To School or Not To School: A Tale of an Unconventional Path to Higher Education

by Nathan Walworth

For many adolescents in the United States, anything beyond high school may seem like a misconceived dream that inevitably develops into a student-loan nightmare. Save now and refrain from higher education, or get a degree and be enslaved to preemptive debt. The American dream is in quite a pickle.

Through this simple example, one can imagine the psychological trauma inflicted on many young minds across the country. Plus, educational goals inevitably narrow into aspirations to reduce future debt rather than to learn based on passion or values. This is not necessarily a question of good, bad, right, or wrong, but more of an acknowledgement of a subconscious bias towards learning as a direct product of indentured servitude to student-lending institutions.

This is just one version of one example among the countless situations different young Americans are facing. Some kids may not have the option of college. Some simply don’t care… and in a way, why should they?

A kid is a kid.

And as a kid, it is easy to stray from schooling unless education is easily accessible and promises a positive outcome. Great examples of appropriate accessibility of higher education can be found across Europe. If furthering education is your goal, cheaper (and sometimes more beneficial) alternatives to the conventional, American route do exist. I want to present my path as an example for others to see that nontraditional methods to furthering education are accessible… you just need to find them. To no other generation before has the world been so small, so why not see if we can treat it as such?

Like many discoveries, mine happened by accident. I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz pursuing a degree in Marine Biology, and among science majors, it is well known that a mere bachelor’s degree is not enough to make a decent living in our field. I already knew graduate school was necessary for my goals, but alas, the expense of continuing education seemed financially crippling.

During my final year at UC Santa Cruz, I was fortunate enough to study abroad at Lund University in Sweden. Here I learned that, at that time, any person from anywhere in the world could attend Swedish universities… for free! Importantly, before I applied to their Master’s program, I had to check if U.S. institutions would recognize my European degree as an equivalent to theirs. Fortunately, Lund University was more than qualified, ranking higher than most Universities in the U.S. I immediately messaged several of my Santa Cruz science peers of this opportunity and in that following year, several of us ended up attending the same program. And what a year it was.

Some of my most profound lessons came from outside the classroom. Within my department were students from all over the world who, like me, discovered the educational opportunities Sweden offered. Our coffee breaks were filled with philosophical conversations about why different nationalities have a different perception of life, helping teach me to work efficiently and cordially across borders. I had to convey both scientific and social ideas in a way that could be universally understood, irrespective of language and culture. I was able to access parts of my mind that may have remained dormant in the U.S. I emerged with a unique master’s degree virtually free of debt, setting me apart from many in my field.

Perhaps, my most profound experience came from the general observation that young adults of all disciplines were beginning to explore unconventional education and career possibilities abroad. And due to cheaper options, much of the educational decisions were free from the fear of the dreaded student-loans. For most American kids, the U.S. educational system was the only advertised method of obtaining a degree. It is difficult for a young mind to conceptualize that an international endeavor is not only possible but also cheaper. The tolerance gained from experiencing people who see the world differently and the interpersonal skills attained in an international setting are indispensible in any occupation, causing wonder as to why these options are not more readily available.

Indeed, an unfortunate consequence for many Americans who are unable to study in an international setting is that they form preemptive notions about why we do what we do, and why the world seems to not like it. Wouldn’t it be something if future generations led the charge in international tolerance through promoting education abroad? Many universities are now experimenting with making ‘study abroad programs’ mandatory. But where is the assistance or motivation to explore international opportunities after you get your current degree? Those who are privileged enough to travel and study abroad know of the limitless potential these experiences can unlock. But what if this opportunity could be extended to a much wider demographic as a way to save hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in education? What would our world be like then?


Nathan Walworth, a Los Angeles native, received a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology from UC Santa Cruz followed by a master’s degree in Ecology in Lund, Sweden. He is currently pursuing a PhD in climate change driven microbial evolution at the University of Southern California. He plans to continue his career in science by studying human impacts on the environment while also identifying solutions for environmental remediation. He has sustained international collaborations enabled from his time abroad in Sweden. Feel free to contact him at 

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