At age nineteen, many people lives are quite messy. Some of them try to follow a certain track like university to keep them pointing to, at least, some direction. Others just work and others go somewhere, looking for something that they probably don’t even know yet.
But Elisa Escabia, born and raised in Barcelona, Spain, seems to have everything pretty clear. She is not even 20 yet but she is doing what she likes, where she wanted, the way she wanted. Being already economically independent, living in another country and working and studying at the same time, she looks like a giant cannonball of ambition thrown to the sky. She can be an example of how to stop the bullshit and just own your own life still being very young. In this interview with her, she talks with honesty and openness about education, ambitions and fears in this unique moment of her life.
Let’s make a quick recap. After finishing high school in Barcelona studying Natural Sciences, Elisa wanted to study Biology. But most specifically, she wanted to do a branch called Environmental and Molecular Biology. She was doubting in studying either this or Arts, her other passion. But she finally decided for biology and discovered that, by then, only five colleges in all the world offered this degree. One of them was Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, a college one train station away from her home, and another one was Roskilde University, located in Denmark. Since the dream of Elisa was to travel, pieces started to fit together.
“I was jaded of high school”, she confesses referring to the Spanish education system, which in her opinion emphasizes memorization over other aspects of learning also important. For this reason, she was clear in her desire to study abroad. But what’s even more, since she was so tired of studying, she wanted to have a gap year, to fulfill her traveling dream. While taking a gap year before starting university is the common thing in countries like Denmark, it’s not the norm in Spain, so most parents don’t like the idea. She talked about this with her parents and no, they didn’t encourage the idea, but at least it opened the conversation to the possibility of studying abroad.
When deciding to go to Denmark, she didn’t know that much of the Danish education system, but the collective imaginary of the northern countries, at least in Spain, evokes modernity and progress. Another reason was that in Roskilde University they have this “semester project” about a topic they choose, that needs to be done in groups and its very huge (it counts for 15 ECTS). She liked this collaborative idea since she thinks her future daily work will need to be done mostly with other people, so basically, she thought this system would fit her better.
She studied in a public high school until she was 13, and then changed to a semi-private high school, where she finished. “I think changing from one high school to another in the middle of my teenage years, made me realize that breaking the links with the people around you is not a big deal”.
After her application was accepted, she didn’t take long to confirm her parents and friends she would be going to study in Denmark, a whole different country, with a whole different language. And yes, she did it. Fearless of studying in English or leaving her life behind, she first landed in the northern country with only 17 years old. Talking about her parents’ process of acceptance, she says that since it was a long process, they had time to consider the idea, but that didn’t change the worrying of her mother. The friend she seems to miss the most is Paula Minguillón. They met fighting each other in a handball match, and they keep their distance friendship until today.
Here is an important thing: she noticed that some people thought she was kind of ‘given’ this opportunity, like if she earned a scholarship or came from a privileged position, but nothing further from reality. She researched by herself and figured out one of “these opportunities that are there for everybody” as she calls it, and she was just brave enough to pursue it.
We have to add one more ingredient to Elisa’s plan now, that will make it way more interesting. While she didn’t know about this from the beginning, after some time in Denmark she learned about the SU. Here’s the deal, in Denmark, not only college education is free for everyone, but also students over the age of 18 can obtain a grant from the government if they work some hours per week while they are studying. This also works for non-Danes that have a job and pay taxes to the level where they are considered at the same level as a Dane by the system.
Elisa was helped by her parents to first finance her way up to her dream studies, but after finding a job as a bartender in an Italian restaurant at her second year, she now receives an amount of money per month (between 5000 and 7000kr of job salary + 6000kr of student grant) that allows her to live comfortably, by her own and economically independent from her parents at a very young age. In euros, the 6000kr of SU she receives are 780€ approximately. For this reason, right now she finds herself in an ‘equilibrium’ phase that seems to make her life pretty sweet, of course, thanks to her hard work and bravery. This whole SU thing can look very extraterrestrial for a Spanish person, who could work twice the hours Elisa is right now and still not reaching that amount of money. Thanks, Denmark!
But this money doesn’t mean there’s some bittersweet flavor in all of this.
I asked her if she had felt at some point in these two years that she could be missing something from Spain that could be good for her to have, maybe skipping some aspects of the Spanish education system or just continuing her life there.
“I do have thought about it many times” – she confesses. “By studying an international degree, it’s true that many people are studying for the second time or have traveled before and just came back… I was the most little one from my degree when I first started” she says kind of missing being with people of her same age. This is explained by the Danish education system. Because of their different organization, Danes normally go to their first year of uni at age 20. They finish high school at 19 and sometimes they go to an “Efterskole” between under and upper secondary studies. Elisa’s flatmate, for example, started uni at 23.
