The following post was written by Gap Year Fellow Georgia Morgan.

This past year has by far been the most influential year of my life. From the initial applying for and discovering my acceptance into the fellowship over a year ago, to the planning, preparation, leaving home, living abroad and finally coming home, it’s been a long, challenging and beautiful process. I faced a lot of fears and conquered many uncertainties and doubts in the midst of integrating into new cultural environments and gaining countless invaluable skills from my work with different NGOs. I was pushed to be extremely resourceful and completely trusting in myself, which can be hard for any 19-year-old right out of high school! As a result, however, I have a new, undying confidence in myself and knowledge of what I’m capable of.

In addition, this past year has brought so many new people, experiences, skills, insights and understandings into my life. The beautiful array of people I met, the wholesome conversations we shared, and the personal growth I experienced are the things that made the challenges of this past year worth every second. After spending the past six months abroad, I feel tired, grateful, inspired, proud, and strong. My heart is full. It’s beautiful and strange to be driving around the streets of Apex and Cary with a newfound appreciation for my home, its physical beauties, and the freedoms it offers.

For those of you that may not know, I spent the last three weeks of my gap year in Genova, Italy, falling in love with the beautiful, charming and underrated northern Italian city. I spent my first five nights in a hostel exploring the winding and narrow roads on my own or with fellow hostel visitors. Each day held a new adventure of finding hidden treasures and delicious surprises at the end of beautifully adorned and ancient cobblestone roads. I found so much joy in exploring the city on my own with a sense of freedom and independence that I hadn’t felt in a while. For the rest of my time in Genova, I stayed with a local family and taught English lessons in the afternoons.

My time in Italy was meant to serve as a period of reflection, rest and decompression, and it allowed me to do just that. I was able to objectively process the challenges I experienced in Morocco and acknowledge my growth for the first time. I began to look at all of the obstacles I faced over the past six months and I realize how much I had accomplished and changed. When new challenges came up during my time in Italy, I was proud of myself for how much better I seemed to navigate them as opposed to at the beginning of my gap year. When it came time to go home, I felt ready, but it didn’t feel real. As much as I longed to be home, my mind raced with questions. How could this year be over already? What’s next? How do I continue with all of this growth I’ve experienced? How can I still stay involved and not let these experiences drift off into my memories?

As I see family, friends, old teachers, peers and neighbors again for the first time since my Gap Year, it can feel overwhelming when repetitively asked the question, “So, how was it?” It’s impossible to answer this question in a five-minute interaction. There’s no way to convey the things I felt and experienced, let alone the ways in which I’ve changed and grown. As frustrating as that can be, I’ve been able to take a step back and remind myself that this past year was for me. As long as I remember and understand all of these complexities and continue to build on my growth, I’ve truly succeeded.