In a couple of years I will graduate from high school. The last thing I want to do is sign up for four more years of school, convincing myself I am setting myself up for an incredible life… after. After college. After I land that zombie-could-do-it 9-5 gig a paper says I’m now qualified for. After I get married to some doctor, lawyer, or real estate agent and have some Gap kid named Skylar or Madison and we all start getting family photos in khaki shorts and white polo shirts romping down a beach somewhere holding hands, trying to show our Facebook friends we are living the life.

I don’t want “after”. I want to create an incredible adult life as soon as possible. On my terms. In my style.

I will have my backpack packed by the time I am 18, ready to go. I will have learned as much about calculus and chemistry as I realistically need to. My high school diploma will not say anything to me about my actual education, and the piece of paper many hang proudly on the wall will be most likely be used if I happen to be camping somewhere and need to start a fire. Traditional education is not for me, with teachers telling me I’m stupid just because of a test, or telling me I’m intelligent because I could regurgitate some sentences just like kid A, kid B, and kid C next to me.

Nothing annoys me more than to hear someone say “travel isn’t the same as a good education”. From my experience, I’ve learned more in a month of traveling than a year of school. I don’t want to write an essay on global warming. I’d rather visit the Arctic and see what’s going on with the polar bears. I don’t want to study a language in a classroom — I’d rather immerse myself into a culture and stay put until the language sticks.

Travel has taught me more than just factual knowledge. It’s taught me how to be a more open-minded person, more excited by life. The majority of people I know that come out of college seem a little more closed-minded, a little more accepting of being put in a box than when they were younger. For me personally, accepting the traditional ‘college, job, marriage, white picket fence’ is the death wish, not hitchhiking across the country alone.

Some people value diplomas and all that. And that’s okay. I am not here to tell them that that is not right for them. I’m just saying it’s not what I want. I value stories. I value life experiences. I value nature. I value culture.

I remember when I was four, my mom took my sister and I deep into the Peruvian Amazon. I was poked and prodded and pet and stared at for being so white and so blonde. The toy that the local kids gave me to play with was a dead (badly stuffed) ocelot. To welcome me, they busted out a two-liter bottle of Fanta that someone from the village got ten years prior on a big trip to Iquitos. Like a fine wine, they were saving it for a special occasion, and I guess I was it. It was so hot it had turned into a thick orange syrup over the years. I wanted to gag, but my mom made me drink it and show my thanks. A nearby parrot must have overheard my name, and scared the crap out of me when it screeched out a loud and clear “Stella”. I hadn’t known some birds could mimic.

In this one first afternoon, I learned firsthand what it feels like to stand out because of skin color. I learned to have fun with next to nothing. I learned that food and drink is friendship and love. I learned the importance of being a gracious guest. I learned that nature was magical. Are you going to tell me that doesn’t count as education?

Education is important to me. And for that reason I want to travel. In the time it would take me to get a four year degree, I could live in 48 different countries for a month at a time. I could climb ten mountains in the Himalayas. I could learn to surf in Morocco. I could learn how to speak Japanese fluently. I could learn about indigenous rights in Kenya. I could study weather patterns in Antarctica. I could learn to make wine in Italy or cheese in France. I could practice Kung Fu in China. I could learn about agriculture in the highlands of Bolivia. Most importantly, I could see firsthand what piques my interest and I would have the flexibility, the energy and the time to follow that path for as long as it felt right.

And, let me guess… you’re wondering how I would pay for all this. That’s pretty ridiculous to me coming from someone who probably wouldn’t think twice about me spending 50k a year on college. I’m surrounded by people who have traveled the world many times over and they started out their travels with next to nothing. They worked, they volunteered, they hitched, they Couchsurfed, they camped, they walked. They did whatever it took. They threw themselves open to serendipity and opportunity found them. My mom started out with nothing and has traveled the world as a travel writer, and is supporting three kids on her own as she does it. So don’t tell me how naive I’m being, how I need a lot of money to carry out my travel plans. I’d much rather listen to the advice of the people who have actually done it than the naysayers who can’t get past their limited thinking that it’s impossible.

Skipping college to travel does not mean I am a bum with no life purpose or drive, someone who doesn’t care about her future or education. My desire at this point is to learn as much about life as possible, and that is easier for me to do on the road than in a lab. I travel to learn, to feel alive, to help clarify my life’s purpose, and to realize that the best future is built on amazing “nows”. I am convinced that I can learn more by not going to college than by going.

So when I say I want to travel, before you judge me as being an unambitious bum or assume that I don’t value education, please keep in mind that my intention is actually to learn as much as I can and that I’m willing to put my heart and soul into doing it up big, while staying true to myself.

If you still judge me after that, well, that says much more about you than it does about me.

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