BEMIDJI -- "Growing up, the other kids probably saw me as a goody-two-shoes," Rachel Munson says with a laugh while sipping her coffee outside on a sunny July day. "And I was. I was so good."
Born and raised in Bemidji, Munson attended TrekNorth High School, where she worked hard and excelled academically. "I'm a perfectionist" she acknowledges, "and I've known that from a very small age."
She was determined to stay on the path to success. Though she says she had great friends and lot of fun in high school, she also describes herself as "a bit uptight" and anxious. "Sometimes I wish that I could meet 'high school Rachel' right now." she says, "She was pretty cool; but I would be like 'Why are you freaking out all the time?'"
During her senior year, Munson began experiencing a growing sense of discontent. "I felt like I kept hitting this ceiling," she said. "I felt like there was nothing else for me here in Bemidji. I just wanted to break that ceiling and find something new."
Even so, leaving Bemidji wasn't part of the plan she had designed for herself; and so she enrolled at Bemidji State University the fall after graduation. Yet, the feelings of wanderlust continued to follow her, even in this new setting.
Finally in 2011, after 18 years of living in Bemidji, Munson abruptly made a bold move: She dropped out of school, packed up a few belongings and hit the road. "I had never skipped a day of school in my life," she said.
The decision to leave was exhilarating but also unnerving. "When I left, I really didn't have a plan. This was a new sensation for me -- I had always had a plan. The plans that I had put into place for myself just shattered. I didn't really know what to do."
She made her way south, settling in Georgia and taking a job at Mountain Crossings, an outfitting shop that had once provided resources to TrekNorth students during their field trips to the Appalachian Trail. There, she developed a strong friendship with the free-spirited owner of the store, a woman named George. "George definitely walks to the beat of her own drum," Munson said. At the time, while Rachel was struggling to discover herself and define her own life path, George's strength, courage and independence made a big impression. "George does what she wants, when she wants. The way she tries to maneuver through the obstacles of life is very inspiring, and just makes me realize I can do whatever I want."
The idea that she could be all right without having a plan was a revelation for Munson. By not focusing so intently on the future, she found she could enjoy the present more. "When you travel, you just have to be willing to go with the punches and be spontaneous." She admits this is something that is not typical for her, but sees that as all the more reason to do it. "If you're pushed out of your comfort zone, I feel like that just means that you need to be pushed out of it more often," she said.
After abandoning her normal routines, she began to discover more of her own inner strength and resourcefulness. Ultimately, she realized she didn't want her peace of mind or comfort to be dependent upon being in a certain place, or around a particular group of people. "I want that comfort within yourself, where you know that you can go wherever you want to be and still have good relationships, surround yourself with good energy, and find the people you want to be with and make them your soul friends."
After being away for nine months, she felt was ready to return to her Bemidji roots and enroll in in school again. "I missed the professors there," she said, "and I wanted to feel more connected to Bemidji." While the city hadn't changed much, Munson's perspective had. She says that coming back "was like being reborn."
"I had left wanting to break that ceiling above me -- and I did." This was largely due to her own change in perspective. Where once she had felt bored and held back by a lack of options, she now sees opportunity everywhere. "The longer I live here, there are so many things I don't know about Bemidji. Entering campus life, moving into the dorms, living in a house other than my parents', choosing who I want to live with, having different jobs and working on campus were all new experiences."
She realizes that she has a lot more freedom than she ever imagined over her life and her experiences. "If I want something different, I'll find something different. I look for new places to go and hang out, just because there's so much to look at. I'll go find a new river in the woods, or go out to the state park and find a trail I've never been on." Since being back, she's recognized that traveling isn't the only way to grow and evolve as a person. "Staying in one place and learning about yourself and how you function is really important."
Munson says she finds herself naturally smiling a lot more these days, and feels a lot more carefree than she once was. Which isn't to say that she doesn't care about anything. She's passionate about her studies at BSU, dual majoring in history and the humanities, and minoring in English. Munson's advisor, Dr. Larry Swain, says she's an active learner and participator in not only her studies, but the world around her. "Rachel's very open to new ideas, new people, new places that she's never been," Swain said. "She's very intellectually curious."
Additionally, she strives to make a positive difference in the world around her. In 2012, Rachel began organizing and co-leading the One Campus Challenge, part of the One Foundation started by U2 singer Bono, where she actively works to raise awareness and support to fight extreme poverty around the world.
Munson says her travels have helped her become better at distinguishing what is important and what's not, what she can control and what she can't. "I like to fix things; I like to make people feel good. And when I can't do that, it's really hard on me." But, more and more, "I know I don't have to micro-manage everything. Not everything has to be perfect. It's a conscious effort to remind myself not to freak out about the little things, but it is very powerful to recognize that you don't always have to care."
She says the gift of letting go, for her, is "peace of mind. I suffered and still suffer from anxiety, and being able to very actively tell myself that I don't have to be in control all the time, and that I can just walk away is very liberating." The ability to let go applies to her own future as well. "I don't know what I want to do after graduation. There are several avenues that I am flirting with, and I don't mind what avenue I end up in -- I'm excited about all of them."
Happiness, for her, is no longer about control or a properly executed plan. It's an inner state of being. "I work to be at home wherever I am. I'm cultivating my home inside of me. She says she often says to herself: "'Where am I? Here. What time is it? Now.'"
Brooke's Tips For Applying Munson's Wisdom to Your Life
• Acknowledge what you have control over and what you don't: "When I am freaking out about something, I need to ask myself: how much control do I have here?" says Munson. It's impossible to control everything. Being able to recognize and let go of the things you don't have control over frees up your energy to focus on the things that you do.
• Recognize that even if you can control something, you don't always have to. Munson says that she's realized that even when she does have the ability to control situations, she still has a choice over her level of involvement. Sometimes if the situation doesn't directly involve her, or "if the situation is really petty, I don't need to deal with it" she says. There's a quote she likes: "Not my circus, not my monkeys." Consciously choosing when and where to invest your energy can help you avoid getting caught up in unnecessary drama.
• Find ways of creating calm within the storm. There are two causes of stress: challenges that the external world throws our way, and the way we think about and respond to these challenges. Munson recognizes that "external stress is always going to be there;" instead of trying to create a perfect stress-free life for herself, she works on improving her ability to "be in the midst of things -- but still being able to ground myself." Try creating this for yourself by engaging in practices that help you create inner calm, such as yoga, meditation, prayer, being out in nature.