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Vaguely dystopian, am I right???
I am now seven months removed from graduation and am now filled with dread when I so much as think about my alma mater despite knowing how fortunate I am to have attended it.
Growing up, I was what teachers described as ?intellectually curious,? typically bored with school even though I performed well. I kept myself entertained by reading and writing during class about the topics that actually interested me. I only liked learning when I wasn?t held to any standard or subject to a grade.
I never cared for school. In fact, I hated it. I would slack off all semester and calculate the exact percentage I needed to earn on the final to make an A in the class. This approach usually worked, but when it didn?t, my parents and teachers would act as if I had fallen into a pit of imminent failure.
The endgame was being accepted to a top-notch university, which, I guess, I achieved; however, I attribute this to massive amounts of privilege and being surrounded by adults willing to nurture my spark of curiosity from a young age as much as I do to excelling academically. But this is what no one told me: that wasn?t actually the endgame. It was just the beginning of the realization that I had been setting the stage for university-level failure my entire academic career.
I thought grades were arbitrary. I hated academic environments. I didn?t know how to study. I needed structure to survive. I was directionless vis a vis my career. I wasn?t nearly competitive enough. I was experiencing a rapid decline in mental health.
Yet people told me I would thrive in academia because I enjoyed/enjoy analyzing things to death; however, this did not translate to an enjoyable college experience. Instead, it lended itself to a guilt-tripping, existential-crisis-inducing, self-harming death trap from which I thought I?d never escape.
My stomach twists just thinking about it, but I hear at least once a week that I would thrive in graduate school. Ha. Only if your definition of thriving is ?having my therapist tell me I look ?defeated? once a week.?
The first thing I noticed about college was that everyone seemed to be in on a secret. I attributed it to being out-of-state, but I quickly learned that my peers had been groomed to succeed in college at well-funded public and elite private schools.
I constantly felt like I was playing catch-up, and there was immense pressure to learn the rules of the game and to immediately adhere to them.
The other kids in my dorm knew the names of the clubs, societies, fraternities, charities, and classes to take. They also knew the criteria for being accepted into them. I sat in the common areas and listened to them rattle these off, trying to pick up what bits and pieces I could. At first, I thought they were just talking a big game, but all of a sudden, they began to juggle school and their many extracurriculars while I was still signing up for classes.
It was, in a word, overwhelming, and when I get overwhelmed, I shut down. I was caught in a catch-22 of already needing a direction to take advantage of the endless directions presented to me. I lost opportunities because of my indecision, which was nothing new, but now, it actually mattered.
By the time I chose an organization, it was too late. The audition, interview, or recruitment period was over, and I was stuck in a vicious cycle of shrinking opportunities and self-isolation.
This brings me to the second thing I gleaned. The competition did not end upon acceptance into a school, and I was not nearly competitive in the first place.
Elitism only increased in the face of messages that everyone had a ?spot? at UVA ? that we would all find our ?niche,? our ?people.? In truth, the spots for acceptance were limited in a world that offered few spots from the start.
When I finally summoned the courage to join an extracurricular, I found myself competing for a limited number of spots with students who were either more qualified than me or knew a person who had an ?in.? It was a foray into the brutal world of networking, which I still cannot navigate for the life of me.
My crippling social anxiety led to either looking standoffish or stumbling over my words to the point of blowing my chances at acceptance before they even presented themselves.
I felt like a hamster trapped in its wheel, and my head spun accordingly until I grew exhausted at the mere prospect of sorting through the supposedly limitless possibilities.
Every attempt to join an organization was the same old song and dance. I nailed the written application and blew it in the interview.
In one particularly harrowing experience, I stared blankly at my interviewers for a good five minutes and finally had to ?pass? on the question. I left.
Each experience was a blow to my self-esteem, and I suffered from imposter syndrome for my remaining three years at UVA. I felt like I was wasting everyone?s time and resolved to make myself as small as I felt for the benefit of all parties. My friends tried to commiserate by saying they felt inadequate in their respective organizations. I just wished I had an organization in which to feel inadequate.
I spent my life to that point feeling capable. After my first semester of college, I felt like a waste of a space in my class.
I experienced a fair amount of social woe in middle and high school, but much of it was my own fault. In most senses, I was a big fish in a small pond. The adults in my life convinced me the world was my oyster. They told me I was ?gifted? when all I actually did was make decent grades because I was terrified to make anything less.
The rejection I experienced in college caused me to isolate myself, but more than that, it made me feel like a heaping pile of squandered potential.
