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In Honor of my 20th Birthday, Here Are 20 Things I’ve Learned in the Last Year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: my birthday! It’s hard to believe that I’ve been occupying and traversing the Earth for two whole decades, but as the saying goes: “Time flies when you’re having fun.” As a final farewell to my teenage years, I’ve compiled a list of important lessons I’ve learned and epiphanies I’ve had that I hope to carry with me as I enter this next chapter of my life. So in honor of my 20th birthday, here are 20 things I’ve learned in this last crazy, stressful, exhausting, whimsical, rewarding, enlightening and fun-filled year.

Life is worth remembering. Keep a journal.

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2021 was to start keeping a journal, which has been a surprising success. It’s only been about eight months, but it’s amazing to look back on previous entries from just a few weeks prior and realize how many details and events you forget. Other times, it can be really sweet and nostalgic to look back on more significant memories and milestones and reminisce on those. Writing before bed adds an extra 15 or 20 minutes to my nighttime routine, but I’m certain that my future self will thank me for it.

Yes, you’re getting older. But you’re also getting wiser.

A few months into the pandemic, I was suddenly struck by how quickly time passes. Soon after, this led to an almost debilitating fear of eventually becoming wrinkly, saggy, decrepit and… old. It’s kind of comical to look back and see how much time I spent last year dreading my birthday and lamenting about my “fleeting youth.” Now, however, I realize that with age, we accumulate experiences that make us wiser, more knowledgeable and more confident. Aging is a privilege, and when we see it as a privilege, we can move through our life with optimism and grace. 

Go f*cking vote. It’s important.

Seriously, it’s not a joke. After the general election in 2020 and the runoff election in Georgia this past January, we all witnessed the power and importance of mobilizing people and voting. As state legislators continue passing measures that suppress and restrict the right to vote, it’s important not to take our own rights for granted. To make sure you’re registered, go to vote.org.

Listen to your parents. 

Most of the time, they know what they’re talking about. Don’t tell my dad I said this. I’ll never hear the end of it.

Start making schedules.

This was a practice I started during our year and a half of virtual school, and I think it was the lifeboat keeping me afloat as I balanced coursework with ongoing research projects, thesis work and an internship. I got into the habit of sitting down on Sunday night, listing out everything I needed to accomplish over the course of the week, identifying my deadlines and penciling each item into a weekly calendar. While it takes some discipline, it saves you from so much stress and, ultimately, allows you more ease, flexibility and free time.

Don’t take people for granted. If you love someone, tell them.

After losing my nani (maternal grandmother) to COVID last November, I was reminded of how temporary everything in our lives is. If you’ve been thinking about calling or reaching out to someone, this is your sign. Tell the people you care about that you love them. There’s no guarantee that the chance will come again.

Invest in a heating pad. It’s one of the best remedies for period cramps.

For ultimate relief: drape the heating pad across your lower abdomen, brew a cup of lavender or peppermint tea, pop a Tylenol or two, break off a few squares of your favorite chocolate, turn on an episode of “New Girl” and relax! You deserve it.

Don’t let emails stress you out.

Thanks to my virtual coursework and internship, there have been several instances in which I’ve had to build relationships with professors, advisors and supervisors entirely over email. In those instances, it can be really difficult to get a proper read on a person and their demeanor. That said, don’t read into things too much because your mind will happily draw conclusions that don’t exist. Nobody’s judging you for sending an email from your iPhone and, if it’s been a few days and you haven’t heard from someone, don’t be afraid to send a follow-up message. You’re not being annoying, I promise.

Although you might not think so, you’re beautiful and you have a dazzling personality.

It’s true! And if you surround yourself with good company, they’ll never let you forget it.

There’s never any harm in trying.

Even if something seems like a long shot, go for it anyway. My greatest accomplishments have usually been the results of pleasant surprises. You’re much better than you give yourself credit for. Believe in yourself and give it your best effort. You never know what could happen.

A t-shirt and sweatpants is a perfectly acceptable uniform. 

