before he arrived. The Lithuanian couple I had become good friends with had contacted me to warn me about him. “Think about it”, they said. “All of his crazy stories, they don’t add up”. I did think about it, and the more I did, the more I realised that they were right. It was as if someone had turned on the light.
Suddenly, it all made sense. From the very start, I would often have an unexplainable, eerie feeling in my stomach around Kyle, and I now knew why: Kyle wasn’t only an extremely manipulative guy, he was also a pathological liar.
Kyle kept bragging about his accomplishments, but we never actually saw him work or study. I looked up his name on the BBC archives, and he was nowhere to be found. And after further research, I realised that all the crazy stories he had been telling us about Palestine were literally impossible. There’s also the fact that he supposedly spoke all those foreign languages, but we never actually heard him speak them.
When I first met him, I thought it was really cool that we seemed to have a lot in common. For example, the day I arrived in Essaouira, he played the exact same songs I had been listening on the bus on my way there. I think that he actually looked into my phone while I was in the shower… That’s because another time, he asked me if my second name was Elizabeth, which it is; except I had never told him. He said he just had an intuition about it, but there is no way he could have just guessed it. I’m sure he went through my stuff and read it in my passport at some point.
There are many other examples of his uncanny behaviour, but I think you get the point. The thing is, no one doubted him because we didn’t have any reason not to trust him at first. He was just this guy we met on the road. But by the time my friends contacted me, he had stolen money from them, which raised their suspicions. After further investigation, they discovered that he had been banned from a few other hostels in the region for stealing from them too. He also ripped off two German guys, by asking them if he could use their credit card to pay for a flight to Switzerland, promising them to pay them back with cash. Obviously, he never did. Oh, and there’s also the fact that he was a drug dealer, but that’s just a detail…
It was really scary for me, to realise that some people are so sick in their minds that they could go this far to manipulate others for their own benefit. The priority was my security, however. I went to the police and warned Kyle to never try to approach me again, and then spent the following week in the dark, jumping at every sound I would hear outside my window. I lived on the ground floor and I was terrified he would try to find me and get revenge. He was indeed very mad at me for exposing his lies, and even sent threats to my friends. It was clear that this was a potentially dangerous individual.
Thankfully, I never saw Kyle or even heard from him again after the initial drama that ensued. Still, I now found myself in a devastating situation. I was so desillusioned: if Kyle didn’t actually study and travel at the same time, what did that mean for the huge life change I had been leaning towards?
At first, I thought it meant that it was impossible to do such a thing. I was so disappointed that I plunged even deeper into my depressed state, not knowing where to find any meaning anymore. Somewhere in the dark, however, there was still a glimmer of hope. The seed had been planted, and it just needed a while to grow. I eventually picked myself up and decided that the fact that Kyle wasn’t actually a distance student didn’t mean I couldn’t be one. If no one I knew had gone down that path before, then it was up to me to create my own.
That’s what I did. Six months later, I was leaving Fribourg with a backpack and single-way ticket out of my country. I had just started this blog, and on my wrist, there was a freshly tattooed sentence, written in Moroccan Arabic: ‘Why not’.
One of my first destinations was Vilnius, where I went to visit my Lithuanian friends who saved me from a potentially very tricky situation.
I then went on to take the Transsiberian, and a few thousand kilometers later, I was calling the Open University from a small guesthouse in Mongolia, to finalise my inscription despite a terrible phone reception.
That’s when I became a part-time student, part-time traveller.
At the time, I had no idea where this crazy decision would eventually lead me to.
For the five following years, I would study in the most impromptu and ever-changing settings, surrounded by many different people and environments, and with varying personal circumstances.
It was a fabulous opportunity, but I must admit that it wasn’t always easy. I was left to my own devices, and I had to figure out all by myself how to make it work. It required a lot of self-discipline, especially considering that none of the people I was in contact with daily were ever doing the same.
Most of the time, studying wasn’t my main activity, which meant that I had to find odd times during my days to squeeze in some learning. There were constant temptations to do other exciting activities, to discover new places, which I still managed to do, but I also had to accept that I could never fully forget about my obligations. This in turn made me at times feel like I was not able to be fully present wherever I was, although I quickly came to view my studies as a good excuse to retreat and get my much needed alone time. On top of that, some of the modules I studied were pretty intense, and learning about human trafficking, civil wars, extreme poverty and other such horrors all by myself wasn’t always the most fun experience.
However, it was also incredibly reassuring for me to know that whatever happened, wherever I went, I always had this objective in mind that gave a certain structure to my chaotic existence. And yeah, my life got really messy at times. So much so that I even had to take a break from my studies for almost year. I could barely keep myself alive at the time, so meeting the deadlines for my exams wasn’t exactly my priority. I first had to grieve and heal after some difficult experiences, notably in Cambodia and… Palestine. That very same place Kyle had once claimed to have a very strong connection to. Ironic, isn’t it?
I eventually picked up where I left off, and a few years later, here I am.
Sure, it wasn’t always the long holiday that people sometimes think it was. Choosing to study while travelling the world meant that I had to make a few sacrifices along the way. It was sometimes exhausting and painful to keep studying through some of the most challenging experiences of my life. But it was honestly one of the best decisions I ever made.
I got to study from the most beautiful places, to make friends all over the world, to gain invaluable work experience and to familiarise myself with entirely different cultures from me. I may have struggled a bit, but I know I have grown and learned so much more than if I had followed the conventional path that had once seemed to be all layed out before me.
Earning a bachelor’s degree while travelling around the world has been one of the greatest privileges of my life, and I am so deeply grateful for it.
I have now travelled in many more countries that I had when I met Kyle in Morocco. Today, his experiences would not at all seem unattainable to me the way they did back then, because unlike him, I actually did all those things. And on top of that, I’m about to become a journalist.
Take that, Kyle.