Fall 2017

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Road to Clarity

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Kerem Taskin graduated with a bachelor of science in materials science and engineering in 2016 and is currently a materials applications engineer at QuesTek Innovations in Evanston. He continues to document his travels on his blog, www.35liters.com, and recently contributed to the book The Trip That Changed My Life, a collaboration of 65 travel writers from around the world. The one-time publication raised more than $10,000, profits from which were donated in full to support the charities Save the Children and Unbound.

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Kerem Taskin considers his academic break a transformative step in his life’s journey to find a career — and himself.

by Kerem Taskin

I wasn’t quite sure where I was. I wandered off along the river, away from the city, toward a lone country road. The heat from the equatorial sun was seeping into the cracked pavement beneath my feet. Rice paddies extended to the horizon on one side, the panorama dotted with gray silhouettes of grazing water buffalo. Off to the other, bamboo plants blanketed the hills. In the middle of it all was a small village.

I placed my bag on the side of the road and faced the occasional northbound traffic, hoping to catch a ride. Unable to find any quality scraps of cardboard to make a sign, I positioned myself under the shade of a durian tree and confidently held out my thumb. Most drivers who passed by returned my gesture with quizzical looks or honks, but soon enough, a neglected pickup truck stopped beside me. The driver motioned for me to hop in the back. “Khob khun krab,” I blurted thankfully as I jumped into the back and onto a clutter of hand tools and long slabs of wood, resting my fate in the hands of a middle-aged Thai carpenter.

It was my first day in Thailand, the beginning of a two-week hitchhiking journey from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Siem Reap in Cambodia, and after several days in the remote, humid highlands of Peninsular Malaysia, I was ready to rejoin society on the warm, picturesque beaches to the west.

Rainforest surrounded the truck as we shuttled west. Sitting in the back, I faced the cool breeze and admired the scenery around me. I could see the coastline in the distance and felt the Thai beaches just within grasp. In that moment, I was exactly where I wanted to be. I was happy.

From Istanbul to Evanston

Traveling has always been a big part of my life, having crossed a continental boundary hours after I was born — although that is common for those born in Istanbul. Home continued to be an ever-evolving collage, as I lived in new cities across the United States while always returning to a familiar, yet rapidly changing Turkey. My identity became a mix of various cultures, constantly expanded by broader travels, and, unwittingly, wanderlust became a passion.

Prior to beginning my freshman year at Northwestern, I embarked on my first backpacking journey. It was a monthlong adventure that took me from the center of Paris to the ruins of Pompeii. In all, I passed through six countries by train, staying in 20-bed hostel rooms, hauling a 30-pound backpack all the while.

This trip presented a side of traveling I had not previously known. Beyond the opportunity to freely immerse myself in foreign countries, I was introduced to the vibrant energy of the backpacking community. The immediate camaraderie that forms among travelers was particularly eye-opening. Just a few minutes of conversation led to fellow backpackers joining me on a scenic train trip to Prague and their extending an invitation to a friend’s concert in one of the up-and-coming bars of Kreuzberg in Berlin. Even though a couple days in each city was barely enough to scratch the surface, it was sufficient to spark a lifelong addiction to this form of travel and discovery of new cultures.

Soon thereafter I began my engineering and integrated science studies at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. The academic world was uniquely stimulating — it challenged and developed the way I approached scientific problems and exposed me to the leading research in my field.

I was fortunate to be in an environment in which I could explore the sciences and prepare for a career. But as I searched for the right niche, I found my window for choosing a path quickly narrowing. A competitive sprint to success was emerging among my peers, most of whom were following similar paths. I questioned the choices we had been presented and our definitions of achievement, but more importantly, I wondered whether I would have the chance to explore alternatives in this environment. I needed to take a step back, or perhaps a step forward, and that is when my travel bug really began to take hold.

That step came in the form of a two-year leave from my studies after my junior year, a decision that surprised many of my classmates and professors. Why was I doing this at the most important part of my program? What was my plan? Wasn’t I worried about returning to school after such a long hiatus? Or finding a job? The questions piled on, and to most people my answers weren’t satisfying. Some were supportive, but many found this departure from my structured track to be irrational.

Work, Then Travel

Dropping everything doesn’t happen overnight. To facilitate the transition, I dedicated a year to working at an Evanston-based materials design and innovation company, QuesTek Innovations, which was co-founded by Gregory B. Olson, a McCormick professor of materials science and engineering. A small business with 20 engineers in a 12,000-square-foot office, QuesTek was computationally designing and inventing completely new alloys that were outperforming and displacing decades-old materials in industries ranging from aerospace to power generation.

Furthermore, QuesTek engineers were doing this more quickly and efficiently than ever before. Being in a fast-paced, vibrant work environment, I found my role at the company constantly evolving, from engineering support to intellectual property, proposal writing to sales and business development. For the first time I was able to put my studies into perspective and see how they could be implemented in industry. I was developing a clearer picture of the opportunities I could pursue and the routine of a 9 to 5.

Yet my desire to travel was stirring. Over the course of the year, I slowly cut ties with my sedentary life. Moving out of my fully furnished apartment, I sold most of my possessions until all I had left were four boxes of books and a few basic essentials. And with each parting, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.