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I recorded my video essay for my application to the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship in a pair of sweatpants, and it won me a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris and a fully-funded study abroad program in Dublin this past summer. Maybe I’m crazy, but I do my best work in sweatpants.

Sometimes, things don’t work out. And that’s okay.

There have been several occasions in the last year in which I was faced with rejection and disappointment. There were grades that I thought could’ve been better; there were internships I was passed over for, even though I knew I was qualified for them; and there were a couple of strained friendships that came to awkward and painful ends. I know it stings. For now, take a deep breath, relax and don’t take any of it too personally. It might take some time, but just trust that something bigger and better is on its way.

At this moment, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.

I know it’s tempting, but avoid comparing yourself to other people. It’s hard to fight the urge when you’re scrolling through LinkedIn and you’re met with an article about a 19-year-old training for NASA’s mission to Mars — meanwhile, you’ve been nestled in your couch cushions for the last four hours watching “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” It’s okay. Everyone on this planet is moving at their own pace and is on their own, personal journeys of growth and self-discovery. You don’t owe anyone anything, so don’t live your life trying to prove yourself to people. Follow your bliss.

Don’t order linguine on a first date.

You can’t eat it with any kind of grace or sophistication. If you really want pasta, opt for dishes with noodles like penne, rigatoni, fusilli, gnocchi, etc. It’ll save you the embarrassment of trying to cover your face with your hand or a napkin so that your date can’t see you shoveling stray spaghetti noodles into your mouth. On me, at least, it’s not a cute look.

You don’t have to know what you’re doing.

And honestly, the less you think about it, the better. Of course, plan as much as you feel comfortable, but don’t do it to the point where you inhibit yourself from seeing and taking advantage of new opportunities. Despite what people say, no decision is really final. Don’t box yourself in and be open and receptive to what life has to offer. Explore all of your options, chase your dreams and have fun.

Trust your intuition and don’t let anyone try to shake your conviction.

Even though you might not think so, you know yourself best. If your gut is telling you something, listen to it. 

Generally, things never turn out to be as bad as you think they will be.

I’m reminded of this constantly. Our minds have a tendency to spiral and conjure images of the worst-case scenario. As most of us know, however, the worst-case rarely ever manifests in reality. When facing stressful situations, the best things you can do are prepare, stay present and trust that you’re capable of handling any circumstances you’re dealt with. One way or another, you’ll manage. Just don’t let your thoughts paralyze you.

Food is so much better in Europe.

The eggs, the produce, the tea, the coffee, the pastries, the chocolate, the dairy… it’s all so much better there.

Pay yourself first.

If this year has taught me anything, it’s the importance of self-care. I’ve been making it a habit to set aside time every day to tend to my mind and body. A balanced diet and daily physical exercise have become musts, and time at the end of each day to unplug and decompress has saved me from burnout. As my dad likes to say: “Without your health, you have nothing.” Self-care is a valuable and productive long-term investment. Don’t let anyone ridicule or guilt you into feeling otherwise.

Life has a way of working things out.

There are forces much larger than you and me that control the whims of this world. Relax, loosen your grip on the reins and trust that those forces are looking out for you. Everything is going to be okay.

I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do. Regardless, life’s been good to me. I’ve laughed a lot, cried a lot, learned a lot and grown a lot. I’ve had the privilege of meeting, growing up with and cultivating friendships with so many wonderful people who’ve added such depth, dimension, meaning, richness and exhilaration to my life. In my short time on this planet, I think I’ve accomplished quite a bit and seen so many corners of the world, but there’s so much more to do and explore. 

Here’s to another decade of ease, exploration, clarity, enlightenment, love and friendship, and a long, fulfilling life ahead.

Niki is a third-year student at UMKC pursuing double majors in history and English along with a minor in film studies. Outside of writing and re-watching her favorite Tom Cruise movies, you can find her listening to audiobooks while on strolls through the park or walks around her neighborhood. She enjoys talking about travel, literature, health, wellness, and skincare and can never turn down a good cup of tea.
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