This past year, I took a break from political writing. I wasn’t sure where I stood, I found myself disappointed with the GOP, frustrated with politics in general, and my proud Republicanism left me alienated at a very liberal college. But as time passed, I grew, and the people around me grew to understand that the r-word (Republicanism, that is) doesn’t instantly translate to bigotry, homophobia, hatred, and religion. I learned a lot from this hiatus, and I think stepping out of your political box and thinking independently could help all Americans, political affiliation regardless.

Putting principle over party is important. For me, that meant registering as a Democrat so I could vote for Martin O’Malley in the primary during the 2016 election. Of all the people running, I thought O’Malley was the most qualified, well-spoken, and the best fit to represent America, despite fundamentally disagreeing with some of his views. I was never on the “Trump Train” and likely never will be, but I still wish the best for America and Trump’s presidency; and that’s okay. Not supporting President Trump does not make me any less of a Republican. Intellectual diversity is important in every party just as thoughtful dissent is important in every party.

I learned about what issues I cared about most. I found myself advocating for easier access to comprehensive sexual education and birth control. I found that ensuring reproductive health care and safer sex is fundamentally pro-life, as birth control access reduces abortion rates. I advocated for young black men in the juvenile justice system receiving mental health care, as the care currently given is inadequate. I championed for gay couples having a right to not be denied service based on their sexuality. I advocated for net neutrality, legalizing marijuana, federal standards for children’s welfare, for a decrease in insulin prices, and for environmental protections. These aren’t issues that are seen as ‘Republican’ issues. But I am a Republican, and these are the issues I care for.

What I really learned is that I owe nothing to my party. Not loyalty, not votes, and not support. I have my own political voice, and I will use it to praise, dissent, and advocate for what I care about, not what Republicans or Democrats say that I should. I will be loyal to myself, and myself only, and I will always vote my conscience. I learned and I grew, and you should too.