Monday, April 23, 2012

The Road Untraveled

Lately, I've been getting a lot of e-mails and questions from students who went to my old high school, and other students in my hometown. It seems that there's this growing trend of people who are confused about what to do with their lives and aren't sure what to do after graduation. Most of the people who have peppered me with questions are in the 10th and 11th grade and have told me that they've spent hours thinking about how confused they were about what classes to take that would ultimately lead them into the right universities for their chosen program. What does one do when they have to choose courses for the upcoming fall and doesn't know what to do? They book an appointment with their school guidance counsellor, of course.
I was fortunate to know that I wanted to study journalism since I was 13 years old, when an article I wrote about the rise of childhood obesity was published in my local newspaper. I got my fifteen minutes of fame, and I loved seeing my name in print. But more than that, I knew I had a passion for writing, and that I wouldn't be one of those people who had absolutely no idea what to do with their life. I was so lucky to know at such a young age what I wanted to do. My mom says that 
Pure bliss.
when I was a child, she caught me in her mirror while driving. My sister and I were both sitting in the backseat while she was beside me in my car seat. She was reading a book, and I was jealous. Anything she did, I had to follow suit. I, too, was trying to read a book, but was holding it upside down. Also, we had this nightly tradition for my mother to read to my sister and I before bed. We would crawl under the covers while my mom recited a few chapters of the latest Junie B. Jones novels or something else that we loved. As any parent wishes, my mom had wanted me to succeed in learning to read on my own. And I did learn - fast. And as soon as I learned how to read on my own, I took everything off the bookshelf and began reading on my own. I think I broke my mother's heart a little by ruining our tradition.
What I didn't expect was the turn of events that took place during my senior year of high school. I applied to three different universities for their journalism programs, and gotten into every single one. And I didn't give a damn. 
While clicking on the "read" button on e-mails and ripping envelopes open to read the 
This is what the goal should look like.
"Congratulations!" that loomed inside, I felt empty. Happy to be accepted and recognized for my talent and honor roll grades, but surprised at how little I cared. This says a lot, considering I am a person whose excitement of winning $3 on a lottery ticket is greater than the average person who wins the jackpot. I'm loud and full of emotion. So upon being accepted to each of the schools I applied to, I should've had a heart attack. This is how I knew that something was very wrong.
I've always had a knack for traveling. Don't be fooled, though - I come from a middle class family, and traveling throughout North America and Europe does not mean I have a Swiss bank account. All it means is that my passion for exploring the
With my papa Whyte, cousin Zack, and
sister on my first trip to Mexico.
world is so great, that I was willing to save up money and actually do it. My first ever vacation was when I was five years old and in kindergarten. My mom picked my sister and I up from school, and as we were leaving the building, we ran into another student who lived next door. His name was Jack. "Where are you guys going?" he asked. "Mexico!" my mom told him. I remember him not believing us, and it was then that I realized that Mexico must be somewhere far and special. But I was too young to understand much, even though I had seen suitcases scattered across the house filled with summery clothes and bathing suits.
Then I went on an exchange program in France for my second semester of grade 11. And after getting a taste of Europe, I knew I had wanted to return. And so instead of going to university, which I wasn't excited about, I did return. It began with a visit from one of my best friends Shayna Dwor. Shayna graduated the year before me, and had moved to Milan to work as an au pair and take a gap year. She encouraged me to do the same, and I opened up about my feelings about university. Then I slowly told everyone I knew what I had wanted to do, and the response was surprising. My family was all for it. My parents, my sister, grandparents, cousins, and everyone else with whom I shared blood had told me to go for it. And yet my friends rolled their eyes after telling them about my dreams. They told me that they didn't really
think I would do it and that I was being totally irresponsible for not furthering my education. These people were very, very, wrong. 
I'm not really close with those people anymore, because our friendships changed. Or rather, I changed. I don't really know. While I don't disrespect them for taking the comfortable route by living at home with their parents and going to school in our area, I couldn't relate to people who had scrutinized me for wanting to do something bigger with my life. At the same time, my sister had still lived at home and had gone to the university just 30 minutes away. And yet I was able to talk with her about my plans to travel and she was nothing but happy for me. And now, I am finding out that many of the people I knew from high school are switching their schools or programs because they weren't satisfied with what they got. Even those who are happy in their own situations have told me that they regret not doing what I did, because I did something unregrettable. Everyone talks about the dream of traveling through Europe after school, but how many people actually do it? I wanted to be one of the few people who chased after my dreams.
And so here I am in Rome, Italy. Opportunities sprouted out in other Italian cities, in Switzerland,
Passport? Check.
Map? Check.
Bravery? Check.
Germany, and other European regions. But I didn't want to settle for good. I wanted Rome, and I got it. I made an appointment with the Italian Embassy in Toronto to obtain my travel visa that would allow me to stay overseas for over 3 months. I extended my health insurance. I booked my ticket. I found a job. I became an au pair, which is necessary for me to live somewhere rent free while still making money. I've been living here since September, and I don't regret it one bit.
These students from home have contacted me because they heard about my blog or because they heard from a friend about MichElle Pressé, the girl who graduated last year and moved to Italy. I also found out from a couple people that one of my school's guidance councillors has continuously used me as an example when students come into her office
and freak out about their futures. She tells them about me and what I did, and offers them my name and e-mail to speak with me over the Internet about my experience. I love it when people are interested in taking a gap year, and I encourage everyone to do it. Most people who are 18 years old do not know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It's a huge decision, and at such a young age, you aren't exposed to the experiences you need in order to not have regrets. You've been sitting in a classroom for the majority of your existence with nothing but a two month break in between. But it is in my own personal belief and experience that a person becomes who they are upon solitude and travel. Everyone needs to do something that scares them.
Someone once asked me if I wanted to go to Europe to find myself. "I'm not going to find myself," I replied. "I'm going to create myself."
I know now who I am, what I want in life, what I don't want in life, and what kind of people I enjoy spending time with. I have transformed from a high school student to a mature young woman who wants to make her mark in the world through her writing, and who enjoys poking fun at herself and making other people laugh at her own expense. But even though I know who I am, I recognize that I am still so young, and have so much to learn. I can't wait to see where I'll go, who I'll meet, and what other lessons I'll learn throughout the course of my life. So far, I'm more than happy with it, all because I took a risk that turned out to be well worth it.
For anyone who isn't sure about pursuing their post-secondary education right away, here are some words of advice from yours truly. School and home will always be there. The opportunity to hone your craft or learn about biochemistry in a classroom aren't going anywhere. But how 
The edge of glory.
often does the opportunity to travel through Europe and be young and free arise? Not often. I've found that there are two types of people who exist in our world. Those who are satisfied with comfort, and those who are not. If you feel prepared and satisfied with going to school right away, then congratulations. That's wonderful, and I'm sure that if you're satisfied with that, then you're making the right decision. But if you aren't, please don't waste your time or money or worries on something that you're not 100% sure about. If you want to do something grand, then do it. As the brilliant Robert Frost once said, "A person will sometimes devote all his life to the development of one part of his body - the wishbone."
So what are you all waiting for? The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page. You only life once, and life is too short to be comfortable. For those of you reader's who are older and wish you had taken the plunge in your youth, there's still hope. Age is defined not by the number of birthday candles on your cake, but how old you think you are. If you're interested in the abroad experience, take a look at an article I read today called "Backpacking across Europe, 20 years past prime." I know that one day when I am a glamorous old grandmother, some of my best stories that I will share with my grandkids will begin with, "This one time, when I lived in Italy..." 

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