Acid Reflux and Insomnia: The Price of Escaping America's Exorbitant Tuition

Ryan Shannon

Burnout, burnout, and ah, yes…more burnout! Disclosure: This story contains affiliate links.

Sometimes I like to throw myself little pity parties over the past. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I’d change the way anything in my life has happened (including my traumas, including my embarrassments, including my time at a teen homeless shelter).

While it’s completely pointless to expend my “now-energy” on past events, I sometimes think to myself: “Man…imagine how much different my life would have been had I not had to freelance my way through university in Italy.” If I could have gone out on the weekends with my friends, spending my parents’ money.

If I could focus on studying, rather than the ticking clock reminding me of the deadline of yet another order on Fiverr.

While I was living in Italy, where I earned my bachelor’s in Business and Management from the University of Turin, I had to turn to the internet to make money for tuition and cover rent. I started writing SEO blog content and Amazon product listings on Fiverr, ultimately gaining 600+ 5-star reviews.

Eventually, I niched down on Amazon EBC/A+ content and was able to make a decent living (until I was banned from the platform. Woops!)

And while I’m grateful for the experiences (even if I was slaving away on Fiverr, making just $4 for 600-word articles in the beginning) I can’t help but imagine how different my life would have been had I come from a typical two-parent household that’d be willing to shell out the meager $3,000 in tuition (total. Not annual. Total!)

But that wasn’t the case.

It was either: Earn money freelancing online (mostly on Fiverr, which, if you’ve used the platform as a freelancer, you know how unfortunate that can be).

Or: Don’t and pack my bags.

Not making money online would mean having to teach English in-person (which I dreaded but did anyway for about a month after I was kicked off Fiverr), and if that didn’t work out, I’d have had to say “ciao” to Italy.

And then what would I do? Start young adulthood piled in debt by studying in the US?

I was in survival mode. My degree depended on me making ends meet. And that’s a lot of pressure to bear as a 20-year-old.

Many nights I couldn’t sleep. I developed acid reflux. I was depressed and extremely anxious in class. My sweat developed an abnormal odor that was hard to get out of my shirts.

It wasn’t until I read The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk that I was able to make sense of the physical manifestations of my prolonged stress.

To iterate, my point in writing this isn’t to score “poor you” comments. Rather, I hope to illustrate, through my story, how challenging it can be escaping enslaving American university tuition and the importance of quality of life for young students.

Why Freelancing In University Was Hard

1. I Was On Fiverr.

Fiverr has its advantages — you’ve got access to thousands of buyers and don’t have to set up shop online.

The downsides are plenty, though. From the incessant ticking of the clock on orders to being unable to select clients you work with, to the 20% cut from Fiverr, the platform

2. I Was Young and Naive.

I started off writing 600-word articles for $4 (after Fiverr’s cut)… what was I thinking?

I guess the idea of making money online was so enticing, I sacrificed my need for a living wage.

3. I Was Bitter That My Friends’ Parents Paid Their Way

It was hard hearing my friends make plans to go out for an aperitivo or worse… to lay in bed all day (a luxury I wish I could have afforded).

Instead, I was nestled up working on homework and slaving away, writing blogs on the dangers of wet floors.

My negative affect probably further solidified my perception of freelancing being hard while being a full-time student.

4. I Was a Foreigner

With being a foreigner usually comes lacking fluency in the local language (which was my case — fortunately, I picked up Italian as I waded through floods of bureaucracy) and that meant I couldn’t get a normal job.

Unless I taught English, of course. Which I didn’t want to do, but did anyway once I got the boot on Fiverr.

5. I Was Studying Full Time…In Italy

Emphasis on the “in Italy” part. Italy is renowned (or, infamous, depending on your perspective) for its heavy academic load.

It seemed we had to remember textbooks that were hundreds of pages thick word-by-word. And another thing — oral exams were common.

That means you had better become an expert on…everything.

6. I Had Access to Very Little Scholarships

While it’s true there were scholarships and limited student work programs at the university, I never felt worthy enough for them.

This was probably from childhood trauma embedded in my psyche, and also the fact that I just didn’t feel Italian. I thought only Italians should be eligible for scholarships in Italy (which, I’ve completely reframed my thoughts on this.

I wouldn’t bat an eye if I heard of an Italian getting a scholarship in the US — why the double standard when it came to me, a foreign student in Italy?)

Unfortunately, there are very few scholarship resources for students not participating in study abroad (I, instead, was getting my full degree there).

7. I Couldn’t Take Out a Loan

Since I wasn’t studying in the US, I wasn’t eligible for student loans. The reason behind moving to Italy for studies in the first place was to avoid getting a student loan and getting into debt.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, the average bachelor student who attended public universities owes $28,600 — I did not want to be in this camp!

However, I think it would have been practical to take out a small loan to cover the less than $3,000 I paid and reduce some of my living costs. But c’est la vie!

A Story of Escaping American Tuition

Ultimately, I successfully escaped the grip of American university tuition and its accompanying debt, but at what cost?

I hope one day (soon!) America’s universities don’t necessitate teenagers taking out loans just to study.

I hope we don’t expect young adults to burn themselves out — not only through their studies, but also through agonizing over bills and tuition.

I hope scholarship awardees consider an expansive audience who may be pressured to emigrate for affordable education.

I hope quality of life is prioritized over hustle.

That episode of burnout is over, but it only stoked a fire within.

Perhaps because of my first-hand experience with burnout, I was drawn to my program in Work and Organizational Psychology to help make the workplace work for humans — particularly those who may also be studying — without causing significant, chronic stress.

My experience has ignited feelings of empathy towards my working peers who are burning at both ends.

Future student life must be better.

Disclosure: This story contains affiliate links.

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Digital nomad, I/O psychology student, entrepreneur. Visited nearly 30 countries. Author of 5 books on freelancing, travel, mental health.

Bellingham, WA
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