All it takes to drop out of school is one sheet of paper.
The university asks why you're leaving and if/when you'll return. I'd already done everything else to prepare for my time away, and all I needed to do was make it official.
During the fall semester of my junior year in college, I realized I needed a break. I felt spending four consecutive years in the same physical place and mental space would be limiting, and I needed to find a way to gain a new perspective on life.
By the time the semester came to a close, I had all the pieces in place to take a semester away from school and have a different experience.
In all honesty, I had no idea what I was looking for. I just knew I needed to look somewhere else.
Places To People
I started out as a tourist. I traveled with a friend to Reykjavik, Copenhagen and Stockholm, where we visited museums and natural landmarks, took tours and followed guidebooks.
We circled destinations on our map and planned our days so we could see the majority of every place we went.
There was a certain sense of accomplishment at the end of each day when we could easily go down our list and check off everything we had done.
In a way, though, it felt like being back at school. We were following the rules and doing what we were supposed to do, creating comfort in a sense of routine.
The following two weeks were similar as I traveled with friends from home who were studying abroad. I quickly began to realize, however, that my time was beginning to be defined less by the places than by the people.
Because of this, a month into my adventure, I stopped planning where to go. Instead, I thought about who I wanted to see, purchased a one-way ticket and went from there.
This conscious decision led me to some unpronounceable, off-the-beaten-path spots where friends lived, like the Dutch university town, Maastricht, and Knokke, a coastal village in Northern Belgium.
In an effort to spend a low-budget week with a best friend in Italy, I slept on the floor with nothing but a pair of chair cushions and a top sheet.
When I spent a week in Paris without going to one museum or iconic destination, I didn't feed badly at all, as I'd spent my time eating my way through the city with a friend who'd just graduated from culinary school there.
The shift I made brought so much more value to my experiences. My favorite photos aren't of scenery or art; they're of people. I asked questions and engaged in conversations that made me see things differently. I heard stories, had debates, laughed, cried and thought.
Most importantly, I built on old friendships and developed new ones.
What Your Backpack Can Teach You
Big Bertha was a 55L + 10L u-zip heavy-duty travel backpack. The first time I tried to close it, my friend had to sit on it so I could get the zippers shut.
The airline agent at JFK gave me a pitying look as I awkwardly tried to hoist the pack onto the scale, not yet knowing how to properly handle the unwieldiness.
But, just like with anything else, practice made perfect (or, at least it made better).
I learned how to roll and arrange my clothes so they took up less space, and I carefully condensed compression packs so they steadied out the frame of the backpack.
Taking a few minutes to be thoughtful in the morning would make my entire day easier.
I got rid of what I didn't need and didn't buy much.
My backpack limited my relationship with material things because I didn't have space or weight to spare.
Instead of collecting souvenirs, I collected memories, like the time in Dublin when the budget airline agent made me unpack my bag in front of the entire passenger line in an attempt to marginally decrease the size.
I looked like a complete fool, sweating as I put on layer after layer in an attempt to empty the backpack just enough so it would pass the weight restriction (which, unbeknownst to me, was strategically lower on this particular airline than any other I had flown).
The first few days of carrying the bag were unbearable. It was as if I was carrying another person on my back. In an attempt to find a better strategy, I realized if I was straining my shoulders, I could pull the torso strap tighter to redistribute the weight.
In this way, I learned how to compensate, and I got stronger as I trekked through one city after another.
This got me thinking: Could I similarly redistribute my time, energy and effort when I got back home to find more balance in my life?
My huge backpack drew a lot of attention. At first I was embarrassed; it made me stand out right away in each place as an obvious tourist.
Riding subways was almost always a nightmare, as I tried not to crush old women or small children with the wide-girth swing of Big Bertha.
After a while, I finally realized though the backpack certainly called attention to me, this could actually be a good thing.
It was the perfect conversation piece that allowed me to make new friends wherever I traveled.
Asking For Help
Asking for help was never a strong suit of mine. I disliked the feeling of vulnerability that came with not being able to figure something out for myself.
However, I soon learned that asking for help could get me to where I was going much more quickly.
I learned to trust others when I had no other choice. It began when I was on a Scandinavian train that stopped because of engine trouble.
A kind stranger translated the Swedish announcement and saved me from what would have surely been an incredibly stressful afternoon.
Similar situations occurred week after week. I once rode a public bus around the entire city of Florence in a giant two-hour loop and ended up back where I started at the station.
I would have done it again without the help of a warm, English-speaking elderly woman who gave me directions to the correct stop.
