I was 19 when I decided to move to Europe.

Caitlyn Brennan

I didn’t “move” to Europe as in study abroad for a semester with 20 other Michigan students. I didn’t “move” to Europe as in take a summer internship as a part of a program carefully crafted by the University. I didn’t register for classes the next fall, nor did I plan to return in the spring.

I found a job, bought a ticket and packed my bags.

I worked for a fashion designer during the day, and as a nanny at night. I worked a lot of hours, but traveled a lot, too. I made friends, learned new languages, gained amazing work experience and traversed more land by age 20 than most people will in their entire lives.

I did all of this because I wanted to.

When telling people about my time abroad, the almost-universal reaction is, “Wow. I wish I could do that.” After hearing this so many times, day in and day out, I’ve started to just reply with what’s on my mind: “Well, why don’t you?”

Responses are generally a variation of something about “not having enough time,” and, frankly, I’m kind of sick of hearing that. I’m 22 years old and, by credits, a sophomore. Students at the University visibly cringe when I tell them this. They give me a look mixed with sympathy and pity, regardless of whether they know why it is I’m so “behind” other people my age. In their hurry to rush through school and into the Real World or grad school or their next big internship at an investment bank in Chicago, they’ve convinced themselves there is no other path but the norm. Their cringe tells me they’ve also convinced themselves to pity those who stray from this path.

Truth be told, my time in Europe was not always rainbows and butterflies. At one point, very suddenly, I lost my job nannying and was, essentially, homeless. It was Christmas, I was completely alone, and in a foreign country with no documentation and very little money. I could pack it in and go back to America, or I could buck up and figure out a way to hold on to my dream of living abroad. I chose the latter. I went through a brutally terrifying and sobering few weeks, but I walked away victorious. Not only did I find a new job, but I also found a new confidence in myself to pull through tough situations.

It’s these kinds of things that no class in school can teach you — not everyone will have an “I’m going to be homeless and deported if this doesn’t work” experience, but there is a great deal to be gained from leaving the confining bubble that is “the norm.”

I was terribly unhappy with my life at the University. I was paying tens of thousands of dollars and putting forth endless hours of work for something I could only hope would someday make me happy. Why not take my time and be certain of what I was investing in?

The same goes for other “anomalous” academic routes, like staying in school longer in order to change career paths, or taking time to go work. I get the impression from many students they’re afraid they’ll be viewed as “behind” their peers should they take extra time to graduate, but I’ve found I only benefit when networking and talking about the atypical path I’ve chosen. A friend of mine started school at a different university entirely, decided he disliked it, applied as a freshman to the University, and ended up graduating an entire semester “late.”

Scary, right?

Well here’s the rest of the story: At the University, he made nearly perfect grades, became captain of the lacrosse team and was just accepted into New York University’s dental program, where he starts next year. I might be biased, but I think he’s doing pretty well for himself.

My point, essentially, is this: If you’re going to tell me you wish you could take time off, study another major, travel around a bit or take an amazing, unpaid internship in South America that you won’t get credit for — please, give me a good reason why you’re not doing it. You are young. You have so much life ahead of you and so much time. But you won’t always have it, and when it’s done, it’s done. When you tell me you can’t do something you want to do, think critically about why. If you can find just one hole in your logic, take it and run with it. You won’t regret it.

Caitlyn Brennan can be reached at caibre@umich.edu

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