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To the Freshman Class of 2015: It's OK If 'Everything's Great' Is a Lie

May 26, 2015
Ideas
James Keane is a student at Northwestern University

In November of 2012, I came home to East Grand Rapids, Michigan after the first few months of my freshman year at Northwestern. In doing so, I came home from the worst months of my life thus far.

As a self-proclaimed premed, I received a D on my first Chemistry 101 midterm and dropped out of the premed track. Having sung in my high school’s acclaimed a cappella choir for two years, I auditioned for seven Northwestern a cappella groups and received zero callbacks. For weeks, I was rejected from every one of the countless student groups to which I applied and interviewed, including NU Dance Marathon, which accepted over 100 students.

I met hundreds of students through various orientation programs, but I still felt socially isolated and misunderstood. I was pressed to name individuals who I could truly call “friends.” I struggled to match the fiercely cutthroat pace of Northwestern’s quarter system. And, surrounded by thousands of students equally intelligent, motivated, and Type-A as me, my most distinguishing personal characteristics were suddenly no longer unique. I felt one-dimensional and virtually void of a personal identity.

So to Michigan I returned, feeling like a failure in every major facet of my new life. I didn’t face diagnosable mental health issues, but I was in a dark place.

Yet, when asked “how I was liking Northwestern,” I would force a bright smile and say, “I love it.” I would dig my heels into the ground, pushing my back against a brimming closet of skeletons, and smile through gritted teeth. When people smiled back in response, I felt misunderstood by the only people who I had ever felt understood me.

As someone who my hometown expected to be successful, there was no room for me to come home as a failure.

So to my friends — especially those in EGR — who always thought I was “loving” college, I present to you my skeletons. After having stood among the “Top Ten” students with the highest GPAs at high school graduation, I talked with my parents about whether it was worth staying at Northwestern with such an alarmingly low GPA. After being voted by my high school peers onto Homecoming Court, I came home struggling to answer the prompt, “Tell me about your friends at Northwestern.” On the surface I may have seemed to have my life together, but in reality I was caught in a soul-crushing inferiority complex, feeling inadequate in every part of my collegiate life.

I write these things at risk of sounding presumptuous that my failures are shocking, and of sounding like I am pathetically enjoying the emphasis of my high school successes. That is absolutely not my intent. I also write these things with awareness that the “darkness” I faced in my freshman year of college could radiate like the sun in the face of darknesses others confront in their lives. Thus far, I have lived an incredibly easy, privileged, and charmed life.

But if my past issues can be dwarfed by those of others, then why don’t others feel empowered enough, comfortable enough, or welcomed enough to talk about their issues?

I am writing this to break what once felt to me like an impenetrable silence: the fact that as someone who others assumed would be “okay,” I was not doing okay. Life was not all good. Things were not going well. When my family assured me “things would get better,” I didn’t believe them. I was struggling. And now after talking with high school and college friends about their college experiences, I know that many of them also struggled. Some of them are currently struggling.

To high school seniors who will be freshmen in fall 2015, and to current college students — please know that facing emotionally crippling challenges in college is natural and normal. This notion may sound unhelpfully obvious and even hackneyed, but to me, it seemed like everyone around me was making friends, getting good grades, and excelling, while in reality, many of them were struggling in their own ways.

People in East Grand Rapids periodically manicure the truth for sake of saving face and protecting personal brands. I myself have done so. “Everything is great,” and “I/she/he love(s) (insert school name).” (Insert forced smile.)

And at Northwestern, given that students face similar levels of academic and social stress from the quarter system, a culture of compassion is difficult to cultivate. You may have two midterms tomorrow, but so do I, so you aren’t getting any sympathy from me. Layer a pervasive culture of competition on top of this, and it’s easy to find yourself living in a merciless pressure cooker.

In life, there isn’t always room or invitation to discuss what isn’t going well.

And that is simply not okay. While immense personal growth can arise from facing life’s challenges, and while self-sufficiency is important, emotional support, compassion, and understanding from others is crucial for one’s emotional and psychological health.

Today as a junior, I am lucky to be in a place where I feel absolutely embraced by my peers at Northwestern, where my academics are good, and where I am excelling in my own “distinguished” ways. Today, I can tell the truth when I say that I am loving my college experience.

But I didn’t always love it. And that’s okay. Struggling is a natural, healthy, and universal part of life. So let’s talk about it.

This article originally appeared on Medium.


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