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Why One Teen Dropped Out And Made Paris His Higher Education

A traditional college education—and the thousands of dollars in student debt—may not be for everyone. Thiel Fellow and education disruptor Dale Stephens takes a look at one teen who decided to forgo university and move to France.

While I was in Paris in October, I interviewed Austin Sholwater, a young man who left Michigan State University last semester. He decided that instead of taking on $20,000 in debt per year, he would move to Paris, learn French, and earn $20,000 in the process.

When I met Austin, he'd been in Paris for two months, his French accent was nearly impeccable, and he had found a job (tutoring Japanese, a language he also speaks). He told me that his plan was to spend about a year in France, then move to Madrid to learn Spanish, then learn German in Munich. Hearing Austin talk about his plans made me miss traveling.

Dale StephensIt may sound odd for me to say that I miss traveling. After all, I have flown over 115,000 miles this year to nine different countries. But I'm not really traveling. I'm seeing airports, fancy cars, convention centers, and hotel lobbies. I'm not immersing myself in a culture. And I'm not gaining a new perspective on life (aside from that of a business traveler).

While Austin's life sound glamorous, exploring Paris at 19, it isn't easy. "Disposable income" isn't part of his parlance: he still struggles to make income match expenses. "But money isn't everything," he told me as we walked down La Rue Montparnasse, "I'm getting a larger taste of reality."

To bystanders, we probably looked like an unlikely pair. On my way to a speaking engagement at a Parisian university, I was wearing dress shoes and a nice shirt. Austin, in his old Converse and faded jeans, fit right in with Parisian youth. Contemplating this scene and speaking with Austin made me think about the security in my life. I felt complacent. I'd flown to Europe twice that month. I have a book contract with a major publisher. I am part of a prestigious fellowship. I don't have to worry about my immediate future. I have the next two years of my life more or less guaranteed. I would have to screw up pretty badly to change that.

I miss that perspective, so I've decided to make myself uncomfortable. The first comfort challenge I'm undertaking is moving to Berlin for two months starting in January. Why? I need to eliminate distractions from my life to finish my book on time. I could become a hermit in the San Francisco apartment—but what's the adventure in that? Instead, I'll finish my book from an apartment in P-Berg and gain a larger taste of reality.

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he leads Perigee/Penguin will publish his first book about hacking your education in early 2013.

[Image: Flickr user francescominciotti]