Another time, I asked a stranger at a Scandinavian airport about what seemed to be a flight delay, but it was actually a gate change.
I ran at full speed across three terminals and made it onto the plane just as the doors were closing.
Learning to be less stubborn about asking for help put me in the habit of developing trust, which drastically improved the quality of my relationships when I began to practice it in other parts of my life.
The perspectives of others can reframe the way you see something, be it a map of a city or an important decision you have to make.
Like most people, when I used to see a tourist on the street, I'd roll my eyes or brusquely rush by them.
Now, instead of avoiding eye contact, I try to stop and help when someone looks lost, since others' small acts of kindness were focal points of my day when I was traveling.
You know what else requires a deepened level of trust? Not having a phone. You have to trust when you make plans, the other person will arrive at the right place at the right time.
There's no option to flake out, text you're running late or switch spots. I learned to rely on good old-fashioned maps and a belief people would come through when they promised they would.
Not having a smartphone or computer was liberating. I wasn't answering emails at all hours of the day, and instead of checking Facebook when I had time to kill, I people watched or wrote in my journal.
I didn't feel the perpetual pressure to stay connected all of the time. In fact, the disconnect with the virtual world allowed me to develop a deeper connection with myself.
When you're unplugged, sometimes you are your only company.
Guess And Check
There were a thousand times along the way when I had absolutely no idea where I was going, both metaphorically and literally.
I remembered back to first grade when my teacher taught our class the “guess and check” method before we knew actual mathematical operations: You had to guess an answer and work backwards to check if you were right.
So, I began to guess and check. I took wrong turns and circled back countless times.
Every once in a while, I got to my destination on the first try. I realized that emotionally, however, I was rarely this lucky. I had to constantly check in with myself to see where I was.
I guessed at the beginning of my trip that I'd be completely fine doing it all by myself. I was independent and confident enough, and I'd traveled before, so surely, I could handle it.
However, when I began to check, I found being alone sometimes meant just being lonely.
One of the things I'd left behind at home was a sense of community, which I realized was more important to my day-to-day happiness than I thought.
Only by removing myself from that environment did I have the perspective to check and see which aspects of it were most important.
The guess and check method requires you to focus on the journey instead of the destination.
It's not so much about having the right answer in the end, but rather about finding a new way to get there or challenging yourself to figure out what paths to take.
Of course, it might be easier to just know the answer — like it would to know actual mathematical equations instead of a roundabout strategy — but guessing and checking allows you to learn and grow so much more.
There were mornings when I woke up not knowing where I would sleep that night. I booked flights and trains days and sometimes only hours in advance.
I didn't know where I was going, and I also didn't know what I was missing back at home.
Sometimes, the unknown turned out to be pretty terrible. My brother and I stayed at a hostel 20 minutes outside of Zagreb that looked like it could have been the scene of a murder.
Airports never turn off any of their lights at night, which I learned after having to “sleep” in them overnight on a number of occasions.
On the other hand, the unknown sometimes turned out to be better than I could have ever imagined.
Power paragliding in the Alps (sans safety waiver) felt like a scene out of "The Sound of Music," and picking destinations based off the Eurail map landed me in beautiful parts of Eastern Europe I never thought I'd see.
Facing the unknown still makes me uncomfortable. I really believe, though, that moments of discomfort are the biggest moments of growth.
They make you question your values and your priorities, as you can't rely on habit to make decisions. You instead have to become self-aware and intentional.
You have to trust yourself to make the best decision you can in any circumstance with the information you have at that moment.
You also have to let go of worrying about the past or the future too much, as this tendency to analyze can be paralyzing. The unknown shouldn't prevent you from moving forward; it should challenge you to be open to new experiences.
Learning To Say "No Thank You"
After four months of traveling, I finally came home. I'd learned the importance of surrounding myself with amazing people, so I started a health tech company called Fever Smart with my brother Aaron and good friend Will, two of the most amazing people in the world.
I learned the importance of balance and flexibility, and I went back for my senior year of college with a new appreciation for community and being present.
The biggest takeaway from my time abroad, though, was learning to say no thank you. I said no thank you to staying at school and to the traditional model of following a straight path.
I said no thank you to having a set schedule or itinerary and to worrying about what I'd miss out on. I said no thank you to doing what I was supposed to do and instead did what I needed to do.
Learning to say no thank you is about being polite but steadfast in your intentions. It's about using difficult situations to develop self-awareness and self-confidence.
Learning to say no thank you is about opening yourself to opportunities that will change your life. In a way, it's about learning when and how to say yes.