Despite having no scholarships, financial aid, or personal wealth, in 2016 I graduated with a Master’s degree having paid not one cent of tuition.
In America, we are blessed with and beholden to public education until the age of 18, and then things become a bit murky. Investing in college is simultaneously heralded as an undertaking essential to future success and scorned as a fanciful waste of money and time. For me, it felt like a given that I’d attend college right out of high school, and armed with my BA four years later, I found myself working a modest but professional job that afforded me rent and extracurriculars in my university town. By my mid-20s, burnt out by office life and looking for a change, my thoughts bounced from switching jobs, to moving to a different city, to the ever-mused upon “going to grad school.” Only my options were a little bit different than so many other Americans. As a dual citizen of Iceland, I knew I could head back to the place I’d emigrated from at the age of three and attend graduate school tuition free.
While my citizenship status and native background allowed for a more seamless transition to Icelandic university life, people from anywhere in the world can attend for free. In fact, my program was full of international students from other countries in Europe, China, and even the United States. The are plenty of benefits for students, who save thousands of dollars on an accredited degree while immersed in a new culture, and for the University, which gains diverse research and greater global renown.
The complexities of education seem endless—its financial and personal value, ensuring that students excel and teachers are paid fairly, that benchmarks are met and success is within reach. I was fortunate enough to pursue a free degree but it’s not as easy for most Americans, who must weigh furthering their education with immediate financial responsibility. Not feeling the onus of debt allowed me to explore a completely new field that wasn’t necessarily directly linked to job growth or a higher salary, and I wish more people had that freedom.
My decision to move to Iceland and take on my studies thousands of miles removed from my partner, immediate family, and friends was personal: I wanted to prove to myself I could achieve the next rung of my education in a new field while revisiting my Icelandic identity. However, the appeal of not going into tens of thousands of dollars of debt while attaining those goals cannot be overstated. Now, in the most recent phase of my life I am grateful for the invaluable academic, social, and cultural education I earned, for the skills I acquired that I use every day, and for the liberation to choose a different path without the burden of a decade or more of fretting about money owed.