Kerem's BackpackBefore I knew it, I was standing at a gate at O’Hare International Airport. In my hand was the cheapest ticket out of the country, and on my back an 18-pound backpack with everything I had left to my name, just 35 liters of space to supply my shelter, closet, bathroom drawer, kitchen cupboard, connection to cyberspace and all other bare essentials for the foreseeable future.

Ahead of me lay a vast and unpredictable unknown, a 14-month journey that would be shaped by random encounters and newly discovered passions, whichever way the wind would blow. Although there was uncertainty around every corner, I had never been more confident with a decision in my life.  

Throwing oneself into the world alone and with no plans may seem terrifying. This was one of my first realizations. Our minds are so accustomed to structure that arriving at an airport, crossing a border or hopping on a bus to an unfamiliar city, with no knowledge of what will come next, can be unsettling. We hope for the best while imagining everything that could go wrong.

As my travels unfolded, these concerns quickly dissipated. At every turn I was met by a welcoming face and a helping hand. A brief conversation with a young Slovenian man on a train evolved into a weeklong invitation to his family’s farm in a village outside of Ljubljana. In Japan, a middle-aged deliveryman who picked me up at a freeway on-ramp outside of Yokohama used his break between shifts to drive me two hours out of his way to Fuji and wouldn’t leave until he ensured I was fed and had a place to stay for the night. With each encounter, my comfort with the unfamiliar grew, and I came to accept a rather counterintuitive realization: As a solo traveler, I was rarely alone.

The Journey Matters More Than the Destination

My perception of traveling was transformed. The destination, and how I arrived there, became unimportant. Rather, I took each phase of the trip as an opportunity to experience life in the cultures and communities I found myself in.

In Vietnam, this presented itself in the form of a job at a bar in the bustling center of Saigon. My days began in the afternoon with a sweetened ca phe sua da and ended with a 5 a.m. curbside bowl of pho with the neighboring bar owners after work. And as daily life for the Vietnamese revolves around motorbikes, I promptly became the proud owner of a beat-up Honda Win. I learned how to navigate the chaotic city traffic while running errands and, eventually, branched out to rural roads to explore every corner of the country. Soon enough, what once resonated as hectic clamor developed into the comforting, familiar soundtrack of Vietnam.

Yet just weeks prior, on a vineyard in Riparbella, Italy, near Pisa, I had been an early riser. Long hours of pruning in the quiet morning hours were punctuated with elaborate Tuscan meals, and afternoons brought the ripe smell of freshly poured concrete as we set the foundation for a new guesthouse. Growing familiar with that lifestyle meant understanding the nature of the vines and how they responded to the rapidly changing late autumn weather. It came with recognizing the regimented rhythm of farm life and the extent to which sustainability depended on the success of our daily efforts. But time was always set aside to enjoy a bottle of wine and watch the sunsets over the distant Mediterranean.

Each experience clashed with the other in such drastic ways. Daily life on the Philippine island of Maniwaya flowed with the changing tide, beginning with the 4 a.m. rooster crows and ending with ubiquitous, out-of-tune karaoke singing in the bars and restaurants. Conversely, every single day in Budapest presented a new dynamic rhythm, and the longer I stayed, the longer I wanted to keep staying, as I kept discovering something new each day. Cleanliness and order permeated Japan, and the very same person who was dashing through oncoming traffic in Bangkok days earlier was now waiting patiently at the crosswalks of deserted intersections. As dissimilar as these places were, so too were the versions of myself that took form in acclimating to them. 

Traveling is an educational journey during which we open our eyes not only to the cultures in which we choose to immerse ourselves, but also to our own inner workings. Surrounded by novelty and that which we don’t understand, we absorb and react to every detail. And in doing so, we discover in ourselves completely new behaviors, emotions, passions and ways of thinking. They arise when we separate from our preconceptions to embrace different ways of life. And they develop through interactions with members of those communities.

Throughout my travels, I encountered new ways of living that felt natural to indulge in. And the luxury of an unplanned and seemingly endless itinerary allowed me to explore each one for as long as it felt right, be it two days or three months. This autonomy continued gifting me with a growing, colorful world, one I couldn’t have even imagined back in Evanston.

The Way Back: No Worries

Prior to my trip, I was concerned with how difficult it would be to juggle studies, a senior thesis and a job search after returning from a two-year break, especially considering that all my classmates would have already graduated. Coming back, I felt these worries dissolve. Compared with the challenges of navigating an ever-changing landscape of cultural and language barriers while traversing entire continents by land, reintegrating into my curriculum and managing problem sets and exams were simple undertakings. Job searches didn’t carry the same stress as before. Rather than feeling burdened by an urgency to receive an offer, I now valued the importance of dedicating time to exploring prospects. I felt no rush, just like on the road.

Travel broadened my view of the world. The narrow path forward I previously knew was replaced by a breadth of possibilities. While many uncertainties about my future remained, I returned to Northwestern enriched by my experiences and equipped with a clearer perspective to address those uncertainties. The one certainty that prevailed, however, was that travel would continue to play an ever-present and ever-changing role in my life.