Jo here, writing to you from my informal workspace during the holidays, my childhood bedroom. In this month’s We Fly High feature, we talk to an extremely charismatic medical school student who somehow still found time to travel and then share his story with us.
Within the first few sentences of Matthew’s email, I knew I had to not only learn more about his story, but share it with you all as well; let’s get inspire-y.And of course, because once you’re all pumped up about his journey, you can book flights on our site to shut up and go.
Let’s set the scene: A high school student who dreams of seeing the world falls in love with Spanish. His Spanish teacher, the coolest woman alive, encourages him to study abroad by sharing her stories and his mind is made up; as soon as he can, he’s getting his a$$ abroad.
Next chapter, college, where his Freshman year he finds out that because of his ambitious pre-med aspirations, the only time he can study abroad is the last semester of his senior year. Screw that! I am NOT letting life pass me by so I plan, save, and work my tail off to get my plane ticket. The plan: the summer between Sophomore and Junior year I’m headed abroad. 20 years old. Alone. Let’s go!
Are you hooked on his story? Cause I am… this guy gets it.
Let’s take a step back Matt the boy wonder, where did you grow up?
Verona, WI – Officially considered Hometown USA and located just outside of the capital –> Madison, WI
Nice, ok, Wisconsin’s cheese curds are the best thing that could’ve happened to The States.
How old are you now?
I’m a ripe 22 years old
But how old were you when you first bought your “THIS CHANGED MY LIFE” plane ticket?
19 years old (and I wish I would’ve bought it sooner). Traveling changed my life. Deciding I was sick of the excuses and finally buying that first ticket was the best decision I’ve ever made. As an unknown author once said, “The bad news is that time flies. The good news is that you’re the pilot.” This realization was life altering for me.
I’m loving this mentality, cause it’s just like ours!
Where did you end up going?
On my journey I spent three weeks exploring Ireland, Northern Ireland, and France before a two month stay with a family on their olive farm in Italy – something I arranged on workaway because I am BROKE and this let me stay in freakin’ Italy for FOR FREE. So for two months I lived la vita bella, taking care of the olive trees by day and drinking vino by night. I learned Italian, went to summer festivals in tiny hill-top towns, climbed literal mountains, napped on beaches, and fell in love with Italy.
How can you top that? Go spend a month in Spain. So I then lived in the incredibly charming NW region of Spain called Galicia with a family of four teaching English to their 10 and 4 year old boys. It only took a week for me to stop speaking Italian to them instead of Spanish, but from the very beginning, we were family. Did I mention that this entire month was also free for me??
This is all melting my heart right now, tell me more! What happened post travels?
It’s now more than two years later, but I still keep in touch with my Italian and Spanish families, admittedly more often than my actual family members. The friends I made during my solo travels are the most amazing people I’ve ever met. They opened up their homes to let me stay with them in Paris, went bar hopping with me in Galway, and showed me around the Dolomites in Italy (I did loads of side travels during my two month stint in Italy ;).
When my eventual study abroad opportunity came around (Senior year) I was more than ready to go. Granada, Spain became my home for 5 months of my life. I fell in love with the city, the language, the people, the food, the way of life… don’t make me go on because this email would never end. My closest friends are the Spaniards I met there and I’ll never forget the laughs we shared.
You’re making ME want to buy a plane ticket to Spain right now.
(If you’re looking for me, I’ll be busy taking care of the olive tree named after me at the olive farm I worked at)
And on the subject of buying, what did the process leading up to buying the ticket look like, were you working while in school, if so what was your job?
I was lucky enough to have amazing influences growing up who made me realize that I can do WHATEVER I WANT with my life (shout-out to my teachers Mrs. Halverson and Mrs. Mikkelson). They inspired me and fueled my dreams to travel, so when I arrived at college, I talked with as many advisors as possible to get help with my game plan and they all told me it couldn’t be done. They said I couldn’t major in both biochemistry and Spanish, study abroad for a semester, and get into medical school right out of college. However, I finally ran into one who said it would be difficult, but it could be done. One yes, that’s all I needed. She and I devised a plan and I realized the only way I could accomplish everything would be to wait until my last semester to study abroad. That broke my heart, so I decided to reserve the summer between my sophomore year and junior year to travel.
That’s right boo boo, you definitely get that there’s always a solution. My college experience was similar, always doing the most to do what I wanted to do in the end.
Where did you work to save up cash?
I had worked all of high school in a local movie theatre so I had some money saved up, but that all went to pay for college. I had also worked really hard academically in high school and received a partial academic scholarship to attend my university as well as a few independent scholarships. (Studying really does pay off!!) During college, I worked lots of odd-jobs watching kids, waiting tables, lifeguarding, proctoring an English language exam, and I even won a scholarship for my pediatric hematology/oncology research; all the money first went towards my education and whatever was left was set aside to travel.
When the time finally came to buy the ticket, it was a surreal moment. It was the culmination of years of hard work, long hours, and ignoring the naysayers. I remember when it all hit me and I couldn’t believe that this was my life, this was my adventure.
BOOM! That has to be the best feeling, when you finally click the “book” button, you know you’re going.
Was there any major sacrifice you had to make to live your traveling dreams?
In order to finance my travels, I had to sacrifice a lot of personal time during college so that I could work. It was difficult to see others enjoying their collegiate experience with less stress and more free time, but I had to remind myself that I was working towards something BIG. I definitely came to understand the meaning of delayed gratification.
Psh, tell me about it, I always had an internship, a paid job outside of school, two jobs on campus, and knew DamonAndJo was what I wanted to do. Cue me never sleeping for four years, but eventually succeeding in accomplishing my goals.
