I was such a “fraidy cat” as a kid. I couldn’t go on sleepovers because I was too nervous despite being surrounded by friends. I never talked to people I didn’t know, even if it was a kid at school or the librarian… My parents would FORCE me to go up the the host/hostess at a restaurant and place our name on the waiting list just so I could learn to be comfortable around other people. The first and last time I went to summer camp (I was 9), I called my mom EVERY day and BEGGED her to come get me (it was a 4 day long sleep away camp..).  So needless to say, when I asked my mom to send me off to Europe at 18, by myself, not knowing a single person, I don’t honestly think she could have been more skeptical. It’s not like I had a great track record or anything.

You see, I had only recently become a “social butterfly”. It wasn’t until I was a teenage that I came out of my shell…somewhat. So since I was heading off to college, ALONE (again) in a few months, I think my mom thought it would actually be a good idea to thrust me onto these chaperones and unsuspecting peers (not in the hopes of me torturing anyone) in the hopes I would solidify my confidence as an individual (and just have an amazing experience).

So in June, my parents put me on a flight to JFK (my first flight alone) to connect with a flight to Heathrow (don’t worry I made the connection) to meet up with 30 peers and 5 chaperones I would spend the next 30 days with. We all met up in Heathrow. There was a giant blob of us on the floor waiting for everyone to arrive. Walking up to this group in my “West Coast Connections” t-shirt, seeing everyone else in the same shirt was honestly a terrifying relief. I was relieved that I had made it. I was terrified because a lot of these other kids were on this trip with friends. They had a built in buddy system. I did not.

After everyone arrived, we all hopped on the tour bus that would be our cozy yet, at times uncomfortable home away from home/hotels. This bus would be my home. These people would be my family and my friends for the next 30 days. Like it or not.

But in doing this. Taking this (what at the time seemed) crazy chance, was by far the best thing I have ever done. Sitting on the bus for long hours transversing the continent of Europe was boring and tiring (THANK GOD for Europes’ kick ass petrol stops!). Moving hotels every few nights as we moved onto the next location sucked. Finding clean clothes even though we did laundry every week felt damn near impossible. Having one piece of luggage for an entire month seemed like cruel and unusual punishment (again with the adage of “collect memories, not things”).

None of the logistics of this trip were easy. Who to be friends with, where to sit on the bus, what room to sleep in, who got what bed. But for a first experience alone and abroad, I couldn’t have asked for better. These 35 other people were now my family and many still are. When shit happened, we were there for each other. When someone ran out of minutes to call home, we shared our phone cards. When all my shit (passport, wallet, blackberry, etc.) got stolen in Rome, the girls bought me a Prada purse from the outlet in Milan. And these seemingly little acts taught me something. Something I would need serious brain trauma to forget.

That even though they may not have known me well or for long, they still valued me as a person and as a part of the group. This 30 day trip gave me the confidence I needed to accomplish what I have and managed to give me more than the previous 18 years had.

My friends back home only saw the bleached blonde hair and insane tan (that has never ever been as awesome) when I came back.

What they couldn’t see was the better person I had become.