I’m Taking a Gap Year from Travel to Finish University

Wow. What a pretentious title.

I haven’t updated my blog in a long time because I’ve returned to university. I always knew I had to finish my Bachelor’s Degree in A Whole Lotta Crap one day, and that day has come. Back in December, I flew out of Bogotá to Madrid. Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, and French Guiana never happened for me. After a few days in Madrid, adjusting back to Europe after more than two years in South America, took yet another plane to go to Frankfurt . I attended Christmas dinners in Germany and the Netherlands, celebrated New Year’s in Belgium’s city of Liège, and then settled down in an Airbnb in Maastricht.

Maastricht. City of nightmares and eternal disappointment. I am not happy to see you again.

The only reason I had to return, was the €20.000 debt I gathered at that shitty institution I signed up to when I was 18 (almost 19) years old. If anyone had told me then that you do not need a university degree to live a worthy life, maybe things would have turned out differently.

But I didn’t get that memo. Along with many other kids my age, I went down the path of having your spirit broken to make you more employable. Mine wouldn’t break or bend, so I had to break with the institution. Nobody questioned it. I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault; no one had the capacity to understand what’s really happening around them, and the pressure is too high to stick with it.

Had I known that studying in the Netherlands wasn’t free at all, and that I was accumulating a debt, I might have made different choices. But for a child of the Dutch middle class, university wasn’t a “yes please/no thanks” box to tick, it was a “when?” question with the requirement of a motivational essay.

I never considered a gap year after graduating high school in 2010. I told my parents I “hadn’t achieved anything yet” by graduating high school, and “didn’t deserve” a gap year. A more truthful account might be that I was afraid to travel (alone) and definitely didn’t want to travel with a group, and my child-hating already in its infancy to be willing to work as an au pair or the like. My job at an ice cream shop was very seasonal, so that wouldn’t fill up a year of my life either. Straight to university, it is.

If I had told my family I didn’t want a university degree (which wasn’t true at the time), it would have certainly meant breaking away from the family. Class mobility is only acceptable in two directions, and that direction can be ‘level’ or ‘upward’, but absolutely not ‘downward’. By dropping out of university in late 2013, I simply postponed the decision to break up with my family’s values by a few years, rather than avoiding the issue at all.

It’s for this reason, then, that my family uses words like “happy for you” and “proud of you” when I told them that I’d go back to university in 2018. It’s good that at least someone feels “happy” and “proud”, as I can’t. This wasn’t a mature decision I chose to make; it was inevitable.

The year so far

When I say I’m “taking a gap year from travel”, it’s not the whole truth. I am traveling. During short designated periods of time that are normal for most people, but a terribly small cage for me. If you are stuck in a 9 – 5 and don’t understand what the hell I’m complaining about, just keep in the back of your head that I went from 4 straight years of traveling to a sudden standstill. It’s different from my perspective.

My academic calendar started in February 2018. Every 7 weeks my faculty gets 1 week off. They call it “reflection week” and they invented it somewhere during my first years of studying in 2011 or so. People from my faculty managed to successfully brand themselves as ‘more special’ than the other faculties. In truth, we’re just as mediocre as the rest of them. That somehow qualifies us for extra holidays between periods, hence the “reflection week”. Of course I’m happy to have this extra time off, simply to get a break from seeing so many punchable faces day in, day out. Between February and July, I’ve had two of these “reflection weeks”. Then I still had one week off for Carnival and got free days because of the religious holidays like Easter and the other one.

Since all of these holidays are so short and 9 days of hitchhiking only get me as far as… Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, or – have mercy – the Netherlands… I’ve given myself a mental ‘free pass’ on flying this year. That’s right. I took flights and didn’t give a damn. Being stuck in a life you don’t like makes you treat the environment like crap.

During Maastricht’s carnival in February, my partner and I left for Tunisia for 7 days. Late in March, we went to Sardinia (Italy) for 9 days. In early June I had another week off but didn’t go anywhere because this dude moved a paper deadline into the week. In July, the 8 week summer holidays started, and I left for Portugal, Poland, and Belarus (where I am right now), and Lithuania and Latvia to come.

Between sucking up to my academic overlords and writing papers no one will ever read, I haven’t had the time or energy (but mostly the energy) to write about hitchhiking and traveling. It was just too painful. I was just too tired. I needed to recover.

Going back to university

If you doubt that university life is really that hard, it isn’t – at least not for everyone. I’ve met some people at my faculty who are just sailing through with an air of confidence that I both admire and makes me vomit a little. For me, though, it’s really hard.

The first email I received on my freshly opened university email was an obituary notice of someone 20-year-old boy who had died. I remember that such an email was also the first one I’d received when I started university back in 2010. The first weeks of my very first semester at the faculty were gloomy, as a student had killed herself recently. Whether this boy also killed himself is pure speculation, but the parallels in events are obvious. Perhaps this is just an issue for the university’s technical staff to solve.

A few weeks later, I had my second ‘first day’ at uni. I rolled downhill to the faculty on my shitty new bike, found the familiar-looking room, and discovered I was 10 minutes early. The course was about public policymaking. Four months later I don’t remember a single thing or a single face from that class. I just remember that the same day, I had a two-hour lecture for that course. The tutor showed us this video of Sir Ken Robinson about how the current education system is dysfunctional and broken. Tell me about it.

stuck in Maastricht

Cold, sad, headached, pimpled, and totally ‘highly motivated’.

