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September 21, 2021

Finding time to be spontaneous while abroad

By ELIZABETH IM | March 12, 2020

I love to fill out my iCal with blocks of things to do. It gives me the peace of mind that I have set a time for that particular task. Unfortunately, as Introduction to Psychology taught me, and as I have personally experienced, humans overestimate their productivity. Often I end up shifting my plans around because life likes to throw curve balls. For example, last week I took a spontaneous day trip to Paris to visit my friend.

Then this weekend I spontaneously participated in a hackathon (instead of writing my essay that was due Sunday evening, as I had planned). Admittedly, I was a bit stressed about the essay, but I didn’t regret my decision. 

It started on a Saturday. I was grabbing a quick lunch on my way to the Stockholm Public Library. Then a group of people speaking in English sat down next to me. Naturally, I was intrigued. I had a feeling that they were also international students. So I asked them if they were. 

“Yes, we are!” one replied. They hailed from Poland, Serbia and Spain. Two were studying at Stockholm University, and the other at Karolinska Institutet. They asked me about my studies, and we started to talk about our experience in Stockholm. 

“We are actually here because of an entrepreneur hackathon,” the girl from Spain said. After a beat she exclaimed, “I think you can still join! I remember there was a group of two guys who could have another teammate.” 

I blinked. What would I do at an entrepreneur hackathon? It’s okay, they said unanimously. Anyone can be an entrepreneur. In that brief minute, my essay flashed across my thoughts. I thought, however, “When will I ever have an opportunity like this again?” I wanted to meet Swedish students, and I was always curious about hackathons. 

I said yes. 

When I first met my teammates, Amer and Andreas, I was slightly intimidated because they seemed to know what they were doing. Both had backgrounds in business and their pitch was a new insurance information platform. However, they were supportive and encouraging. Amer, in fact, told me that he also knew nothing about the insurance system until an hour ago, which made me feel better about my own lack of knowledge. 

By participating in this event, I learned what being an entrepreneur was like. I was challenged in many ways, then learned to come up with solutions through discussions. I also met amazing mentors in different fields. More than anything, this weekend was especially valuable because I had the opportunity to truly connect with my teammates.

Despite studying abroad in Sweden, I felt like I was limited in my cultural immersion. My program, DIS, is an American program with all students that study at colleges in the U.S.; Although I meet with my visiting host family every week and interact with locals on my floor, everyone I interact with on a daily basis have been American students. This weekend was different. 

Amer and Andreas, far from the stereotypical “distant” Swedes, were eager to learn about both American and Korean culture. They loved learning new English phrases and enjoyed hearing my observations about the Swedes (everyone is very quiet, a lot of dads are involved in childcare, they are obsessed with candies, etc). In return, I learned so much about the Swedish culture and customs. I was finally able to ask about the truths about Swedish stereotypes, like the “Jantes law.” 

The most interesting discussion was about the student life in Sweden. Due to the heavily government subsidized college tuition, the ease of the application procedure and a guaranteed acceptance, a lot of Swedes drop out of college midway, restart college multiple times or even start college in their 30s.

At the end of the two-day hackathon, we didn’t win the pitch. But we agreed that the opportunity to meet each other was more valuable. Amer went to school in Stockholm, but Andreas was going back to his hometown the next day, which was far from the city. With my own limited time left in Stockholm, it felt like we might never see each other again. After two days of picking each other’s brains, and spending many intense and stressful hours together, it felt like we’d known each other for a long time. Yet, just 48 hours ago we were strangers. And we were about to part ways again. We hovered around and talked for three more hours, unable to say goodbye. Then, finally, we did. 

As I reflect on this, I feel like Alice who just climbed out of the rabbit hole and Wonderland: I stumbled into a very different world for the weekend, and now that I’m back, it feels like it was a long dream. 

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