The “Free Year”

My sophomore year of college, I was faced with transferring from UNC to UF simply due to the financial burden of going to school out of state. I was heartbroken – I had fallen in love with UNC and the people whose paths mine had crossed with. I spent months agonizing over this move even spending spring break that year visiting UF to see how it might feel to go to school there. I knew no matter where I ended up that I would be okay and make it work but it still felt like being ripped away from someone you love and have invested so much time in. I had made a life at UNC and desperately clung onto it. I looked into emancipation, a gap year working to make money to return, community college, grants, etc. Thanks to AP courses, I figured out that if I took 4 courses over that summer I could graduate a year early while still only take 12-15 credit hours and working. The only catch was still needing to somehow make it another year at UNC.

The last day of classes, my uncle called me to let me know that my extended family was stepping in to give me that chance. I sat in what is called the “pit” on campus and cried. It’s still one of the most humbling moments of my life as I know very few people have an extended family that has the means to step in financially in the same way. I will always be indebted to them and recognize this as one of the many ways I am privileged. I spent the next year working countless jobs and busting out school non stop for a year (over the summer + the regular school year). I didn’t take a moment for granted and I graduated successfully in 3 years.

I give this backstory to make it clear that I didn’t want to graduate in 3 years. It’s not a point of pride – it’s more a point of pain. I would have stayed for all 4 if I could have. I loved my classes and my teachers. I loved Chapel Hill. It was done out of necessity not desire. Upon graduation, I was faced with this unusual feeling of having a “free year” to spend however I wanted. This year that would have previously been spent in class and on campus was now a blank canvas.

I spent 2014-2015 living a completely new life that was entirely outside my comfort zone. Competitive sports fell to the wayside for the first time in my life and were replaced with scattered pickup soccer games with mediocre competition. I put my passion for psychology on hold and dove headfirst into a career in tech to the surprise of many I’m sure (“Anne, what do you even know about computers?!”). I moved across the country to San Francisco when I’d never lived in a city before. I traveled to more places that year than I had in my entire life combined. I loved deeply with my entire being and trusted that feeling more than I had before. I replaced my sweatpants and tshirts with “real people” clothes. I was dragged out went out to bars and enjoyed a drink or two when previously I never drank. I paid ridiculous amounts of money for ridiculously good food. I put my money into experiences for myself and those I loved rather than counting every penny that came my way.

When I look back on what I was hoping to get out of this free year, I realized I got everything I could have hoped for and more. The entire experience of that year was so much more than I think I could even grasp in the moment simply due to the sheer number of changes. Mind you, I resisted some of these changes. I had moments where the previous “me” burst right into the present and panicked – what is this life you are living?! I didn’t want to just continue living as I had always been during this year. I wanted to give myself room to fail but also to succeed – I managed to do both. I was deeply strengthened and hurt all at once. It changed me profoundly.

Previously, someone said to me, “Each year of your 20s is like a decade. You will change so much year to year. Embrace it.” As I’m looking back on this last year after my free year, I’m reeling. This sharp change in direction during my free year has made figuring out how or even whether to course correct difficult. Maybe this free year was course correction from the rest of my life?

I realized the main life lesson I learned from this period of my life: I can live many different lives and still be me. I am not destined to live a certain life in a certain place in a certain way. I can spend a year or so living a completely different life and I can thrive while doing so. I am more malleable than I ever realized and that is incredibly powerful. Most importantly, I can be malleable but still, at the core, be the same “me”. I can play an active role in my malleability and shape the parts of me I want to keep and the parts of me I’m ready to let go of.

I’m so thankful I graduated early because I think I never would have discovered these hidden truths. I never would have had a chance to be as unplanned and unscripted in such a broad way with my life. I’m faced with another blank canvas right now and I’m realizing I’m ready – I’ve been here before.


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