Rhynn Paulsen returned from a study-abroad trip to Rome, which she called a transformative experience, in mid-December.
Originally, Paulsen chose to be a biology major, but after spending time in Rome she wonders if it was the right decision. When reflecting a month later, she said, “What I really love is English, and writing and humanities in general. So I am just trying to figure out how to be able to do my passion.” This dilemma poses the question of: What is the “smart” choice and what is the “heart” choice?
First, the Rome trip. She heard about the trip when a professor visited the chemistry class she took last year. Going to Rome was not the original plan, despite choosing St. Thomas for its various study-abroad programs. She chose the program particularly because it was one of the only trips for sophomores and an easy trip to balance with a STEM workload.
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.
In Rome, she took general classes she’d enjoyed in the United States. A few classmates opted to take an organic chemistry class. However, she passed up chemistry and took theology, art history, environmental journalism and a basic Italian class. Paulsen, not taking chemistry, began her transition from a “smart” major to a major she’s passionate about.
There were a couple of aspects of Rome that helped her begin the process of branching out from biology.
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.
She also went to the gym to train for cross-country (as she participates in the sport in the United States) and 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 classes she took in Rome pulled her away from mandatory biology requirements to classes she had chosen for fun. This reveals how quickly she got excited about non-biology classes. It reminded her of interests she had previously enjoyed, such as environmental studies. She’s already theorized 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.
One of the environmentalists she is inspired by is her hero Greta Thunberg.
Her interest in this subject, and also writing, pulled her away from biology to explore different fields, like environmental journalism.
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 doing something that you have an interest in.” Thanks to the trip to Rome, Paulsen has learned to compromise between what she wants and what she knows is smart.
This story was produced with the University of St .Thomas Marketing, Insights & Communications team. Student profiled St. Thomas changemakers involved with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at the university at Winter News Team.