Wheeler: Off to Europe with just a backpack and a boyfriend

In Portugal, from left, C. Sierra Wheeler, boyfriend Carson Bowen and new friends Ursa and Kristjan of Slovenia.
In Portugal, from left, C. Sierra Wheeler, boyfriend Carson Bowen and new friends Ursa and Kristjan of Slovenia. Courtesy of C. Sierra Wheeler

When I was my daughter’s age, my riskiest adventure was hopping onto the Beltline and hoping I would actually arrive at a Raleigh destination. With all of the signs inexplicably pointing to Wake Forest or Sanford, getting to where I was going was never guaranteed.

At 23, I had a marriage, a mortgage and two years behind me in what has been a nearly three-decade career at one newspaper.

My daughter? She just did some hopping, too: onto an airplane to Europe accompanied only by a backpack and her boyfriend. Behind her already is the entirety of her first post-college job, a seven-month stint as a recreational therapist working with children at a psychiatric hospital in West Virginia.

We don’t know what’s ahead, whether her investing a large part of her savings in what will end up being at least a three-month gap on her resume will seem irresponsible or impressive to prospective employers.

But immeasurable will be the yield in opened eyes, expanded perspectives and fuller hearts – not to mention stretched palates. That much is already clear.

Within minutes of arriving at a hostel in Lisbon, Portugal, she texted of making friends from Israel, Slovenia and Spain. The first night there, a Spaniard made them all dinner. The second, my daughter returned the favor.

From Madrid, she sent a picture that took my breath away, and not because of the view. “Welcome refugees” said the sign hanging from city hall. Welcome. I’ve seen far too many pictures of mistreated Syrian migrants in Hungary to be unmoved by “welcome.” Sharing the streets with these scarred souls no doubt has released an empathy in my daughter impossible to tap just by perusing the periodic news stories on these shores.

For her hosts there, she made an all-American dinner: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes with gravy – yes, gravy! From the trees and vines in their yard she plucked pomegranates and grapes to enjoy at will.

In Malaga, on Spain’s southern coast, a young woman named Xipi taught her how to make paella from scratch with just-caught king prawns, mollusks and clams. She’ll be repaying Xipi – before heading next to Paris – in fried-chicken gravy, as well.

Could you script a better cultural exchange moment than that?

In these acts of sharing, I’m praying that she also exchanges some doubts for clarity, that among the sights of the cathedral holding the body of Christopher Columbus in Seville, of the festival in Malaga, of the Dali painting in Lisbon, she catches some glimpses of who she wants to be.

It’s hard to write about her adventure without using cliches because the whole trip is a cliche: Young American runs off to Europe to find self. Film at 11. But that’s the point. It’s a cliche because seemingly so many people do it – or yearn to do it. Why?

The epidemic of too much emphasis on “excelling” and too little on exploring is a disservice to our high school students. They take too many classes with the goal of boosting their GPAs rather than expanding their minds. They choose too many activities for the resume instead of the satisfaction.

Add to that the constant exhortation to “live your passion” in a struggling and ever-changing economy, and it’s no wonder so many young folks feel a little lost.

As a result, about 80 percent of U.S. college students end up changing their majors at least once, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, with the average student changing at least three times.

Recreational therapy was in fact my daughter’s third major. Whether that was the result of a process of elimination or a genuine desire, she’s still sorting out.

In 2013, the ACT testing agency reported that only about a third of high schoolers selected a college major that was a good fit with their interests. More than 30 percent selected a major that was a poor fit.

An interest survey I took in eighth grade actually pointed me in the direction of auto mechanic, but choosing journalism appears to have served me well. My college-age world view, however, seems now to have had the depth of a slice of cheese.

As parents, we simply want our children to arrive at happiness, comfort and fulfillment. When my globe-gallivanting daughter steps back onto U.S. soil in December, she’ll be shaped by experiences that better equip her to get there.

Wheeler: 919-829-4825, bwheeler

@newsobserver.com, @burgetta_nando.

Worth reading

▪ New York Times columnist Roger Cohen’s column “Mow the lawn” on finding meaning in duty and decency: nando.com/rogercohen

▪ Blogger Heidi Priebe’s post “Read this if you’re 23 and lost”: nando.com/heidipriebe