How to Study for Free and Gain Lifelong International Experience
Tl;dr: study in another country
You recently turned 17 or 18 and are wondering what to study, where and how you can finance it without ending up in a mountain of debt?
I did too (minus the debt part, I’m from a place where studying is cheap).
But instead of asking and looking for information myself, I dove into the first degree that looked easy and interesting enough and never looked back.
Today, I thoroughly regret that choice and would therefore like to offer some sort of guidance so you can avoid the mistakes I have made.
You’ll also see how you don’t need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get a decent education if you are from an Anglo-Saxon country.
In this post, we’ll take a “value perspective”, meaning we won’t look at what you should study “because you find it interesting”, we’ll look at what you should study to ease the job hunting and value creation processes.
We’ll look at whether you should study at all, what you should study and where you should study.
Choosing studies is a difficult activity that will have a long-lasting impact on your life.
One should read this article with a critical mind.
However, let’s clear some things up right away:
1. There is no type of knowledge you can’t learn outside of university because students learn from books and everyone can buy and read books.
2. Choosing whether you should study and what to study is ultimately a decision that depends on each individual, just like a lot of things.
I wrote this post as if I was talking to a close friend or a sibling, based on my experience. It is not a “universal guide”, because everyone’s situation is different. HOWEVER, if one is completely lost regarding higher education, I think (and hope) this post can serve as a bit of guidance.
This is a post I wish I had read when I was 18.
To give a bit of background, I have studied economic sciences for one year in the French-speaking part of Belgium before failing, then I studied a bachelor in communication and media in the Netherlands for three years, went on exchange to France in a political science university, and studied two masters in a Flemish Belgian university, one in business economics, and one in political science and EU studies.
I also worked as an ambassador for my university during which I had to learn about all the programs that were taught and this is how I learned about the content and skills taught in other programs.
Finally, I don’t know everything and don’t pretend I do. This is only the tip of the tip of the iceberg, a lot of research should be done before choosing studies.
First Question: Should One Study?
In my opinion, yes.
BUT, it all comes down to what you study.
If studying means getting US $100 000 of debt to graduate with a communication degree, then my answer would be “hell no”.
Do you know what you can do with US $100 000? You can buy 5 housing units in Bansko, Bulgaria (as of 2020).
Furthermore, as interesting as it is, communication doesn’t give you many tools to build or to create value, I estimate your chances of finding a job to be…below 0%.
A frequent counter-argument to studying is Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Zuckerberg, etc.
“They became billionaires and they don’t have diplomas”. Sure, but they were also very smart and worked very hard.
Most of these guys started studying and built their business while in college and when it worked, they quit their studies: they didn’t need to get an education because they had gotten it themselves somewhere else, and they were able to solve problems without being taught how to do so.
Branson, for example, had created a nation-wide newspaper at 17 years old, so he didn’t really need an education either since he had this thing going on that he subsequently used to launch Virgin.
If you’re reading this, I can reasonably expect that you don’t have an existing business. That’s ok, no worries.
So, why should you study? For the following reasons:
– If you choose the right degree, university actually teaches you interesting stuff: it helps you structure your thoughts and you get to learn important skills that you can use to build to find a job or create a company with (talked about in the “what to study” section).
While what you learn at uni could be learned anywhere, you can enjoy having professors challenging your thoughts and mentoring you into developing your skills.
You also write assignments and have someone correcting them, which wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Exams teach you organization and stress you out so that you learn to face stress for future situations.
You also learn to give public presentations and to work in teams.
– A diploma is an IQ test result: except for very specific diplomas designed for specific jobs (medicine, architecture…), diplomas nowadays are used as a way to quickly assess someone’s capacities.
Some diplomas scream “SMART” (STEM diplomas, even though not everyone getting these diplomas are necessarily smart) and diplomas that scream “DUMB”.
Communication, for example, screams “DUMB”. About 1/3 of my auditorium ended up in communication because they had failed their business studies (me included) and while all people in communication are not necessarily dumb…the public is not the same as in astrophysical engineering, let’s be honest.
– A diploma is mandatory to build a business: where I’m from at least, but it ultimately depends on your country.
– It gives you the chance to meet like-minded people. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google co-founders, met at Stanford.
– It’s a safety net: as more and more people are getting higher education, it is increasingly difficult to find a job when one has no diploma.
– It gives you time to think and experience: few people know what they want at 18 years old and this is normal.
Society is pressuring you already and makes you feel guilty about a bunch of stuff so that you consume and work asap.
As such, I believe that debt has been enforced onto US students so that they must work as soon as possible after they graduate, which allows the government to get taxes (non-empirical, it’s my conspiracy theory).
In a way, university gives you the chance to explore, think, test your competences and who knows, build already some skills.
Now that we have established why it is interesting to study, let’s have a look at what to study.
1. What to Study
I’ve had a look at the first 6 websites that Google showed me when I typed “high-demand degrees”.
– Engineering: engineers are with inventors and entrepreneurs the people that make the world moving forward.
The computer/phone you have has been built by an engineer because other engineers built machines and infrastructures to mine resources needed to build the computer, while other engineers invented then wrote computer code so you can communicate with the machine.
Engineering may be the best topic you can study because it teaches you how to solve concrete problems.
On top of that, engineers can pretty much work anywhere, their diploma/skills are recognized, and they can find high-paying jobs faster than people that are not engineers (wide generalization) because the world needs engineers, and there aren’t many because it is harder to study.
Topics such as civil engineering, IT engineering, mechanical engineering, business engineering, financial engineering, industrial engineering are quite good, followed by chemical or bio-engineering (more restrictive, but it ultimately comes down to the study program also).
– IT: the world won’t de-digitalize, quite the opposite. There are many opportunities in IT as it is a skill in high demand.
