For most of my teenage years, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the United States. The idea of traveling anywhere — especially throughout Europe — was big and exciting, and if someone asked I would have told them that I wanted to travel as much as possible as soon as possible. That in itself is still true; I’d like to travel as much as I possibly can while I’m still young. What I didn’t realize when I was preparing to head off on my voyage was what an enormous and immediate impact it would have on me. Sure, my parents or mentors could have told me this, but their words couldn’t prepare me for what I would experience.
My first experience abroad came during my Gap Year with UnCollege. Being five thousand miles from any semblance of familiarity, completely alone in a place where I couldn’t speak the language or read road signs, hit me hard and without any mercy. The first two days in Europe left me feeling like I had been completely flattened by the weight of the world and the realization that it was a bigger place than I ever could have imagined. It wasn’t necessarily the physical distance that bothered me; it was the distance I felt from any meaningful human contact, and the realization that I had been living a life in which I was far from understanding myself.
When I boarded my flight to Bucharest, I wasn’t nervous at all. I couldn’t wait to travel throughout eastern Europe, make friends, have fun, and experience life outside the one I had always known. Right before I left I remember a good friend of mine telling me that it doesn’t always feel good to be humbled by the world. I disregarded the statement, and told him I was excited to be humbled — that I couldn’t wait to be on my own in a completely different place. Looking back on it, that feels like a pretty ignorant thing to say. I don’t think anything or anyone could have prepared me for how small I would feel and how alone I would be. No matter how many people I met and friends I made, at the end of the day I was five thousand miles from home by myself, unsure what I was doing or where I was going.
Within the first week of arriving in Bucharest, where I began my Voyage volunteering at a hostel, I realized that I had been lying to myself about a lot of things: why I hadn’t gone to college, what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life, where I wanted to end up when my Gap Year was over. I started to understand that when it came to asking myself hard questions, I usually picked the answers that were easiest instead of the ones that would allow me to truly grow on a personal level. Anything I could do to avoid conflict in my own mind, I had done. Even in regard to more personal matters, anything I could do to avoid pain, I would do. I also began to understand the sense of entitlement that pervades my entire generation, including myself.
If you had asked me before I started my UnCollege Gap Year if I was grateful for the life I was able to lead, I would have said yes. Ask me now, and I’ll tell you that I’ve been taking my privilege for granted since birth, just like so many other American teenagers. The large majority of us have had our education handed to us, and rather than being grateful for the fact that we have access to one and taking control of it, we let it pass us by without ever truly learning from it. Looking back on my adolescence, I recognize now that I’ve never really felt what it’s like to be grateful, and that realization was humbling in ways that I can hardly explain to myself. On the bright side, UnCollege has helped me to take control of my own education despite not taking advantage of that opportunity in high school, and I am more grateful for what I’ve learned during my Gap Year than I ever was for the education I received as a child.
I’m not a hundred percent sure why going to Europe is what it took for me to understand all of this. Maybe I just needed to learn what it feels like to be truly isolated in order to start being honest with myself. To say the least, my voyage wasn’t at all what I expected. But would I change it? Not even if I could. It was painful to open my eyes to the fact that I had been lying to myself for so long — to understand that the life I was living wasn’t one that I had ever intended for myself. But I wouldn’t go back to being blind to all of it even if I was given the chance. In a lot of ways, my time here really wasn’t that enjoyable. I spent a lot of time being introspective, which took its toll on me as a pretty extroverted person. But I am so grateful for the fact that coming here forced me to take that time. I’ve grown more in the last couple months than I ever could’ve imaged, and for what seems like the first time in a long time, I’m making decisions based on what’s right for me, and I actually feel really good about that. I’ve also been feeling a new kind of excitement for the future — for the internship that I’m going to take part in next month, my next travel experience, and my plans beyond UnCollege. I’m beyond excited to see what the next several months have in store, and I’m starting to become a lot more prepared for any adversity that may come my way.
This post was written by Keri Klinges and originally published on the UnCollege blog.