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Exactly a week ago, on December 4th, I turned 20. I am no longer a teenager, which feels both right, as I am a sophomore in college who does a lot of adulting, but also strange because it’s a brand new decade. I always reflect on birthdays, so here are 20 things I’ve learned while being alive for two decades.

1. Being an empath is a gift and burden all at once

I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was 12 (although I’ve had it my whole life) and part of anxiety is being highly sensitive and empathetic. I hated this about myself for a while because it meant I was frequently overwhelmed, could feel absolutely everything, and cried constantly. And yes, those things do happen, but my empathy is why I am who I am. It is why I’m creative, love to write, and want to go into international relations. I want to make the world a better place and I am suited to do just that since I feel so profoundly.

2. People can be cruel, but most are good at heart.

Call me idealistic, but I genuinely believe that there is good in every person. So often we focus on the bad parts of humanity—war, violence, pain, suffering, that we forget that people are people. Everyone has a family, has laughed, has cried, and most care about others too. 

3. Travel is the best way to grow.

My study abroad application is due in 24 hours, and I could not be more excited. I grew up traveling regularly, with my parents often throwing my sister and me in a car for a road trip. I feel the most me when I travel. Exploring new places, seeing culture, meeting people makes me feel alive. It makes you a better, more well-rounded person too. 

4. Big friend groups aren’t for me, and that’s okay.

As college students, we are often surrounded by people with seemingly a million friends who are always having a great time, and if you don’t have that, you often feel inadequate and like you’re doing college “wrong.” The truth is, I prefer hanging out with friends one on one or in small groups. While I enjoy an occasional party, I can’t hang out constantly in large groups. I get overwhelmed by big groups and find “surface” friendships unimportant. I am also involved in many different things, so I have friends from various things—not one big group. And that’s okay; I think it’s something that we need to talk about more in college because it’s completely normal but can feel lonely.

5. Sometimes you need to emotionally vomit.

Emotionally vomiting, a term used by my whole family, is venting a lot and getting everything out. As a very high functioning, type-A person, I tend to hold things in, and sometimes you just need to cry.

6. I’m so fortunate to have my family.

My family is amazing. With laughter, memories, and joy, I am lucky enough to call my mom, dad, and sister my best friends. It is something that I can sometimes take for granted, but when I step back and think, they are the greatest blessing, and I’m eternally grateful for them.

7. I have to write, read, and do something creative to thrive.

Writing and reading, for me, are like breathing. It is vital and one of the only times where I feel completely calm. I have learned that reading and writing are the best forms of self-care. I’ve also found that it has to be for me. Since I’m a student, I read and write, but making time to read and write for fun is critical.

8. Everything happens for a reason.

Without getting too spiritual, I believe in God, that there is a meaning to everything, and that everything eventually falls into place. Setbacks are opportunities, and opportunities cause growth.

9. Everyone has stuff going on in their lives, be kind because you never know.

Everyone has bad days, cries and feels like crap, and deals with people who hurt them. Sometimes a smile, a compliment, or being there to listen goes a long way.

10. Fall in love with someone who feels like home, listens to you and makes you laugh.

I am so lucky to have already met my person so young. We always say that being with each other feels comfortable and like home. The greatest love, in my experience, doesn’t always mean grand gestures (although those are fun!), but it can mean listening to someone talk about their day, making bad jokes, and enjoying each other’s company. As Taylor Swift says, “I used to believe love would be burning red but it’s golden, like daylight.”

11. I can enjoy things but do not want to do them as a career.

I came into college as an art history major. It only took a couple of classes to realize that although I love learning about art history, it’s not what I want to do for my whole life. The same goes for other interests, including photography, bookmaking, and theater. Hobbies are important. You don’t have to monetize everything you do—some things can just be for fun.

12. I am more analytical and business-minded then I give myself credit for

So I grew up as a gifted kid but wasn’t as strong with math and science. I also was an art and theater kid growing up. I just figured I was more creative than business-minded. I always believed that I wasn’t strategic or intelligent in that way, but the truth is, I am. When I got to college, I learned that I am good at thinking critically, deep analysis, and research. I even enjoyed statistics! I love my communications and global studies double major in part because it blends my creativity with business senses.

13. Self-care is not an option.

Eating, showering, exercising, breathing, sleeping, and taking time to unwind is not lazy or something you can just put off if you are swamped with work. I work two jobs, am in a leadership role for three clubs, am involved in many more, and am a full-time student, I am a busy person, but I’ve learned that self-care can’t be skipped. Schedule it if you have to, but please take care of yourself.

14. Use your voice, always.

This goes for things as small as standing up for yourself in a conflict and as big as advocating for causes that are important to you. Our voices have power, and when we speak, others listen.

15. Hard work is one of the most important things.

I was raised by two of the most hardworking people I know, and they instilled in me that hard work is critical for success. You can be the most thoughtful or most well-deserving person, but you won’t be as successful if you don’t work hard. It takes grit sometimes, but I push through. 

16. No one can take away your worth

To quote Elenor Rosevelt (and Joe in Princess Diaries), “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I try to live by that to the best of my ability. As a sensitive person, I can sometimes sink into the pain but realizing that no one can take away makes all the difference. You are unique, beautiful, intelligent, and outstanding, and no one can make you feel less than.

17. Life is a balancing act.

It has hit me, especially this year, because we are getting back to pre-covid living. I have discovered that everything is quite the balancing act. Social life, school, work, extracurriculars, self-care: it all can feel like a circus, and you are a juggler. But that’s okay; you eventually learn how to catch everything and if one thing drops, pick it up.

18. Friends can break your heart just as much (or more) than romantic partners can

Just because a relationship isn’t romantic doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful. Society often undervalues the impact of friendship, but friends, especially when you’re young, are a key part of your life, and losing them hurts! That also goes for perfectly healthy friendships; don’t feel like your relationship isn’t valuable just because it’s platonic. 

19. Leadership is challenging but rewarding.

I was told as a child that I was a “natural leader,” which I’m pretty sure was just code for bossy. My oldest sister, perfectionistic self, is good at being a leader, but leadership can be scary, hard, and awkward. At my first Her Campus meeting where I was editor, I flubbed words and felt uncomfortable, but in time it has improved. Leadership can also be an alienating quality. It can seem like you’re bossy or stuck up. Remember to have patience and know that leadership is something natural and something you grow into. 

20. I still have things I’m figuring out. I don’t have all the answers.

I’m only twenty! I have two years of college left and a lot of living to do. I need to be more patient, sometimes lower my expectations, not be as judgemental, and remember that it’s okay not to be perfect. And there is so much still to learn and people to learn from. Growing up is all in strides.

Elena Johnston is the Co-Campus Correspondent and Editor In Chief of Her Campus LUM. She is a Sophomore and a Global studies and Communications double major with a concentration in Public Relations/Advertising. Elena is currently the Albrecht Fellow Intern for public affairs and programming at the World Trade Center Insitute. She previously interned this summer with the Frederick Maryland Chamber of Commerce for Communications and was also chosen as a University Innovation Fellow, an international fellowship for leadership and development. Outside of academics, Elena is involved with theater on campus and is passionate about photography, writing, design, and activism.
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