What is the Reflection Project? This summer we asked our fellowship alumni to reflect on their experiences abroad. Fellows from all six years of the fellowship told us how the fellowship has impacted them in the years or months since they returned from their travels. This is the final installment of the series.
During my second week as a Bonderman Fellow, I checked in to a hostel in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was one of the artsy variety, on the refurbished upper floor of an old, regal building near the city center. Mural-painted walls, weathered crown moulding, a resident cat, mismatched antique décor. An unmarked front door, and requiring the premium extra few dollars per night, which tends to draw creatives and more seasoned-travelers, respectively.
I ate toast at the communal breakfast table next to a Swedish-German guy named Barto. He would become one of the first and greatest friends of my travels. We spent a few days exploring the city, living out Russia’s “white nights”, and talking about everything from (what he called) my inevitable “European transition,” to his enthrallment with the unpredictability of places beyond Sweden.
Amid a conversation somewhere in those St. Petersburg days was his response: “Urban Planning? Have you considered studying in Europe for that?”. I could almost hear the millisecond pause in my brain, and the ensuing inception of an idea. “Well, no…”.
I love to look back on moments like these – seemingly simple, but with hidden influence that would present itself as they rippled forward in time.
Barto and I would catch up over long bus trip WhatsApp calls as we meandered through the world on our separate paths over the following months. He would ultimately help me navigate the realm of university admissions in Europe, and reminded me of how many exciting possibilities existed for me to pursue an international chapter of life after Bonderman.
Three continents, ten months, the onset of a global pandemic, and one summer at home later, I was packing up again.
The departure looked and felt oddly similar to my departure as a Bonderman fellow about a year earlier:
A week of hard see-you-laters. A last moment with Lake Michigan. Saving the packing for the midnight quiet of my final night home. Being a dramatic weirdo about all the ‘lasts’ – the last time I’d wake up in my bed, close my bedroom door, brush my teeth at home (for an undetermined while, at least).
But it was also different. My mom and dad drove me to Chicago to catch my flight, which I sort of delusionally pretended was another childhood family road trip with my sibs missing. I had Old Faithful (my black REI backpack) plus a large suitcase and a comically gigantic bike box. I was elated to be going, but also paralyzed with fear of the impending goodbye. And I cried, hard and fast, with my mom. There were big hugs. And then dad helped us rip the band-aid off at the airport curb.
With a bit of time, space, and (in this case) good sleep courtesy of a whole row of airplane seats to myself – it got easier. That, and because (as with Bonderman) I was sure about what I was leaving for.
Last week, I started my MS in Sustainable Urban Planning & Design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. So far, so good.
Aside from studies, it’s been so sweet to explore a new city knowing my commitment to it as “home” for the next two years. Bonderman helped me realize I was ready for that – although I thrived on the on-the-go nature of the fellowship, I couldn’t help gradually slowing pace as the months went on. I craved connection, and when I found it, it was even harder to move on. It made me ready for this chapter of rooting down and continuing my education, and made me prioritize doing so in a more global environment.
So a window into this world? Stockholm really is freakishly utopian upon arrival:
The visibly diverse population living here. The apps to buy discounted surplus food. The abundance of bike parking, the sleek metro. The eight categories of recycling. The modest but practical design. The laws that generously encourage a person coming to study in Sweden to bring their partner and young kids along. The urban density that’s somehow also intermixed with an abundance of forests and parks.
In the mornings I run in the woods that border campus on crushed-cinder paths – part of an extensive pedestrian and cycling network. I pass mothers pushing strollers, people commuting to work, and one of the big urban gardens, which looks like a collection of about 100 (rentable) hobbit garden sheds nestled into a vibrant eden. It’s pretty tranquil here, and as statistics say, safe too.
The other day, I took the commuter tram to visit Barto; he was home from Berlin visiting family in the northern suburbs of Stockholm. I texted him on my way. “Can I eat an apple on the tram?” He thought so, but wasn’t certain. “Take a few bites and look around to see if anyone gives you a weird look.” The Swedish public has a way of letting people know where the unofficial social boundaries lie.
We caught up over some wine, canned herring in mustard sauce (a Swedish staple, apparently), grainy bread, incredible cheese, and homemade dill pickles. We chatted with his family, told some good stories, and raised a glass to this wonderfully serendipitous life.