“You’ve changed so much!”

I’ve heard these words too many times since returning from being abroad at the start of January. It’s nothing new — I’ve heard them all my life, as many of us have, after returning from trips or seeing a relative for the first time in a while. Friends, family or even acquaintances will talk to me and tell me I’ve changed, often meaning it as a compliment or something I should be proud of.

Hearing this always feels odd to me. After big events or transformative experiences, people often expect you to change.

Over the past few years, I have felt like I’ve “changed” many times, but it’s always felt fake. It’s felt like a result of what people have wanted or expected from me — sometimes even what I wanted for myself.

I remember coming back to Elon University as a sophomore and telling myself that I was different now. I convinced myself that with a new year, I had to become a “new” me. Change seemed necessary. I felt like whoever I was wasn’t good enough or that people were waiting for me to be different.

I’ve never been afraid of change. Whether it be our change in leadership here at Elon or the ever-changing North Carolina weather, the concept has never been scary to me.

But, when it comes to change within myself, I’ve always feared losing who I am intrinsically.

Too often, change feels forced. People or places or things make me feel like I have to change, and I do so accordingly. These changes don’t last because they’re inauthentic. In the past, when I’ve experienced what I thought were changes within myself, I would soon feel unlike myself and fall back into old habits. Friends or family members would see this as regression, but it never felt real to me in the first place.

After coming back from my semester in Amsterdam last fall, I do finally feel different, but I don’t feel like I have changed. It’s been almost two months and I don’t feel like I am regressing. I feel completely like myself.

Maybe this is because I have not changed: I’ve simply grown. It’s taken me many years to understand it, but it’s important to know the difference between change and growth.

Growth is natural. No matter how hard we try, we cannot force ourselves to grow. Growth is something that comes with time and experiences, not by our own choice.

I didn’t go out seeking personal growth, it just happened.

After my three years at Elon and the dozens of experiences I have been privileged to have, I feel different but I don’t feel like I’ve changed. That’s the primary difference. I’ve evolved and grown into a person I am proud to be, but am still the same person I’ve always been.

Change is good, but it’s not always a necessity. Growth, however, is, and it comes when we least expect it.

Especially as college students, we must embrace and strive for growth, whether it be within ourselves or our community. It is nothing for us to fear.