Guest Post By: Junior studying Marketing, Jana Merca. During UW’s Winter & Spring Quarters 2022, Jana, a Global Business Center Study Abroad Scholarship recipient, studied abroad on the Foster Exchange with the University of Economics, Prague (Czech Republic).
To have a 21st birthday in a foreign country is a funny concept. It seems that in America, we put a certain weight on milestone birthdays. Ten is when you can pretend you are no longer a kid because you are (finally!!) double digits. Then, when you turn 16 years old you can finally drive and when you turn 18 years old you are officially an adult. Finally by 21years old, you reach your last big age milestones, legal drinking age. Yet, here in Europe, a 21st birthday is just the same as any other birthday. With age being less significant here, it has made me reflect on time more in terms of life stages. As a student and junior at UW, it seems that most of my college experiences thus far have centered around self discovery and change. Especially while abroad, I have learned what I find most fulfilling to me and the importance of prioritizing that.
Throughout my time in Prague, I often find myself comparing my experiences here to my previous travels as a teen pre-pandemic. When I was in highschool, I had the opportunity to partake in a direct exchange with a host family in Italy.
When I traveled previously as a teenager, I found it thrilling to talk to as many people as possible, go somewhere new each weekend, and live in a very short term, extreme mindset of spontaneity. When I first started studying abroad, I entered with a similar mindset. But at the end of the day, I was shocked by how exhausted these things made me feel. I laughed to myself thinking, “this is what getting old feels like.” For example, having a large quantity of friends while abroad wasn’t fulfilling to me unless I felt like I knew them on a deeper level. At first admitting to myself that this lifestyle was unattainable scared me, thinking that I have fallen into a boring, mundane routine of adulthood. When discussing my thoughts with my sister, she pointed out how much growth I have experienced in being able to identify sources of unhappiness.
Additionally, I learned that I don’t need to put pressure on myself to travel to a new spot each weekend. When I first started my program, everyone around me was booking trips and I followed, partly for the excitement of adventure but also because it was what everyone around me was doing. Yet, after moving so much in college due to the pandemic, I found myself desperately longing to put down roots and to experience a local feeling. I love that I can navigate around my neighborhood without directions and that certain grocery store clerks know me by name now. As for relationships, I have found so much fulfillment in building community through a smaller friend group, where I can really prioritize quality time together. Unlike my previous self where I couldn’t say no to plans, I also take time each week to reset by spending nights focusing on self care by myself. When contrasting past me to now, I learned it’s okay to advocate for my own needs.
Aspects of my teenager traveling self such as risk taking, curiosity, and a drive for human connection will always be a part of my identity. But, in this new life stage, I have discovered how to find fulfillment under my terms in a sustainable, balanced way.