The following post was written by Bridge Year Fellow Tushar Varma.

If I’m honest, I don’t remember much of high school anymore. It’s frustrating, trying to create a mental image of what my life was like only two or three short years ago. I come up with a fuzzy approximation of someone excited to come to UNC, but absolutely terrified of what the uncertain future held.

And uncertain it has been. I switched my major around a few times before I felt I was finally on a path that inspired me to reach my full potential. I had been warned ahead of time that this convoluted process of self-doubt was normal for most. But I didn’t like it at all. I am an organized and prepared person — I always have been. So, not having my life planned out to the finest detail induced anxiety that I didn’t cope with in healthy ways until much recently.

Going absolutely HARD for years and years trying to be as productive of a student as possible turned me into a studying robot. At least, that’s what it felt like this past year. The classroom felt transactional. The emphasis on the minutia of grading policies and test scores depleted any genuine interest in learning, replacing it with the machine-like drive to acquire the best grade possible. That was a feeling I remembered all too well from high school.

At this point, I was a sophomore at UNC, mentally and emotionally exhausted, but still on track to finish the year with excellent grades. I had also been accepted into the Hussman School of Media & Journalism. So, on the surface, everything looked good. But I knew that jumping into the next year head-first would eventually lead to an unpleasant and ugly burnout. And that’s when I swallowed a hard pill: rest and slowing down are not the opposite of productivity, but an integral part of it. Enter: The Bridge Year Fellowship!

I don’t plan to experience a “year off.” No way. If anything, this is going to be a “year on.” While I’m sure that another academic year would be my premature downfall, I’m also sure that there is a world of new experiences outside of the classroom. It’s my education, so why can’t it be on my own terms? My overarching goal for this gap year is simple: to rediscover what I am outside of an academic context. Currently, when someone asks me who I am, I instinctively say student. Which is fine, but anyone can be a “student.” What happened to being an artist or a martial arts instructor? I used to have so many hats I was proud of that I, unfortunately, hung up years ago to focus on school. It’s time to dust off those hats and put them on again…and maybe find some new hats. And to come up with better metaphors.

Due to COVID-19, my original idea to go abroad during the fall had to be postponed. In a change of plans, I will now be in Carrboro, NC, for the rest of the calendar year, and in Greece for the final half of my bridge year. In Carrboro, I will be working remotely as a marketing intern for Nourish International, a network of student-led social ventures, and as a research assistant for Dr. Allison Lazard at the Hussman School of Media & Journalism. In my free time, I will travel to as many of 41 NC State Parks as I can by December. In Greece, I wish to spend some time working with migrant communities and teach English, math, or art to kids, working on a sea turtle conservation team, and participating in an archaeological excavation.

Ultimately, this year is going to be about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. With the pandemic dramatically shaping the horizon for the foreseeable future, I will have to get used to plans falling through and accepting that I can’t plan for everything. And that’s absolutely okay! Perhaps this next year will be able to finally get me to live in the moment instead of pondering over the past or stressing over the future.