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Student hits the road on a journey to find her own path in life

"Around my age, people ask what you want to do with your life. I've discovered that figuring out what you want to do and who you are is a journey. Part of that journey is saying, ‘Yes,’ to opportunities that stretch and grow who you are."

- Maddie Milharcic, junior in agricultural and biological engineering

A calm, crisp air filled with birds singing in the Hoosier National Forest awakens Maddie Milharcic, a junior in agricultural and biological engineering (ABE). Milharcic is deep in her undergraduate studies in ABE but has also taken them on the road in search of experiences outside the walls of a classroom.

Saying "yes" to new experiences to discover what is next

It all began with an email last year from the ABE department that included career resources along with information on an organization called Road Trip Nation. Unaware of Road Trip Nation and what they were about, Milharcic visited their website and began to follow their social media channel. Road Trip Nation's mission is to "take road trips to capture empowering stories that give you the confidence and tools to find a career that matters to you."

For months, Milharcic read inspirational stories from other roadtrippers. When she saw the callout to apply, she jumped at the opportunity, even though she believed her chances were slim. "When I saw the opportunity come up, I thought I would apply for this and not tell anyone because it probably won't work out. I had decided last year that I would start putting myself out there and saying, ‘Yes,’ to opportunities for growth, and so I did. Signing up to be on camera and travel with strangers seemed very far out of my comfort zone but worth the investment for my future career," she said.

Milharcic applied and then put it out of her mind. Weeks later, she was pleasantly surprised to be invited to an initial interview and then a follow-up. During that second interview, they asked her to be one of the three roadtrippers. "At that point, I called my parents and said, ‘Hey, here's the thing. You've had no idea I was doing this, but I get to travel in an RV for two and a half weeks in October and be filmed to be on TV.’"

Milharcic accepted and learned she would be traveling with two other road trippers and three crew members in an RV across the state of Indiana on a trip sponsored by the Indiana Department of Education to learn about various careers and industries while being filmed for a show that will air on public television.

A classroom on wheels

Born and raised a Hoosier, Milharcic has a deep love for her home state and was excited for the chance to not only learn more but to see if this road trip might help her in her journey to discover, "what's next?"

"Taking this opportunity was a part of me trying to figure out what comes after college, to learn more about Indiana, the people who live here, the communities, and the different career opportunities available across the state," she said.

The trip began in southern Indiana and and ended on Lake Michigan in northern Indiana, even stopping at Purdue for a day. " I think what surprised me most was the topography in southern Indiana. We got to visit the National Forest, which I loved. It was big and beautiful. We got to talk to some people who worked for the park service there and learn more about what they do. I enjoyed that because I can see myself doing that one day."

Roadtrippers together in the National Forest Milharcic and her fellow roadtrippers began their journey in southern Indiana in the National Forest.
Milharcic on campus at Purdue The RV stopped off for a day at Purdue allowing Milharcic the opportunity to show her new friends around her home.

Milharcic notes that she observed real-life application to what she is learning in her ABE program at Purdue. "It was great to interact with individuals who have careers in DNR, engineering consulting and other industry positions because I have interest in each of those areas. We saw everything from careers in soil science to watershed and how that all works together for the good of our state. I loved seeing how I could put my degree to work in my home state."

She also enjoyed meeting professionals that the road trip experience provided like Dr. Lauren Pile Knapp from southern Indiana who was running her own research program in the National Forest. Milharcic and Knapp connected over a similar education and career interest. "I was reminded that my path and story don't have to fit anyone's expected timeline or course. It’s okay to take my own journey to get to where I want to be."

Along with learning more about the state and its industries Milharcic is thankful for the opportunity to network with many different companies across the state. She was able to make some connections for possible future internship or job opportunities.

Living that "RV" life

For Milharcic, one of the most distinctive parts of Road Trip Nation along with traveling the state, was living the "RV life," as well as having her life filmed for two and a half weeks.

She explains that it took some getting used to being followed for a few weeks by a camera crew. "We would begin our day by putting our mic pack on and end it by returning the packs to the crew. Sometimes we'd drive from place to place, and I'd be in the back doing homework and turn around, and they would be filming me. All of that took some getting used to."

Group interviewed on camera. Time spent in front of the camera was new to Milharcic and her fellow roadtrippers.
Milharcic studying. Milharcic was able to continue her studies for ABE on the road.

Milharcic was able to keep up with the demands of her program. "I was grateful to my Purdue faculty and advisors who helped me make this ‘out of the box’ learning opportunity possible while still staying focused on my studies. Without their flexibility, I would not have been able to have this experience."

Sleeping on a bunk and eating frozen microwaved meals out of the small fridge was fun for a short time, she jokes, but it is not something that she sees for her future life. "I think living that way long term would be tough for me, but doing it for two and a half weeks was very doable and a unique lifestyle to partake in for a little bit." She enjoyed her time getting to know her other two road trippers, having a new shared experience with them.

Takeaways from life on the road

As Milharcic relives her time on the road and the lessons learned, she notes her most significant takeaway. "What I’ve learned is that saying, ‘Yes,’ to things that stretch and challenge you is good and worthwhile. Sometimes it takes getting a little out of our comfort zone to learn more about who we really are. Road Trip Nation was something that stretched me and for that I am thankful."

While she hasn't fully determined what is next yet she says the trip helped her get a little bit further down the, “road” and provided some more clarity and connections for her future.  

"Looking back at the beginning of 2023, I think I would be very surprised by everything that occurred. I have learned not to take any opportunities that come my way in college for granted. I want to use the time to better myself and get a deeper education and understanding of the world," she said.

Milharcic encourages other students to consider saying "yes" to out-of-the-box learning and growth opportunities that come their way as it makes the journey richer. "Now is one of the easiest times in life to try anything you want. It might feel like a big risk, and sometimes it is, but taking those risks and doing hard things helps you to know that you can do them. Say ‘yes‘ even if there's a fear of failure. In my experience, the ’yes‘ has always been worth it. It’s a big part to a successful journey in life."

The Road Trip Nation featuring Milharcic will be released this coming fall on public television.

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