Taranika Echols takes risks.
That is why Echols traveled to Sweden, a country unknown to her, to study abroad.
“I just wanted to take a chance,” Echols said of her nearly yearlong adventure. “I’m always known for taking chances, just out there.”
Originally, Echols wanted to study in the state of Georgia.
Marta Lopez, CSUN national student exchange adviser convinced Echols to consider international universities, especially since the tuition cost would be the same as at CSUN.
“I can’t speak another language, so I only had two choices, Sweden or Australia,” Echols said. “I told (Lopez), ‘I’m going to Australia. Everybody goes to Australia.’ And she was like, ‘No, no, no, you should go far away. If you’re going to spend that much money, you should be able to travel a lot.'”
Echols settled on Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden.
Although her family supported her decision to leave the United States and study in Sweden, Echols’ grandmother had second thoughts.
“My grandma had to warm up to it,” Echols said. “And then she was like, ‘You know what? You can do anything.’
“My grandma has always been my cheerleader.”
After a month-long trip to visit family in Chicago, Echols left for Sweden in Summer 2004. Her first stop was Switzerland.
“I (flew) over the Alps and I was like, ‘This is heaven. This is what heaven looks like,’ ” Echols said.
On arrival in Sweden, Echols had just $50 in cash and $200 in traveler’s checks given to her by her father at the airport as she left Chicago.
Once in Sweden, she had to wait for her financial aid to come.
To save money, Echols did not eat much her first week there and bought a bike, a bus pass and shared resources with new friends, who like her, were short of cash.
To make matters worse, when she arrived in Sweden, three mass murderers were on the loose – they were eventually captured.
“The grace of God,” is how Echols said she survived those first days in Sweden.
Echols wanted to make sure she did not fall into any European idea of the “ugly American.” She wanted to appreciate the new culture she found herself in.
“I’m a communications studies major, and before I left (to Sweden) I took intercultural communications and I knew I needed to think outside the American box,” Nichols said. “If you’re willing to listen and look at the culture, you get so much more out of it. And they don’t think you’re an ugly American, and you don’t see yourself as an ugly American trampling over everything. “
“I had something to learn from them,” she said.
Besides visiting Sweden, Echols traveled to Egypt, Finland, Greece and Russia.
In Egypt, Echols was greeted with open arms and identified with some of those she met.
“I felt very secure, very protective, because they were just like us, but they were struggling more than we struggled,” Echols said.
Echols said there were some tense moments in her travels, like her trip to Cairo.
“We did have an escorted bus because there were looters pillaging,” Echols said.
Back in Sweden, the popular U.S. television show “Temptation Island” gave Echols a better understanding of what Swedes thought Americans were like.
“The image (Swedes) had of American people was rude, it was that we’re promiscuous,” Echols said. “(And) I was like, ‘Do we do that?’ ”
“I had to rethink those things that are really significant to me, that my culture is plastered all over the world. Hardly anyone knows about Swedish culture. I’m living in Sweden. I’m going to be Swedish. I’m going to accept their culture. I’m going to dress like them.”
“I’m going to follow their cultural rules, take them in and have an experience. When I came to that conclusion, I started to enjoy myself much more.”
At Uppsala University in Sweden, Echols really enjoyed being part of the student-social organization, “Kalmars Nation,” one of 13 nations on campus named after Swedish cities, with each nation inhabiting a mansion that was run by students. The students of each particular nation were free to convert their mansion into a restaurant or pub in order to throw huge parties.
At Uppsala University, although Echols carried 12 units, she attended just one class for a full month, three days a week. Echols said there were only about 28 students per class.
Echols returned to the United States, May 10, 2005.
Leanne Vincent, activities coordinator for Associated Students, where Echols serves as chief of staff, has seen a noticeable change in Echols.
“I observe a more mature, more world-focused person than I did before,” Vincent said. “She has a calmer way of speaking. She seems to have not just grown-up, but grown deeper as a result of her trip.”
“It taught me to be patient with people,” Echols said. “Not everybody is as motivated as me. Take it easy, don’t always stress out. Be selective about the stress you put yourself into.”
Initially, Echols said it was a tough adjustment being back on American soil.
“So much traffic was really hard for me,” Echols said. “And how loud everything was. I spent so much time crying over how loud everything was. And missing being around the people, that was really hard for me.”
Echols said she hopes to return to Europe but will venture to different regions.
“Next summer I’m going to go back and do an Eastern European trip,” Echols said.
If everything were paid for, would she return to Sweden?
“No, because then I would feel like I’d be running away,” Echols said. “I went because I wanted to be adventurous and be outside of myself.”
John Barundia can be reached at email@example.com.