After that first day, I had a massive headache. I swallowed a few paracetamols to no avail. In the last 4 years of travel, I can count the number of times I’ve self-medicated on my hands and feet. This scared me. I went through an insane amount of paracetamol boxes. I noticed that other people were also constantly swallowing pills. Pills for everything. None of them ever felt better afterward, they just felt like they did something about it. I suspected that the underlying problem might be more systemic than that.

My skin started to throw a shitfit very soon after returning. I’ve been having more pimples than when I was a teenager and the whole thing has been massively embarrassing. It felt as if my life was under attack. I had forgotten what it feels like to lack confidence.

I immediately empathize with all the suicidal students walking the faculty halls. Including my former self. I cry a lot. JFC, I cried so much these last 6 months. Old patterns of behavior.

My curriculum and what I’ve been ‘learning’

Last semester, I’ve passed all my courses. I’ve amassed the 25 study credits I needed. I only need 22.5 credits to graduate. Hopefully, I’ll graduate in January 2019. €15.000 of my €20.000 debt will then be eliminated (aka “turned into a gift from the government” *barf*). That leaves me with €5.000 of debt with the Dutch government. It’s not nothing, but feels surmountable.

university matrix beginning of the year

How I started the year.

university Matrix updated

How it is right now. Yay.

Besides public policy blah blah, I’ve also completed courses in social and environmental entrepreneurship, identities, philosophy of science, and a group project. The group project was one of the biggest headache-inducers, as I loathe group work. We had to create a fictitious academic journal about mindfulness, and it completely ruined meditation for me forever.

Speaking of mindfulness, it’s hard to be non-judgmental at university. There is so much wrong with it that I slipped back into old behavioral patterns, many of them toxic. It’s only then that I realized how hitchhiking had made me so much of a better person, and how easy it is to lose that open-mindedness that (often) comes with travel. I mourned the loss of my ability to connect with people.

And no, none of the things I’ve been learning there are actually useful in life. Many of the things I’ve been tested on aren’t even real. They are such great abstractions of what the people working in a field are doing, that it’s good for nothing. So no, I am not grateful for getting the ‘opportunity’ to learn at such a ‘prestigious’ place. Zero gratitude. Completely involuntary. In the meantime, me being back at that faculty blocks a spot for a student who is guaranteed 100% more motivated than I am. Who is this helping?

Rolling my eyes

To get through this semester I had to do a lot of self-censorship. I’ve kept shut while people around me claimed the most outrageous things. I’ve nodded and gone along with a lot of nonsense I don’t agree with. I’ve rolled my eyes into the back of my head so hard. At the end of a long day of compliance, I’ve not had the energy to put out something on my blog that is genuine. A lot of me hasn’t felt genuine these past six months. Attempts at being honest and true to myself have been met with “Why are you so negative?” and other trivializations.

The saddest part is that most of my fellow students aren’t bad people. The far majority of them are fine humans in a one-on-one conversation. It’s when you put them together that they become obnoxious, self-validating, unquestioning, entitled little shits. I learned this the hard way when a young woman I’d totally made my mind up about already, turned out to be a really awesome person. From her group behavior, you’d never guessed it.

Perhaps I should be more open to people, but on the other hand, fuck the emotional labor involved with that – as if being there isn’t draining enough!

Author biography pic aka being an entitled little shit

To be a successful student, be like the other successful students. Look as entitled as you can.

Self-care

So if I didn’t blog, what did I do with all the downtime these last six months? Yoga. I did so much yoga . I tried to go to yoga every day. I must say the only benefit of being a student again is getting student discounts everywhere, and the one to my new yoga place was the greatest benefit. I’ve spent more time in downward dog than working on my website.

I’d decided that I wasn’t going to drink at all in Maastricht until the semester’s last deadline. I didn’t want alcohol to play any issue in passing courses, so I waited 6 months to open this bottle of wine my mom gave me. Quitting alcohol wasn’t hard for me at all. Neither was quitting cigarettes in 2016 or quitting studying in 2013 (there is definitely a pattern here). I kind of expected a whole surge of new energy as I wasn’t poisoning my body, but hooo boy that was a lie. I was extremely sober and incredibly tired.

I tried to build in new good habits. Like not eating while watching Netflix/on a couch. Flossing. Learning Russian on low intensity. Going to bed before 23:00. Leaving the house every day (despite the crappy weather). Most of these things worked, at least for a while. By far the hardest thing was to be in bed before 11 pm. Starting something good for yourself just for the sake of “it’s good for you” is really hard, somehow. No, give me something to quit and I’ll ace it.

Back to blogging?

It’s a terrible excuse to say that I didn’t have time to blog in between studies, yoga, Duolingo, Netflix, and sleep. It’s mostly that I didn’t know what to write about really, and that I felt ashamed to go back to university. To me, it’s really no different than going back to an abusive partner. And I’m tied to this abusive relationship until my debt is settled.

I’d like to promise to get back into blogging and tell you my stories of hitchhiking in Tunisia, Sardinia, Portugal, Poland, and Belarus. But I also know how promises to blog more are almost always shite and just make me feel even more shite as I don’t reach my goals.

So instead I promise you this: I will try very hard to graduate so I can return to the road.

In case you want to save this post for later… Pin this!

I'm taking a gap year to finish university pinterest pin