You hear it all the time growing up; “you must go to school, you must get a degree, blah blah blah”. But these days it’s sort of a catch 22 in that you basically need to sell your soul in order to be able to afford to go to University in the first place. Add to that, even the cost of a couple trips and you’ve got a financial burden that can seem unbearable to anyone in their upper-teen or early 20’s let alone even possible. I’m writing this post to explain how I managed to visit 41 countries during University while still affording University and still graduating on time in four years.
Let’s go back a few years. I went to the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, Ontario to study Networking and IT Security (my degree is a Bachelor of Information Technology). I chose this school in particular because it has one of the only IT programs in Canada and one of the best ones at that. Little did I know, I would be given the opportunity to travel the world over my four years here.
My addiction to traveling started in the summer of 2013. Before this I had only ever been to 5 countries on family vacations and only ever in North America. The summer of 2013 was my first time leaving the confines of this continent. Earlier in 2013 I learned about the Ontario Global Edge (OGE) program in which UOIT participates. OGE is an Ontario government funded initiative to send students abroad to work for 8-9 week internships and there are only a handful of Universities in Ontario that participate so I was very lucky that UOIT was one of them. I ended up going to Hong Kong for my placement and worked at a company called PSP Security in the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park. You can read more about that experience here.
While I was in Hong Kong I was able to do some weekend traveling as well to other countries. During my 9 weeks in Hong Kong I also traveled to China, Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan. At this time I was only 21 years old and had just finished my second year of University which costs nearly $20000/year if you are living away from home like I was. This is where most people start to ask “How can you afford to live/work abroad and travel too while in school?”. This was the great thing about the OGE program. It is GOVERNMENT funded! They pay for your return flight to Hong Kong, your accommodation in Hong Kong and they give you a $700/month stipend for living expenses which in Asia is more than enough to live on. If you were to go abroad as part of this program and not travel outside of Hong Kong, you would basically break even by the end of the 9 weeks.
However, I did not want to go all the way to Hong Kong and not travel to some other countries as well. These side trips to China, Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan were paid out of pocket. UOIT also provided (at that time) $2025 in scholarship funding for students going abroad on the OGE program so with that additional funding, there was very little out-of-pocket expenses even with my additional travel to these other countries.
Something very few people know about me is that I have been working and making my own money since I was about 13. When I was too young yet to work in retail establishments I started my own lawn mowing business around town making well above minimum wage and having basically no expenses from it since the home owners provided the equipment, fuel, etc. Once I was old enough, I also started working at Sobeys but also kept the lawn mowing job on the side working both jobs at 16. When you work a 8-9 hour shift at Sobeys you are allowed to take a 1-hour lunch break. However rather than sitting around for an hour and doing nothing I often used this time to go mow one of my lawns which took about 45 minutes making some extra money during time that would have otherwise been wasted. It’s tough when you are 16 but hey, I was able to save up a considerable amount in those early years which has now gone a long way to funding my travel addiction now. Starting to work at such an early age also instilled a very good money conscience in me that is still with me to this day. It’s the reason I am able to watch my spending and think about money every time I spend it. I work hard for the money I earn so I don’t like to just spend it recklessly on a whim or stupidly on some other expenses.
After coming back from Hong Kong and the OGE experience I felt very depressed to be home. I wanted to get back out there and explore more of the world, I wanted to keep traveling. When I got back to University in September of 2013 I immediately started finding out how I could go abroad again and this time found my option to be a whole exchange semester (4 months) abroad. When January 2014 came around I applied for and was accepted in to an exchange semester for the fall of 2014 in Turku, Finland. I knew the exchange semester was going to be expensive. Not only did I have to pay the normal tuition to UOIT like I would if I was studying here at home but I also had the living expenses in Finland (which really aren’t much more or less than Canada) and the expense of travelling around Europe. I knew I would be doing some traveling while I was there but had no idea I would be going to 35 countries over the coming 4 months abroad.
When I got to Finland I had to pick the four courses I would take that semester. It took a few weeks and a lot of work to find courses that I was allowed to take because they had to be ones that transfer one-to-one credit wise back home. The great thing about the Finnish education system is that it has a lot of focus on self study. A lot of your courses can be done at home, on your own time and submitted online. This complements very well the fact that I studied IT so we generally have more online type courses to begin with (especially in Finland). I ended up finding four courses that were either all online or non-lecture based so I only ever had three physical classes in a lecture hall in Finland all semester! This was perfect because it allowed me to travel almost non-stop all semester.
During my four months abroad studying in Finland I was only ever actually in Finland for 21 days! The rest of the time was spent traveling to the 35 other countries I visited in that time. But now we come back to that same question as before: “How can you afford to study abroad and travel so much?”.
Like I said earlier, before going to Finland I knew it was going to be expensive and a minimum wage job wouldn’t cut it. The summer before going to Finland I landed a 4-month internship working full-time at IBM in Markham, ON. Paying a rate of over double that of minimum wage, I managed to watch my spending all summer and save up a considerable amount from this to be used for traveling. However that job alone would not cover all of my coming travel. I also got a research position at UOIT during the summer before heading to Finland working full time on that too. So basically it was IBM by day and research by night/weekends. All-in, between both jobs I was working 70-95 hours per week every week for four months. It was BRUTAL and something I don’t know anyone else my age even attempting.
This is basically my average day during those 4 months. Wake up at 5AM every day showering, making breakfast and lunch and getting ready for work by 6AM. I’d work on my research work from 6-7AM and then drive the 1-hour commute to IBM to be there by 8AM. I’d work from 8AM-4PM at IBM and then drive the 1-hour commute back to Oshawa getting to UOIT by 5PM where I would usually work until 10-11PM before heading home, having dinner, passing out and doing it all over the next day. It was not an easy go and anyone who thinks I have been just given all this travelling or have some sort of trust fund or just been given this money to go is sorely mistaken. I worked my ass off in order to do this. I had a goal in mind; I wanted to travel and then I worked and did everything I could in order to achieve that goal. That’s the difference between myself and many others. I don’t wait for things to happen. I take chances, take opportunities and work my ass off to get where I want to go and do what I want to do.
I spent nearly $20,000 in those four months just on travelling. keep in mind that this amount paid for about 60 flights, several train tickets, rent in Finland and all of my other expenses while abroad (not including tuition). I still had to pay nearly $10,000 that semester in tuition costs but that was covered (for now) by my student loans from OSAP. So while I was able to do all this amazing traveling I do still have student loans to pay off now that I have graduated just like almost every other student. Sure, I could have taken my IBM and research money and paid off my student loans and probably graduated without $27,000 in debt but there are a few reasons I didn’t. Other than wanting to travel, educational debt isn’t really bad debt to begin with. Not in the same sense as, say, credit card debt. The interest rate isn’t very high on OSAP either so having debt from getting an education should never be seen as a bad thing. Also I studied IT, a field which EVERY company in the world needs these days. I had no doubt that I would be able to land a job when graduating so paying off the student loans would not be an issue anyways. I figured at that point in my life, the best thing to do was take the time I had before being tied down to a job and see as much of the world as I could and by far it was the BEST decision I have every made. I do not regret it for even a second and would do it all again in a heartbeat. I recommend anyone who is even thinking about doing the same is to just do it. Work your ass off, save your money by spending wisely and do what you need to in order to make it happen! After all, the world is your oyster.