I’ve always been the girl who has everything together. It’s a role I embraced in high school, and I projected it onto myself through most of my college career.
I committed to a university in October of my senior year because I felt like waiting too long would make me seem flaky or unsure. I then spent the better part of the next two and a half years grappling with my choice, feeling lost in a place that had yet to feel like home. I discovered my passion for working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and chose to pursue a degree in Special Education. I felt doubt about my choice at times, but the fear and uncertainty embedded in the term “undeclared” kept me from seeking out other options. In short, I was hiding behind a mask of composure and perfection while I was spinning out of control, unsure of which direction to turn next.
I enjoyed being the one that people lifted up as an example of what it meant to be on the right track. I reveled in the pride my family had for me, making sure not to step too far out of the life I believed they imagined for me. I relished being the one my friends came to for advice about big life decisions. The idea of change terrified me, and still does, so I did everything I could to stick to my seamlessly laid out plans. Starting over didn’t seem like an option. Moving my life in a different direction felt like failure. I didn’t understand that despite my feelings of isolation, I was so far from being alone in my feelings of uncertainty.
During the last weeks of the summer before my junior year, I was dreading going back to school. I didn’t want to leave my hometown with the jobs that I loved and my high school best friends. This was my comfort zone, and I wasn’t ready to go back to a place where I didn’t feel like I belonged. After careful consideration, I decided the right decision for me would be to transfer to a university close to home, live with my parents, and take a leadership position at my job. I didn’t have roots in Eau Claire, I was just beginning my Special Education courses, and I didn’t want to leave the place where I was a big fish in a little pond. What did I have to lose?
Well, despite all my planning, as fall semester moved into full swing, it quickly became clear that I was about to have everything to lose and everything to gain. Life is kind of silly that way, isn’t it?
Everything about my college experience that had yet to fall into place harmoniously came together. I joined an a capella choir and made real friendships with my fellow singers. I got further involved with Best Buddies, an organization I am a leader in that forges one to one friendships with college students and community members with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I created tighter connections with the members of my campus ministry, and found a home within my church. I took a leap of faith and changed my major to Creative Writing. I was finally finding my place on campus only to leave it in a few months. I was wrought with feelings of conflict and defeat, but I was also permeated with a sense of joy and belonging. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to remain detached, get prepared for the transition, and stick to the plan. I had no idea what to do.
One afternoon in the end of first semester, I was talking to one of my closest friends, Allison, who I had just met in September and was a large part of what made my first semester game-changing. I was grappling with whether I should stay in Eau Claire or not, and I asked her what I should do. Should I transfer to the other school, even though I would be uprooting myself just to spend my last year of college there? Should I stay committed to my leadership opportunity at my job, even though it felt as if I was sacrificing my new-found happiness out of obligation? Should I settle for something that no longer seemed enough just to save other people from disappointment? I was so used to living my life to please people and live up to their expectations that these questions were a lot tougher than they seem.
She encouraged me to put my own well-being and happiness first, instead of always thinking about how my actions would affect others. If I left and then ended up resenting my job and university change, that wouldn’t be good for anyone. It had taken me this long to find balance and define what I wanted my “college experience” to be, so I decided to put myself first and stay in Eau Claire. I can’t tell you the amount of courage I had to muster to believe that I could do something as simple as that, but it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. Thankfully, it paid off.
This year has been the most difficult, rewarding, tumultuous, and life-changing year of my life. I have grown immensely through the support of friends and family. I have harnessed my ambition and discovered dreams I never would’ve thought I would be striving to achieve. I have experienced the lowest lows and the highest highs, and I am so grateful for the path that I have forged through the mess that has been these past nine months. It takes courage and a great degree of contemplation to understand that you are in control of your own happiness, and when you finally embrace that, you’ll be amazed at all the surprises life has in store.