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The following post was written by Bridge Year Fellow Farah Heikal. Farah spent her Bridge Year in Lebanon.

I am not afraid nor ashamed to admit that before I began my Bridge Year, I was lost with no sense of direction. Sure, I was doing just fine in my academics, checking every box on the list of ways to be successful in college. From a superficial perspective, I seemed to be great as a second-year UNC student that had mastered the balance of work, life, and school. However, innately I was in a constant state of confusion. Confused with what direction I was really planning on taking in life, unsure about the “5-year plan” I had meticulously crafted years before, and certainly in doubt about the level of motivation I had left in me.

Drowning in class assignments and work obligations, I had never had the time to truly reflect on anything or even check in on myself. It was not until I arrived at my first placement—Beqaa Valley, Lebanon—when I found myself forced into self-intimacy. Because it was such a foreign environment (void of all of the variables that I had allowed to define me back home), every day felt as though I was standing in front of the mirror and gazing deep into my soul. These moments of forced self-intimacy allowed me to make crucial decisions that redefined who I was, what I wanted and what I was willing to accept for the remainder of my life. It was the choices that I was forced to make during this difficult period, that lay the foundation of powerful life changes ahead. It was not an easy transition, but I did not expect it to be.

Early on I learned that I was a living, breathing product of a society that chased the highs of instant gratification and crashed at the thought of “going with the flow”. It did not even sink in that I, the person who stressed over every aspect of her academic life, was actually taking a year off of school…an entire year! To stop. To Breathe. Hopping off of the treadmill was hard for someone who was a bystander in her own life, always leaving her decisions up to the mold that awaited her. My goal before this experience was to aimlessly obtain degree after degree, no questions asked. This changed when I found myself slowly but surely deconstructing who I thought I wanted to be. My values shifted from being individually focused to community-based reflection. In fact, I entered my twenties while in Lebanon—the decade of “finding yourself”—as many refer to it. Although I have a lot of work ahead of me, I became at peace with several things. I realized that “20” is for the pursuit of a tomorrow that is better than today. “20” is for options. “20” is for passion and knowledge and enjoyment. It is not for continuous compromise. “20” is an opportunity to move upward, forward, and to create a large life.

With no distractions and sometimes in isolation because of the language barrier at the beginning, I became a much more intuitive and observational version of myself. I began exploring unknown streets with a new thirst for adventure. I started saying “yes” to almost everything, within reasonable limits. I fell in love with alone-time and nature. I uncovered my ability to adapt to almost all new environments that I was thrown into. I became inspired by people who stood up for their beliefs no matter the consequences. I learned how to listen much more than I spoke while soaking in my surroundings. I became so much more grateful for what I have back home; no longer did I feel the need to complain about trivial inconveniences and as a result, my spirituality was strengthened. I most importantly learned how to create boundaries between myself and others through the sense of independence that by default became instilled in me.

During my Bridge Year, I realized that I have an inexplicable amount of love for children. I know the saying is to “respect your elders”—which is all that I knew to do—but I have learned that often the youngest of voices have the most power and untainted strength beneath them. I often reflect on one of the refugee camps that I worked in where I had the opportunity to form a relationship with a young boy who was notorious for being angry and distrusting in most of those around him. Every day, he would sit in the corner of the playroom. He even earned the name “grumpy grandpa” or “Gedoo” by his former classmates and my fellow volunteers. Never one to give in to what is accepted as fact until proven, I took my chance with Muhammed. The more that I nurtured and assured him of his abilities, the more that I realized his confidence was blooming like a blossom in the spring. Once the outcast, Muhammed became my go-to student for the role of line-leader and the most exhilarated volunteer for “ABC-singing” time. That gave me a new lens for life—I realized that by paying close attention to those around me, especially vulnerable voices that people may automatically dismiss, there was so much to learn.

I plan to dedicate what is left of my college experience living in the moment and vow to leave any hurdles behind. I intend to use every spark in me to ignite a sense of motivation to achieve what I truly know that I am capable of, with nothing holding me back. Because of this experience, I am better equipped to embrace uncertainty, recognize the positive in situations, find common ground with complete strangers, and be a strong and independent woman! My worldview has been opened, my compassion for others has widened, and my imagination has flourished. One of the biggest changes for me when I return to my regular life in Chapel Hill will be adjusting to the realization that I do not have to continue living exactly as I had before. I constantly find myself pondering for potential possibilities and opportunities that I may be missing out on. This opportunity emphasized that life is just too short to waste it following the plan that others carved out for me. This time in my life will only come once, and I’d be a fool to let it go to waste.

Honestly, I have come to realize that I now crave change. In the past, whenever I would hear about change, I would have such anxious thoughts associated with it. Now, I almost invite it. I want change in my life. I want to do things the unconventional way during my most formative years. I know that it is hard to remember to slow down in such a go-go society, but I have realized that if I am not fully aware of myself, there is no way that I can tend to the needs of others or have a real impact on my surroundings. I want to be that person that touches people’s lives in a way that they will never forget. I have learned to be more understanding of people and frankly more empathetic for myself. If I feel something, I allow myself to feel it and I don’t question it. I just let it be. And that’s essentially what I have learned— to let it be. Go with the flow. Have faith. Have faith in the fact that things will always work out. And even if it is hard at the time being, I will just have to “roll with it”. I will absorb the pain, absorb the adversity, and allow it to be the fire inside of me that never burns out. I vow to be that person and never allow any distractions to disturb my plans for my remaining time at UNC. My life has changed indefinitely because of the Global Gap Year Program. In ways that I will never have the words to fully express, I have learned so much about myself—good and “bad”.

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