Four years ago, I began a long walk through the woods.
Four years ago, I excitedly discussed with my parents my freshman orientation and my first dormitory and my first classes and my endless stream of potential futures. We drove through a stifling North Carolina August, along the bustling Chapel Hill streets. We moved some things into my room and met a few families and fellow students, and I said my first goodbye.
I let go of a few sets of wonderfully warm hands -- ones that grasped mine ever so tightly and supported mine as they entered their first year of adulthood. And my hands were empty.
And I began my walk.
And for four years, I walked along my path through the woods -- the blurred and faint sunlight forever in the distance, lighting the road ahead. But also encasing the surrounding trees in shadow. My future four years from then was a beacon, a goal of a diploma and a sprouting career that pushed me. But that also confused me.
The moment I entered the woods, however, I found new hands. Countless hands found each other in this new place and vowed to move together.
And we did. As we held hands, we pushed through new ideas and new people and new places. We grew up. And for four years, we chased the distant hazy sunlight.
And now we finished. We made it. We made it through a most incredible walk.
My last few days -- our graduations, the celebrations, and the inevitable separations of closest friends -- passed with an all too bittersweet brevity, scattering my thoughts and emotions and memories as I consistently failed to catch up to them. I said a lot of "congratulations" and "thank you," and "so good to see you," and "hope to see you soon," and "goodbye." I cried. But I also cheered and laughed and made some brilliant last memories of my time here in Chapel Hill.
And now that it has ended, now that my mind and my emotions have settled slightly, I have had time to think.
And through all of the ups and the downs and the classes and the parties and the trips and the people and the beauty of this Chapel Hill campus which we blissfully called home, my thoughts only twist back to the one commonality among it all.
Those hands -- the hands that grasped mine from the beginning, those hands which I held firmly as we walked together on this wondrous path through the forest. And to those times during which I felt those hands the greatest.
Such as those first few days in the dormitory when we shot Nerf guns across the sixth-floor balcony alongside new friends.
Or when we first discovered the Ehringhaus ghost.
Or when we passed countless nights turning simple conversation into hours of delving deeply into our thoughts and our worries and our excitements -- connecting.
Or when we took midnight study breaks to go on runs and to explore wildly the twisting trails that surround this school.
Or when we painted chests and faces and supported our Carolina family through four years of sporting seasons.
Or when we held each other close in mourning of several losses -- the great Dean Smith, fellow classmates.
Or that very first night in my very first house when we moved my few bags of possessions into an empty bedroom and attempted to put together -- although eventually upside down -- my creaky old bed. And then we sat through the night on my new porch playing music and talking -- and really just being there, together.
Or when we made that pot roast.
Or when we sat in our living room together last Sunday morning, adorning our Carolina blue gowns, and walked together into Kenan Stadium, walked into the sea of gowns and students and families, and together finally reached that sunlight in the distance. When we wrapped arms one last time and sung those warm "Carolina in my Mind" lyrics, finished one last alma mater.
Or when, one by one, we let go of hands that left this town, and we realized just how powerfully those hands worked for four years, how deeply they rooted themselves in each heart they touched.
I will take countless things -- memories, experiences, skills, knowledge -- from my time these last four years. Some I will keep close for the rest of my life. Some I will forget. Some I may already have forgotten.
But I will always remember fondly, and will always need, the imprints made by the hands of those closest to me, for shaping me thoughtfully into a better person, for helping me along this crazy path, and for knowing diligently that I always would make it to the other side. Thank you.