About an hour ago I wrote my last paper ever for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m wary to count my chickens, but for all intents and purposes I’m through with UNC.

I just took a quick walk through campus as I was finishing up the last pack of cigarettes before keeping my “I’ll quit when I graduate” promise (like that’ll happen). I was really looking at this place, not just running about with ciggie in hand and my coat flapping behind me like Batman’s cape, like I usually do.

As the dazed and exhilarated realization of finally being free of UNC is wearing off, the amount of life experience that’s been packed into a measly handful of years is starting to set in. There were the times like skidding my way through the night of last year’s ice storm with two friends just so I could catch the Aimee Mann show at the Carolina Theatre. I’ve had emotional turmoil out the wazoo. I had my heart broken for the first time and I lost my virginity. They were two different people, mind you. I’ve withdrawn from school, I’ve gone part-time, I’ve fought with professors, dismissed others whose ability to have earned a Ph.D. will forever remain a mystery, and begged still more just to give me a D so I could be free of that place. And all while trying to wrap my head around everything that’s been thrown at me.

Maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe it’s the university that’s through with me.

It’s been a wild ride, and there’ve been a lot of growing pains, but I learned one thing that will forever change my life–writing is my passion. Grades and everything else be damned, I was going to be a journalist. I worked three years in a 60-hour work week job disguised as an extra-curricular activity. I got little respect, no sleep, horrible grades and pay that makes Southeast Asian factory wages look attractive.

But for the first time in my life, I went after something I wanted completely on my own, and held nothing back. I run into my old writers from The Daily Tar Heel and their faces light up when they see me. I created my own kind of family and I’ve made sure to let them know how much I love them all. And regardless of all that’s been thrown at me, not only did it not break me, it’s made me a better, wiser man for it all.