As a newly-minted small fish, I did not know how to find worth outside of good grades or identity outside of academic organizations even when I didn?t give two shits about them.
I spent most of my time figuring out who I really wanted to be, and when I realized it wasn?t what UVA was trying to make me, I alienated myself to the detriment of my short-term mental health but to the benefit of my long-term mental health (which I would not realize until after graduation).
These growing pains ultimately made me ok with not being ?special.? I was fine with my adequacy. I was fine with wanting to live an average life, but that contentment was hard to find in those around me.
It was a path to endless guilt and crippling loneliness for the remainder of my college experience despite the fact that, looking back, I?m glad it happened when it did.
Loneliness was the devil on my back. I believe it was the main culprit in the deterioration of my mental health. It almost killed me.
Where were the ?people? I was assured? Where were the ?best four years of my life?? Was I selfish to ask of college what it had promised? Was I lazy for not trying hard enough to carve out a space for myself?
I cried in my room almost every night. Almost every night. When I wasn?t crying, I was staring at a wall. I still can?t quite articulate that existential ache. It feeds my social anxiety to this day.
Every interaction I had with my peers and my professors reinforced my feeling of being unwanted as if they were just waiting to talk to the next person. My life was the perpetual embarrassment and letdown of thinking someone is waving at you when he or she is really waving at the person behind you.
Friends groups were formed through the clubs to which I wasn?t accepted. They were solidified as the same people joined more and more of the same organizations together. Each acceptance led to the opportunity for more acceptances, and I fell behind faster than I could realize. This all happened within my first year.
I was the new person being introduced to an already-formed group. None of the potential friendships ever stuck. It didn?t help that I was simultaneously going through an ideological transition that resulted in consistently rapid change and a constant cloud of confusion.
I felt unwanted, so I didn?t follow up with the people I met. Consequently, I looked standoffish and uninterested in developing friendships. Every word was rehearsed to the point of insincerity, and I replayed each interaction to the point of convincing myself I couldn?t recover from even the smallest faux pas.
I was outwardly distant but inwardly obsessive, and eventually, I just resigned.
Then there was the guilt. I was gut-wrenchingly guilty over my increasing hatred of college. I couldn?t even admit it to myself.
On the outside, I looked like the image of someone who could succeed in college, but I was wasting away in my room.
I went to and from class like a zombie. I did just enough to pass my classes and keep myself out of the psych ward because I was unwilling to admit how bad things had gotten.
I was ashamed of the shell of myself I had become.
Sometimes I would walk to class but just sit outside the door and stare into it. My agoraphobia struck in lecture halls, and my social anxiety was unrelenting in smaller classes.
When participation was a majority of the grade, I was almost always guaranteed a B at best.
I felt guilty for not caring. I dragged myself from class to study sessions to the library and just stared. Sometimes, I would cry in the bathroom or have a panic attack on a bench outside. Those were above average days because at least I had an emotional response to how powerless I was in bringing myself to care.
I was ashamed when I bailed on social activities. I felt guilty when I wasn?t spending every waking moment studying. But I only felt this way on behalf of other people. Truly, I didn?t care if my mattress swallowed me whole.
The pressure to be content in all moments is a product of the lie that college is the ?best four years? of one?s life. It?s ok to honestly dread certain moments and earnestly despair in others.
But another component is the refrain that many people ?would kill to be in your position.? It?s true. I believe it. I know it. I am a walking sack of privilege, but I attribute the desire to attend college not with the college experience itself but with the fact that a degree is an economic signaling device.
A college degree means more career opportunities and more earning potential no matter how bleak analysts make degree-holders? prospects sound. That?s what people would kill for.
The idea that students and professors sit around and muse about the meaning of life is a lie. The idea that college is centered on intellectual discovery is a lie. The truth is that attending college is a socioeconomic privilege. That doesn?t mean it?s enjoyable.
When we conflate the two, we send students on a four-year (or longer) guilt trip.
For those of us with piss-poor executive functioning and a need for structure, college is a minefield of distraction, which only compounded the academic problems I had.
I didn?t know how much I craved a strict regimen until I began my current job. When I couldn?t focus or procrastinated to the point of self-sabotage, I attributed it to being less driven and less capable than my peers.
When my depression and OCD only decreased my ability to be diligent, I felt like a letdown to my family and professors. I felt like I was being disrespectful, but I didn?t know how to stop. All I could do was feel guilty and be overly apologetic.
I had classes that started at 9AM on MWF and 1PM on TR. Semester-long tasks with no checkpoints plagued me at the end of the four-month allotment. Some nights ended at 6PM. Others ended at midnight.
