The following post was written by Bridge Year Fellow Owen Conley.

“But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice, which you slowly began to recognize as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only you could do – determined to save the only life you could save.” – Mary Oliver, The Journey

When I first found out that I had been accepted to the Global Gap Year Fellowship, I was ecstatic. For the first time in a long time I felt as if I could breathe. I started to realize that I had put my monetary and academic success before all else for so long that I had forgotten why I was even running. So, for a moment, I stopped running. It is in that moment that I started prioritizing my well-being over my productivity.

Before this opportunity, I honestly can’t remember a time when I was not running, but I could never put my finger on what I was running toward. At Carolina it became easy to disguise my running as a side effect of the constant pressure to be doing something and the perpetual state of urgency that everyone seems to exist in. Now, as my departure date approaches, I’ve begun to realize that maybe all this time I’ve actually been running away from something.

This year I started physically transitioning from female to male. Ironically, the parts of myself that I have been running from all of these years are the very parts that are now holding me back. Maybe not in the sense that I regret or am ashamed of embracing my identity, but in a sense that I will always feel indebted and connected to the person that I used to be. I think that while I am running toward my newfound identity, I may actually be facing the urge to run from what I know I need to be happy.

Ever since I started transitioning, I feel like I’ve been stuck in a sort of limbo. I am simultaneously becoming the man that I have always dreamt of being while also having to say goodbye to the woman that fought so hard for a place in my life. I never thought I would be alive to see my 20th birthday, let alone be where I am today; and in a way, I was right. As much as I hate to admit it, that has been a hard loss to grieve. As humans, we naturally cling to what is familiar and what feels like equilibrium, even when what is familiar is the very thing that is causing you the most heartache.

My departure to Cambodia this fall marks a very tangible separation between my past and future being; a separation between femininity and masculinity. I am struggling to embrace my masculinity in a non-toxic manner, while also trying to honor the resilience of the girl that I owe my life to. I have this fear that once I leave the familiarity of Chapel Hill, I’ll be exposed as a fraud. A fraud in the sense that I will no longer belong anywhere.

I still find myself in a state of uneasiness when people address me as “sir.” The world “man” feels dirty on my tongue. I refuse to engage in “locker room talk” and I don’t know how to operate in male friendships without sacrificing or changing some facet of myself. Frankly, I am increasingly becoming more and more disgusted by the gender that I have for so long wanted to be, and by proxy, myself. I now exist in a body that is feared by women, but fears men, which is a lonely place to be.

Yet, I am still a man. I have never been so sure of anything, I just don’t know what that means for me. I think the thing that makes me the most nervous is that I don’t yet know how to exist in a world that sees me as a cisgender man, but a world that doesn’t see the journey that I took to get here.

There exists a double-glazed wall of shame and discrimination; sometimes with hostility and often with rejection. The journey to self-acceptance and quiet confidence seems to be one of traveling down an abyss, fraught with uncertainty, loneliness, and fear. But, it has also been a journey full of power, contentedness, and great elation. I hope that the journey I’m about to embark on is filled with the same, from the uncertainty to elation. I want to feel all of it.

I thought I wanted the Global Gap Year Fellowship because it would give me the opportunity to save someone’s world, but what I have realized is that I need this fellowship in order to save my own. I need to expand my world so that I can embrace the voice I have waited so long to form and to finally appreciate, and let go of, the one that I am leaving behind. I do think it’s actually impossible to become a completely different person. You can only be better or worse – some variation of the person you already are. But I do hope that I’m on my way to being a better version of myself, a more authentic me, and well, that journey, wasn’t meant to be easy.