– Math: tightly linked to engineering, some fewer people study math despite math being tight to a lot of important tech disciplines, from AI and data-science to genetic-sequencing and blockchain.
Math is important both in life and business and is a great tool to practice decision-making.
However, not everyone can do that.
– Physics: just like math
– Economics/finance: economics is fascinating as we’re still not exactly sure how it works, you’ll have your fair share of math and it is a good degree to work in finance.
– Business: I always hesitate when I tell people to study business because they will learn about marketing and HRM and strategy, things you can easily learn by yourself anyway (which is not the case of engineering, for example).
So studying business can be good for someone afraid not to be able to study engineering or math, for example.
– Health programs: medicine, nursing, pharmacy…are all good degrees to get as people’s health is about to get worse: more pollution, more stress, less sleep, less meat, more plants, and fake food.
As Africa and Latin America are quickly developing, they will soon start experiencing health problems related to 1st world countries’ lifestyles.
The sector of medicine is ever-expanding because the public health policies we take are the wrong ones. So whatever programs you study that are health-related, you’ll be fine.
In general, keep STEM in mind as a rule of thumb.
2. Where Should You Study?
Where it’s cheap and high quality, meaning “not in Anglo-Saxon countries”.
Unless you can score an Ivy League university (and even then, I don’t know if the price is worth it), I wouldn’t study in the US if you need to borrow money, because it directly restricts your choices once you graduate.
I would instead study in the EU, where the universities are still excellent, much cheaper, and where you can survive by having a student job.
Worst case scenario, you can always borrow a bit to pay your rent, but this very rarely happens as very poor students can apply for financial help on different levels (government, university, city, etc).
“But Aurélien, I only speak English, what am I going to do then?”.
When it comes to language barriers, you have two choices:
1. You don’t learn the local language and choose an English-taught bachelor (not recommended). More and more business and IT programs are taught in English.
2. You learn the local language and study a local-language-taught bachelor (recommended).
Let’s talk first about the first option. If you only speak English and don’t want to bother learning another language, then the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, the three Baltic countries, Scandinavia…are ideal destinations.
More and more countries in Europe start proposing programs in English.
You need to check the tuition fees because they vary per university and country, but it will unlikely be more than €10 000 of tuition fees.
When it comes to studying and working, Scandinavia is great because you’ll make enough money with a student job to pay rent and food (high purchasing power).
Now, let’s have a look at the second option: learning the language.
This is what I recommend because it helps with brain plasticity, it opens a whole new world of meaning and it is an achievement you can genuinely feel proud of.
But is it possible to learn a language then go study in this language at university?
In a word: yes.
Some time ago, I’ve met two 20-year-old Russian girls that had moved to the Czech Republic because they didn’t want to stay in Russia. The Czech Republic is a rather friendly country for Russians visa-wise, so it is full of Russian students escaping their country.
Since they couldn’t speak a word of Czech when they arrived, they spent the first year taking Czech classes and worked in local bars and restaurants.
After one year, they were fluent in Czech and entered university.
They got jobs working in Czech companies in Czech and in a couple of years, will be Czech citizens.
This is great and this is something I did myself (although not with Czech).
After living a year in Australia to learn English, I’ve entered university in the Netherlands and studied in English, which now prevents me from “proving” I speak decent English when applying for jobs.
Learning a foreign language never is a waste of time and really expands your capacity to understand the world.
When I went to Valencia to learn some Spanish, I studied with a bunch of Chinese students, which puzzled me.
Why the hell were Chinese learning Spanish?
I went to ask and they told me they had moved to Spain to study there.
Since most of the study programs were in Spanish, they were spending a year studying Spanish first.
Smart, I thought.
If Chinese can learn Spanish in a year, one year should be more than enough for you too to learn pretty much in language, which will be a skill for your entire life.
It will be difficult, but no one said studying debt-free was easy.
As my mum would say, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”.
3. What About Tuition Fees?
Most EU universities will make you pay more if you don’t have an EU passport, but it’ll never be higher than €10 000 per year (for bachelors, some masters are more expensive).
In the Netherlands for example, non-EU people paid €6000 while EU people paid €2000.
Obviously, some programs are often more expensive for non-EU people when taught in English, but you’ll never see in Europe something like $40 000 per year, that simply doesn’t exist.
4. How Do I Finance It?
You get a student job/build a freelance business.
I am not aware of any EU countries where student jobs don’t exist.
In most cases, a student job will be enough to finance your life.
Universities also help students with low financial means, and if you’re lucky, you can always ask your parents to give you $100 or $200 a month to pay for food.
In the worst-case scenario, you can always borrow money to finance food/rent while working on the side, but that probably won’t be needed as you can easily live with 1000€/month in any EU city (London excluded).
I personally spend 650€/month in Brussels, all included, but I’m also a cheap f*ck.
I have up to this date, never met any European that had to borrow to study because no other solution had worked out (except British people).
Some countries also propose programs where students go to school 1/2 week and work for a company the other 1/2 of the week, like Germany for example.
The company pays for the studies of the student on top of a small salary and usually ends up hiring them at the end.
The Bottom Line
If there is one thing I want you to remember, this is the following: you don’t need to study at home, you don’t need to borrow astronomical sums and you don’t need to study in English.
The world is your playground, you can study anything anywhere for much cheaper than what you’d pay in the US/Australia/etc.
In my case, being an international student wasn’t easy every day, but I have learned a lot, met a lot of different people, and it expanded my comfort zone up to the point that by the time I was 20, I had no problems with the perspective to move anywhere in the world.
The only thing I regret was my major, but I won’t go back in time.
I hope this guide has clarified some questions regarding studies, and that you’ll now do the work to choose well your degree and the country where you’d like to study it.