When was the last time you were alone? Really, truly alone, without a familiar face to turn to, no one who could attest to the kind of person you are?

Until last month, when I began a three week solo journey in Asia, I had never been alone before in my life. For this, I am grateful. I grew up in a lively household. At Duke, where I live with three wonderful roommates, I’ve found independence, but not solitude. I love being able to step onto campus and greet everyone by name, but for better or worse, we are never alone.

Being surrounded by people we know carries a certain cost. At college, where we live with our friends, sociality becomes obligatory rather than voluntary. With so much going on everyday—extracurricular events, guest talks, parties— it seems degenerate to not venture out and spend time with others. College is the best time of our lives, we are told. Never again will we experience this density of smart, passionate people, and so we try to make every moment count. When we find ourselves—at last—alone, it is either out of exhaustion at the end of a long day or because of a lack of better options.

Although an introvert by nature, I quickly became terrified of aloneness at Duke. My iCal became a colorful mosaic of tightly fitted scheduling blocks. Every weekend was a carefully engineered combination of social engagements that would let me hang out with as many friends as possible. I tried not to eat meals alone. Like a shark, I had to keep moving or perish, and sociality was my oxygen. To be still meant spending time with myself, a stranger I needed others to help define.

By November, I decided something needed to change. Living haunted by a fear of missing out, jittery with anxiety over what I must be forgetting to do whenever I found myself alone, was becoming intolerable. A series of opportunities aligned, and I took a leap of faith: I bought plane tickets to Thailand and Burma. I would meet up with friends in Hong Kong and Beijing, but for three weeks, I would have nothing but a backpack and myself.

I saw some beautiful and inspiring things: sunset over the former royal city of Mandalay, the floating villages of Inlay Lake, the glint of a golden stupa on the banks of the Chao Phraya river.

I sampled street food and ate dinners at street side tea shops. I traveled by motorbike, boat and overnight bus, always alone. The purest solitude I found was during my sunset runs through the desert of Bagan. Always slightly lost, I would find the most forgotten-looking temple ruins and, under the watchful gaze of its Buddha, reflect on the previous day. I struggled over what I wanted to do after graduation, ambiguities which got at larger questions of what I found important in life. Although I didn’t come close to answering these questions in my three weeks traveling, I became better prepared to do so by coming to know myself.

There were certainly days when the isolation was hard to bear. I broke both my mobile devices during a particularly rough bike ride a week into my trip, making communication back home difficult. The majority of the time, I didn’t understand the languages being spoken around me. In a foreign land, no one knew who I was. It didn’t mean anything to anyone that I had been a top student back home, that there were loved ones awaiting my return. No longer could I take any aspect of my identity for granted—I had to choose how I would react to the world around me and how I wanted others to perceive me. Most importantly, I began to accept my own intrinsic value and a fulfilling existence independent of external sources of validation.

Aloneness is not a failure to be a person who loves and is loved by others. Being alone for long stretches of time shouldn’t be viewed as unproductive or a symptom of laziness. We undervalue the necessity of solitude and self reflection. After being alone and inside my own head for three weeks, I emerged more sure of myself and my relationships with others. Unfortunately, we don’t spend enough time deliberately by ourselves.

For most of us, the closest we have come to being alone was most likely orientation week, at the start of our time here at Duke, when everything and everyone was new and unknown. But such aloneness was brief. We quickly formed friendships, and over the next four years, Duke became a second home.

Yet in just a few weeks, the class of 2015 will graduate from Duke. We will have to find our place in a world that is often lonely, impersonal and arbitrary. Most challenging of all, we will have to do so without the company of all our closest friends and professors at Duke. Inevitably, we will have to face the prospect of being more alone as we build our own careers and families. But being more alone does not have to mean having to feel more lonely, nor does it condemn us to a more mundane, postgrad reality. Our greatest source of strength will always be with ourselves, and from there, everything else will follow.

Emily Feng is a Trinity senior and member of the Editorial Board.