I can trace my time at the University through the pages of The Cavalier Daily.

For my first three years, I received 800 words in the Life section every other week. The space was my own. I was loosely tasked with writing about the student experience. It was an assignment that, in reality, had about as much direction as the Kardashian-Jenner sisters.

As a first-year, the freedom was overwhelming. After all, I had the latitude to make as many Kardashian-Jenner jokes as I pleased. At the apogee of my anxiety — Sept. 24, 2012, to be exact — I tweeted: “Writing for a daily college paper = Toto so far from Kansas #smallfishinaveryveryverybigpond.”

I was in over my head and had a significant amount to learn about hashtags.

Beneath the apprehension, though, was a nascent excitement. I didn’t know what I was doing at the University. I wasn’t sure who I wanted to be. But every other week, I had the chance to play with my style and my identity. I was ostensibly writing on a public platform for a broad University audience — but I took the opportunity as my own.

So I began to write. I wrote about how strange it was to live in a dorm. How weird it was to get sick so far from home. How discomfiting it was to encounter the mystical world of sororities. How odd it was that we worshiped Mr. Jefferson.

Well, sort of. Before long, I settled on a rhetorical blend of gentle snark, playful self-deprecation and unmistakable caricature. When I lacked inspiration, I read Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” When my pacing needed work, I watched “30 Rock.” And when I wanted to supplement my wry observations with real substance, I would flip through the pages of The Cavalier Daily, hoping to capture the zeitgeist of my peers.

My friends and editors read my columns and, chuckling, passed them along. I stored each kernel of positive affirmation for a rainy day. By my second year, I gathered the critical mass I needed to walk into a room with confidence, proud to be the girl who could make others laugh by reconstructing the space around her, dismantling the absurdity and egoism of college life with a dose of her own pablum.

Then, everything changed. My third year, a student was murdered. Rolling Stone published its disastrous story on campus rape. A bloody arrest on the Corner brought home debates about racially motivated police violence. With each gut-wrenching event, the campus roiled. National media descended on the scene. And I spent hour after hour in the basement of Newcomb with a corps of dedicated reporters. There were no more jokes as I sat, trying to find the right words to make sense of it all.

Sometimes I picked the right ones. Other times, I didn’t. With a more prominent platform came greater opportunities — and the magnification of any mistakes. My first exposure to online harassment was harrowing, and it stuck with me.

The last column I personally wrote for the paper was on Nov. 20, 2014. After that, I doubled down on news coverage and editing, preferring to stay either in the world of objectivity or behind the scenes.

For a time, I cringed at how much I exposed myself in my Life columns. I deleted hundreds of tweets. My views on so much — on politics, on race, on campus life, on sex — had changed dramatically. Reading my old columns, I felt young and silly.

Now, as I reflect on my time at The Cavalier Daily a year and a half later, I realize that’s okay.

It’s not an easy time to publish online, even as a college student. At its best, the Internet makes way for marginalized perspectives and propels critical conversation. At its worst, it hosts endemic aggression and silences through intimidation. What’s more — a misstep doesn’t end up in a Charlottesville recycling bin. It is indexed on Internet search engines, easily accessible to future employers and potential partners. It’s scary. I know.

But, after four years at The Cavalier Daily, there is one thing I can say definitively. The paper gave me a lot. But, most importantly, it gave me a voice.

Every other week, I was given 800 words to find myself. And I would not be the same person if I hadn’t used them.

To those of you who provided endless support, and challenged me in ways I never thought possible: know a simple “thank you” will never suffice.

And to those of you staring at a blank Word document right now: take a deep breath, and then take a stand. Play with ideas. Find your voice. You will inevitably stumble, but you’ll be better for it. I know I am.

Julia Horowitz was the 126th Editor-In-Chief of The Cavalier Daily.

related stories