Were your parents on board? Did your friends think you were crazy?
I’ve repeatedly asked my parents what they thought about me traveling on my own and they say, “We knew we couldn’t stop you. You had been talking about it for so long.” That’s true. Pretty much since high school, I had been warning them I was leaving. I had to travel. When I bought my ticket they were really happy for me and then shifted into “concerned parent mode” to make sure I’d stay safe the entire time.
My parents, who never understood my never-ending desire to travel, visited me afterward and we ventured through Spain, the southern coast of France, Monaco, and Italy before parting ways. They returned to the US (finally understanding my love of traveling, might I add)while I headed to England and Scotland to visit and travel with friends, attempt to see the Queen, walk the West Highland Way in the Scottish Highlands (50 miles of it – camping out under the stars included), and ride the Hogwarts express off into the sunset.
As for my friends, so many of them were overjoyed for me, and the large majority just didn’t understand how I was able to do it. Being a pre-med, a lot of my friends asked me how I could possibly afford to take off an entire summer that could be spent “resume-building.” They didn’t see the value in the experience that I did.
(50 miles of hiking over 3 days and loving every moment of it)
I’m glad you were able to stick through despite the confusion. In the end, I have a theory that no one really knows anything at all, so the minute you find a spark of passion and desire, you better run with it.
Let’s talk accommodation: as someone who’s lived with strangers in host families, any tips? Were you hesitant?
Staying with complete strangers definitely has its concerns, and I absolutely was hesitant at first. What I made sure of though was that, above anything else, I felt comfortable and safe. I had many conversations with prospective hosts about what the arrangement would be – Where would I sleep? How many hours a day I would work? Who would provide the food? Did our expectations match? And the list goes on and on. I even Skyped with one family because they wanted to talk things through further rather than just emailing. What I found though is that it takes a certain person to want to host a complete stranger just like it takes a certain person to be willing to stay with someone they don’t know. There was a mutual respect between us and we each had all of our questions answered before we agreed to anything.
To anyone looking to stay with a host family they way I did (working for them in exchange for a place to stay and food to eat), I would make sure that the expectations are clear between everyone before you agree to anything. It’s so much easier to know what you’re walking into rather than be caught off-guard when you’re already there.
It’s true, it’s a mutual respect thing in the end. Good or bad, I tell people that living with homestays will give you a genuine and one of a kind travel experience that’s always worth it.
What do you prefer, solo travel or traveling with a group or friends? Why?
(I had some sweet digs in Cinque Terre. Found a hostel with this unbelievable view for a steal)
This is a tough question to answer because it really depends. For the time of my life that I was in, I was so happy that I traveled alone. I met the most amazing people, created unforgettable memories, and had the liberty to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Traveling alone makes you realize who you are and what you stand for. It’s cliché, but you really do come to love yourself on a whole new level.
However, there were a few times that I wish I had had someone next to me to share those moments with; to be able look back years from now say, “remember when…” I’ve had fantastic experiences traveling with friends and family, and that’s because they were right for that trip we were on together. That’s why it all depends. I’ll say it again though, I was so happy that I traveled alone, and I have not hesitated to plan trips alone since then.
And now, after all this amazing experience, if you could only give us one travel tip that could change our lives, what would it be?
Just one?! Come on, Jo!
Stop listening to the naysayers. Everyone always says you can’t do it; either you’re too young, too broke, too busy, or any other excuse you can think of. I always used to hear, “There’s the problem of time and money. When you’re young you’ve got the time, but not the money. When you’re older, you have the money, but not the time. They never line up.” What people don’t realize is that traveling doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, and it definitely doesn’t have to be for weeks or months at a time. A weekend trip somewhere nearby is just as freeing as a two-week cross-Atlantic journey. The important thing is just to GET OUT THERE. To quote some wise travelers, “Shut up and go!”
Don’t be afraid to say hello. I’ve met some of the warmest people just by starting a simple conversation – on a plane, in a bar, in a park, WHEREVER. I chatted with someone in a park in Milan and we got along so well, we had lunch and spent the afternoon together. I made a new friend at a hostel in Ireland, only to stay in contact and later spend 5 days at her place in Paris (we actually just exchanged Christmas cards and it’s been more than 2 years since we met). Some of my closest friends to this day are a group of Spaniards I met at a bar in Granada. You never know how a simple “hello” can change your life.
I like how you think ;), shut up and go, shut up and say hello; isn’t it great how it always ends up rhyming?
What about practical advice, what are three go-to tools you can share?
- This website is great for travelers on a budget looking to get the REAL, local experience – workaway.info (I’m not sponsored by them at all, fyi)
- Whatsapp is a messenger system used around the world. You need it.
- maps.me is the most amazing offline map system ever. It’s saved my a$$ several times.
Matthew, it’s been a pleasure. You’ve even got me pumped up about my next travels abroad living with homestays again.
What’s next for you my charismatic friend?
I’m now a medical student working towards another dream of mine, healing others. I aspire to be a bilingual physician speaking both English and Spanish (and when my Italian and French are finally up to par add those on too). I’ve continually got at least three Skyscanner travel alerts going to find my next flight. My current read is El Alquimista. And I’d love to wander a corner of the world with you two.
I seriously hope we can meet in person one day, we’d be best friends; sorry Damon.
I’m also glad that everyone reading gets a look into your inspirational life! You da bomb, and deserve nothing but the best! Sending you hugs from my bed.
(The Dolomites in Italy – one of my favorite places in the world. Just look at it!)