The Coliseum is seen in Rome, Italy, at dusk on the evening of February 26, 2013.

St. Thomas to Rome: 5,000 Miles to Find Yourself

Rhynn Paulsen returned in mid-December from a study abroad trip to Rome. She called it a transformative experience.

She heard about the Rome opportunity when a professor visited the honors chemistry class she took last year. Although she chose to attend St. Thomas for its various study abroad programs, going to Rome was not part of her original plan. A biology major, she chose the program, in part, because it was one of the only trips for sophomores and an easy trip to balance with a STEM workload.

Rhynn Paulsen called her experience studying abroad in Rome transformative.

Prior to the trip, she heard advice that studying abroad should allow you to let go of everything: normal foods, routines, comfort clothes and, at some level, friends. While a few of her classmates opted to take an organic chemistry class, she seized the opportunity in Rome to take general classes. She took theology, art history, environmental journalism and a basic Italian class.

Other aspects of studying in Rome allowed her to take full advantage of what a liberal arts education offers. The first was getting the opportunity to listen to various speakers who visited her and the other students to share their work in Vatican City. The second occurred when she went on walks throughout the city and spoke with local vendors at the market who would allow her to practice her Italian.

Paulsen also went to the gym to train for cross-country (as she participates in the sport in the U.S.). At the gym, she wasn’t viewed as a foreigner.

These experiences allowed her to enrich herself and wash away the mindset of doing “what she has to do.” The experiences reminded her of how a wide variety of interests can work hand in hand toward her career goals, whether it’s biology or chemistry or environmental studies. The environmental journalism course she took, for example, allowed her to both hone her writing – a skill valuable in any job – and delve into a passion topic.

One of the environmentalists Paulsen is inspired by is her hero, Greta Thunberg. Paulsen's courses and travels allowed her to theorize plans on how to best spread climate awareness. One: Talk about it to instill urgency in other people. Two: Push for political change through legislation policies.

Finally, a piece of advice, directly from Paulsen when asked if you should follow your heart: “Yes, you can.” However, she added, “but for the most part, I would say you won’t make it far if you’re not also doing something that you have an interest in.”

Thanks to the trip to Rome, Paulsen has learned the true value of a liberal arts education and the importance of being well-rounded.

A note about the author: Kendall Shostak, a student at Mounds Park Academy, is a participant in the ThreeSixty Journalism program. A version of this article was first published by ThreeSixty Journalism, a nonprofit of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas that uses the principles of strong writing and reporting to help diverse Minnesota youth tell the stories of their lives and communities.