April 12, 2005

Chicago's own take on Road Trip Nation

This summer, PBS's Road Trip Nation documentary series, which professes to help one "define one's own road in life," will feature three University of Chicago students who opted to take the unconventional route last summer, driving an RV cross-country instead of sitting in air-conditioned cubicles all day.

Fourth-years Erica Cerulo, Candace Elliott, and Diana Dravis made up a team selected from an applicant pool of nearly 50. They spent the summer interviewing inspirational figures (such as Playboy baron Hugh Hefner) and traveling thousands of miles—as well as being taped for television, all day and all night.

Their efforts and adventures were broadcast in a sneak preview of the series, shown Monday afternoon at the Max Palevsky Cinema in Ida Noyes, following a day-long display of the neon green RTN RV on campus.

Four years ago, four college graduates who, like many others in their position, felt unsure of their plans following graduation and decided to start RTN. Not wanting to conform to the traditional career paths they had been exposed to, they set out in an RV that they painted neon green and drove across the country, interviewing figures who defied tradition and conformity. Their interviewees included the Chairman of Starbucks, Madonna's stylist, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and the CEO of National Geographic Ventures, among others.

From these humble beginnings, a movement was born. A documentary was made, a book deal was signed, and the group decided to spread the wealth (of knowledge) to other students across the country. This resulted in "Behind The Wheel," a program that encourages students to take their own road trips and discover their own paths in life.

The RTN website asserts: "The movement we're trying to ignite is simply one of exploration. We're challenging our generation to find the open road. To expose ourselves to all the different ways we can live our lives before we get focused on a so-called career path."

The program's success can be measured by the participants' strongly positive reactions to the trip. Cerulo emphasized the fact that her fears concerning the future were allayed, and observed, "Even if something doesn't happen today or tomorrow, it's OK."

Elliott said that before she embarked on the trip she had been entertaining the possibility of law school, in part influenced by her mother, but after the experience she decided to pursue her true interest—country music.

"What's the worst that could happen?" she asked. "We interviewed a producer in Nashville, and it opened the door for me, since his experience was really similar to mine. It made me think I can go for it and try it out, and that I don't have to be afraid. It gave me a whole new outlook on life."

Dravis admitted that she did not suddenly discover her career path on last summer's trip, but that it convinced her that she has time. "What it really cemented for me is that at 22 years old, I have all the time in the world," she said. "It is so much better to take my time and experience as many things that I can than to lock myself into something that doesn't make me happy, because that would be the waste of time, not the time I spent exploring."

Joe Gardner, a third-year in the College, is proof that RTN has gotten its message across. "The show seems to have a message of hope, that not everything has to be planned out, that you can go out and do exciting stuff, unexpected stuff, and things still might work out for you," he said.