I am transfixed by the romantic town nestled on the mountaintops before the dramatic landscape in southern Spain. These are my exact words from my application essay to study abroad this year. And I didn’t mean any of it. Not that I lied about Spain’s beauty; the country undeniably contains some of the most gorgeous places in the world.
But because underneath my embellished, flowery descriptions, I knew in my heart I did not belong there.
I had dreamt for years about traveling the world, seeing stunning ancient European cities with my own two eyes and taking in breathtaking natural wonders. Somewhere along the way, my dreams became nothing but shadows buried in the back of my mind. Bullet points at the bottom of an invisible list of things that I had to put on hold and complete later. All the while I consumed myself with getting good grades, running track and cross-country every day, showing up to every single event I could with a smile on my face, to the point where I felt nearly on the brink of exhaustion by the end of each day. So distracted by my life and trying to become perfect, I forgot about my aspirations and passions, which meant that traveling to Europe seemed like a fantasy far, far away from my reach.
Even with my busy activity-filled days at Penn State, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and what kind of person I wanted to be. I got so used to blindly pushing myself to keep going and propelling myself forward, that I lost my identity. By my sophomore year of college, I still did not have a declared major and I deflected questions about my plans for the future with jokes and laughs. But on the inside, I felt conflicted about what I was honestly doing with my life.
I thought that finally studying abroad would give me some answers.
However, when I attended a study abroad fair to pursue my desire to travel, I was pushed towards practical programs that satisfied course requirements. Nevertheless, I convinced myself that I wanted this and that it seemed like my only chance to free myself from my suffocating world and figure out who I could become in another one. Eventually, I got accepted into a summer study abroad program in Seville, Spain. I tried to tell myself that it had everything I was looking for, but if you want the truth, I did not feel ecstatic about the program at all like I should have been. I had turned my dream into merely another empty checkbox on my list that I needed to complete at all costs. Another stepping stone towards a future I could not see.
My life continued on the rigorous path I had bound myself in when the coronavirus epidemic swept through the world and destroyed my so-called plans. First, my school terminated my spring break service trip to Roatán, Honduras three days before we planned to leave. Then, inevitably, Penn State also had to pull the plug on my entire spring semester. And finally the last piece: over a single email I received the news that my university had solemnly decided to cancel my summer study abroad program.
At first the news sounded heartbreaking, as I remembered the late nights and countless hours I had wasted to join a program that would never happen, on top of the rest of my sophomore year being ruined due to this virus. But then a wave of relief flooded through me. There were no rules anymore. No longer did I have to squeeze my dreams into a box that aligned with my schedule or fill my days with extracurricular activities or prepare for a trip I did not feel passionate about. I was free.
I could throw out the list that was dictating my life and focus on doing the things I love.
Now I know that the only way to find out who you are and what you want to do is not by doing everything you possibly can. Instead, you have to find out what you love and how you can keep on doing it for as long as you can. A few weeks ago I finally declared my major: digital and print journalism. I returned to a passion I had left behind long ago: writing. I try to write in my free time now, and within the words that I jot down on paper I try to remind myself to embrace the moments when I feel clueless and flawed. They will shape who I decide to become. On most days, I am far from perfect and still so confused about my future. I don’t know when I will get to travel and explore the world for myself, but I know that I can. And I don’t know what will happen in my life down the road and I don’t have a list or a plan to prepare me for the worst. But I do know this: do what you love and do it fearlessly.