Efterskole consists of a one year course in a boarding school where they can spend time in the activities they like. This is a very interesting and unique aspect of the Danish education system that Elisa taught me a lot about. It’s the only part of their education that is not public (not completely free) and “each one of these schools is based in a hobby” as she explains it. “Some of them are about sports, other ones teach music, dance, environment… During this year they have just a few hours of class and a lot of time to do activities and to build relations”.
Elisa strongly believes this system kind of fits better the needs of a teenage person. Referring to the Spanish system she says “Imagine finishing E.S.O. (you are 16 by then) and you are just a crazy teenager, you don’t even know yet what is happening”, “For example, back then I was like very lost in one hand, but so creative in the other, and then they put you in Bachillerato (Spanish upper secondary education) and they make you study a lot, they are somehow cutting your wings”.
In her opinion, something as an Efterskole fits so much in the age when you are supposed to attend it, encouraging you to discover yourself and explore your creativity and interests. For me, this makes so much sense. “Here, there is no pressure as in Spain to start university as soon as possible”.
So getting back on track, about what Elisa misses from being in Spain, she says in Denmark she is living with people that are at different stages in life than her “A friend of mine just had a baby”, that’s a good example. “Since in Spain everything is very marked by timing, people from your class are going to be people from your generation, people that have watched the same cartoons as you on television as a child, but in here, sometimes I think I’m missing doing the typical silly things of a 19 year old girl, like going out to clubs or crazy uni parties”. That’s about the social circle, but what about college?
Well, Elisa never studied in a Spanish university so she can’t really tell, but according to what she expects it to be, she says: “I really like my education here, but it is true that sometimes I miss my courses were a bit more diverse […] it feels like education here is very open or soft and I think sometimes hardness is necessary”. Especially in science, she addresses. But also, a degree in Denmark is three years instead of four, because they are supposed to make after a master of 2 years, what would round their university education up to 5 years. That’s why if you only do a bachelor degree here, it probably won’t be considered enough. Anyways, Elisa still thinks Spain emphasizes too much the memorization, so perhaps the path here seems to be more calmed, she doesn’t think the level is lower than in Spain. Also, she is very happy with the amount of practical activities she gets to do here “We have a climate room for our own where I can control the temperature and humidity, and we have twelve aquariums where we can control from the PH to the carbon dioxide. We have a lot of freedom for experimentation and there’s a lot of budget for laboratories”.
When mentioning the World Happiness Report that placed Denmark as the happiest country in the world last year, and the second one this year, Elisa said that “the conception of happiness in Europe is based on money […] Denmark must be very happy then because they have parks with a big economic value, good museums, a great social security, the difference between rich and poor is very little… But I can assure you, that Denmark is not the happiest country in the world, and if I got to say, I would say is very at the bottom of the list”. “We can also mislead happiness with security, in Denmark people feel safe in the sense that they will have a payment if they lose the job, their children will be able to study, when they grow old they’ll have a pension, so here they live with safety. But while security is very important, it doesn’t give happiness”. In fact -she says- in Denmark there’s a lot of people suffering from depression. It’s not weird for them to have dealt with it at least once in their lives.
I asked here then how is she feeling in RUC because if the Danish education system itself is already very different from the Spanish one, this university is even more particular than the others in the country. “RUC has the fame of being hippy and easier, what I think is that it is easy to pass the exams, but not to have a good grade though. You really have to work for that”.
Now, talking about traveling, which is the main goal of Elisa right now, she has managed to go to the Caribbean Islands last summer and went to Thailand this Christmas. After these two trips on her own, she has confirmed to herself that she loves to travel alone and that she is definitely going to spend more time on it in the future. Especially in the month she spent in Thailand, she found out incredible new things about herself. But first, a recap on her trip to the Caribe:
Elisa’s main hobbies are playing handball (she’s been in a team for many years), painting and diving. She loves the underseas so much, that she wants to make a living as a professional diver while she travels around the world. Her passion for the sea is also one of the main reasons that she wants to keep studying Biology until obtaining a PhD. After her first year in Denmark, she did her first important travel alone to the Caribbean Islands. This travel was not yet fully financed by her, but she used it to attend a diving school and earn three titles called Ecodiving, Rescue, and Dive Master. The last one allows her to be a diver professionally by helping in a diving center, a key part of her life’s puzzle. With these courses, she will now have a way to sustain herself doing what she loves: discovering the sea and traveling.
The next trip she did was in Christmas, when she went to Thailand and lived incredible experiences that she says, would like to keep to herself.
And what about her future?
Elisa thinks her time in Denmark has ended, and although she has been very happy here, she feels that it’s time for her to let go. That is why she will be doing an exchange program for her next semester in Colombia since August. She thinks this will be the next big step in her life and what she needs to continue her journey. After that, only one semester in RUC will be left for her to finish, and when she does so, she will spend some more time in traveling before going after her next dream, get a scholarship to study a master in California, USA. She will definitely spread her wings and fly, or maybe in her case, she’ll get under the sea and swim to the next ocean.
to know more about Elisa, follow her Instagram @elisaescabia 🙂