Regimens and sleep hygiene are first-line treatment for mental illness, and I had the luxury of neither, which was partially my fault. Some would say, ?just suck it up.?
Then, my inability to ?suck it up? would send me down the guilt spiral, which only added to my feelings of futility and distracted me further.
I love a schedule. I wake up at the same time every day. I eat the same thing. I work during the same hours. I save social activities for the same nights each week. I indulge my hobbies during the same hours. I go to bed at the same time each night. I need this to survive.
I don?t need my hand held by any stretch, but I do need to need a work environment that creates structure. The more I am given that, the more I can create structure for myself.
College was full of time to waste even when those hours were meant to be used wisely. I was so consumed by my lack of diligence and feelings of inadequacy that I couldn?t see that what I really needed was a regimen. I wish I had learned I needed this sooner. I wish someone had told me it wasn?t childish or a sign of inferiority sooner.
There was also a gap in the promise of the classroom and what it actually was. The classes that weren?t directly related to a pre-professional track were seen as frivolous, and the ones that were only served to teach everyone how to fall in line.
Don?t get me wrong. I?m not opposed to playing the game, and I?m not a ?the world is full of sheep? type of hippie; however, the emphasis on churning out economic powerhouses definitely stifles well-roundedness.
I am aware of the discrepancies in how hirable a STEM or pre-professional degree is versus a liberal arts degree, but scoffing at us folks who braved the supposed economic wasteland that awaits humanities majors is completely undue.
There are no job guarantees in this economy, but if we are honest with ourselves, it is clear that academia is transactional and ROI-focused for both the school and the student body. I?m not advocating the reinstatement of a ?post-secondary education as a lofty path to intellectual discovery? mentality, but why paint it as such when it so clearly isn?t? It?s disingenuous.
What I experienced was this: humanities courses were basically a defense of why they should exist and pre-professional courses were taught with an air of entitlement, which permeated the atmosphere. The perceived magic bullets to economic success existed in their own right. The humanities departments had to earn that right. Sure, liberal arts weren?t going to disappear, but the cognitive dissonance of holding countless events to promote liberal arts while perpetuating the undercurrent of ?our purpose is to create economic value to eventually help sustain the university? is astounding.
I?m not against the rat race. In fact, I don?t really care. But I am against dishonesty.
UVA (and other universities) is the distillation of what it looks like to be obsessed with maintaining elitism, while superficially promoting inclusion. Unwillingness to accept this leads to disenchantment.
Going into college under the illusion that I was entering a space where curiosity is rewarded and grappling with the fact that it wasn?t once I was there was the beginning of the dissension.
There was no room for trial and error, which is essential if intellectual curiosity is to be genuinely nourished. Professors were forced to stamp numbers and letters on exploration, and I once again felt confined to what I already knew was correct.
I experienced many an inspirational lecture and read research by professors operating on a different intellectual plane, but there were still quizzes to be had and GPAs to be calculated.
I understand why this is the case, and I?m not under the impression that things will change. But there is something disgustingly self-indulgent and circle-jerky about what I experienced in many courses, which was essentially wide-eyed students figuratively bowing at the altar of intellects-turned-gatekeepers. It was a lot of invisible and obvious ass-kissing. I often left classrooms simultaneously grossed out and inspired.
Again, that?s all good and well if that?s what you like to do, but in the decontextualized words of Herman Melville, ?I would prefer not to.?
I felt like I was expected to play a game with insider rules, while refusing to acknowledge its existence. I was lucky to attend UVA, yes, and I learned a great deal both in and out of the classroom; however, cut-throat competition hid under a veil of personal growth and intellectual discovery, which never lifted.
I am not an anomaly, but the way college is advertised makes students like me feel that way.
It?s perfectly acceptable to hate college, and it?s not a crime to admit it to yourself. In fact, doing so alleviates the pressure to constantly enjoy and be grateful for the experience.
Attending college is a privilege, and I am thankful for what I learned about myself ? inside and outside of class. But it is impossible to foster inclusion while promoting elitism. I will never forgive UVA for creating that disingenuous environment just as I will never forgive myself for not taking advantage of all that environment offered me.
The hope that college will be all people promised it to be only leads to disillusionment, and continuing to cling to that hope in the face of evidence to the contrary breeds resentment.
We go to college to discover our passions while learning ways to pragmatically apply them, and it is possible to do both of these things; however this doesn?t detract from the transactional nature of the environment.
Know that college is a game. Know you might be forced to play it, but also know that you?re allowed to hate it.