View From Here

A Wave that Won't Recede

Anxiety and the pressure to stick it out

 “So you wanna quit,” mom said. “You wanna drop out. Move home.” I looked down at my hands, picked up my fork, and pushed the Thanksgiving leftovers around my plate. The yellow light encircling the dining table in an otherwise dark house made me feel like I was in an interrogation room. 

“Look,” she said, “life is a piece of paper: You go to college, you graduate, you get a job. That’s it.” 

“But, why—” 

“Because. Go to class, keep your head down, and do what you need to do to pass.” Her tone softened. “And snap out of this phase. Try to be happy.” 

I cleared our plates. She thanked me, I shuffled into my room. She gathered the mail and retreated to hers. 

At the beginning of last semester, I signed up for classes that I was excited about, joined clubs, made commitments to things that I wanted to try, went out with my awesome roommate and met new people. I was ready to make the year count. 

But as the semester wore on, I found myself neglecting my commitments, hating my courses, skipping meals, avoiding friends, and sleeping in every spare hour that didn’t require me to be in class. When I managed to show up to class, it was only physically. Projects and assignments became weeks overdue, and getting out of bed even to shower required at minimum an hour of talking myself up to it. 

Crying episodes came daily either in private or in incoherent, blubbering phone calls to mom and dad (“but dad I r-really s-studied for that test”). I played a game with myself to see how many days I could wear the same sweatshirt to class before it was too tear soaked and snot stained for even my new standards of hygiene. My pastimes included lying in bed staring at the wall or lying in bed imagining what it felt like to fall from a very high place. I concluded I would never be curious enough to find out. 

One day, after a particularly bad anxiety episode, I decided it was time to call CPS. The woman I met with was nice enough, prompting me to tell her “why I was here” while she clacked away on a computer, ticking off signs and symptoms from drop down lists, I imagine. She told me about various support groups on campus that all met during hours I couldn’t make. She led me in an uncomfortable breathing exercise that worked better on her than me. Yes, I told her, I did feel calmer, it was nice. She told me she would do some research and refer me to “outside help,” and at our next appointment we’d make plans to get me feeling better. In the meantime, I should keep doing that breathing exercise. 

I arrived at my second appointment. Yes, I had been doing that breathing exercise. It was helpful, I lied. She said she was going to call and find me someone to see. I never heard from her again. Truthfully, I could have called her myself to follow up, but I was too hopeless–too apathetic–to reach out again. I started seeing my adviser on a weekly basis, per her request. I confided to her that I simply didn’t care about being here anymore. I hated the system that obliged me to run myself into the ground for a grade point. I hated the system that also expected that I keep myself sane in the process. I hated that I actually needed this system to “succeed.” I felt like I wasn’t afforded the time to take care of myself physically, mentally, or emotionally while maintaining the academic performance expected of me. I had accepted that I would fail my classes. That I should leave. 

We started making plans for my withdrawal, and over Thanksgiving break, I attempted to warm my parents up to the idea. I assured them that lots of people took time off and that I would be going back, definitely, at some point. I had it all planned out: I was going to spend some time in St. Lucia with some of my dad’s family, maybe help my aunt out at the hotel she owned, and regroup. If I left Columbia, sought out professional help, maybe I would rediscover why I wanted to be there in the first place and why it was so important to me and everyone else who told me I shouldn’t leave. 

When I was accepted to Columbia, I vowed to leave my insufferable Texas suburb and never look back. Now, it looked as if I was living up to the norm of where I came from. My acceptance to this school was a fluke, it was only a matter of time before I was back working at the outlet mall with the people I thought I was better than. This was all OK. This was better than struggling for no good reason at a school that was also crushing me with the weight of the ill-fitting privilege it saddled me with on the day I got my CUID. In spite of my shame, I was hopeful for the day when I would be OK again. 

My hopefulness was short-lived. I was informed that a semester-long leave of absence would not guarantee me housing when I returned, unless I took a year-long medical leave. The loss of housing was a risk I could not afford to take. A full year off seemed too much time to seek out the help that I needed to return and make the most of my Columbia experience, but a month of winter break seemed too little. My hands were tied. I thought about all the good things I had to come back to. I thought about how those things simply were not enough. I thought about the importance of my place at this prestigious school and who I would be letting down if I didn’t return. I thought about how that should be enough. I thought about how Columbia was my dream. I thought about how Columbia is my nightmare. 

“So, are you going back?” mom asked as I took down the ornaments from our Christmas tree. 

“I guess so,” I shuffled to my room as she gathered the last decorations. She didn’t know, but I was far from ambivalent about my return for the spring: I was positive that I wanted to leave Columbia and positive that I couldn’t. 

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Anonymous posted on

"I was positive that I wanted to leave Columbia and positive that I couldn’t."

This speaks to me so hard. I, too, was very close to withdrawing for the spring semester and I, too, discovered that there were various reasons why I absolutely could not. To the author: hang in there. There are many of us at this school struggling with similar experiences; you aren't alone. I hope that this semester begins to look up for you--sending good vibes and much love.

Anonymous posted on

one of the best articles I've ever read by a columbian. stay strong, you have such talent, and know that there are people out there who care about you, and don't be afraid to ask for help

almost transferred posted on

"I hated the system that obliged me to run myself into the ground for a grade point. I hated the system that also expected that I keep myself sane in the process."

THIS. Why are our conversations at Columbia always about how to manage stress instead of about reducing all the shit that is making Columbians feel this way? Thank you, Chayenne, for being so honest about this because I know for a fact there are SO many other people who feel the way you do.

Anonymous posted on

You hit the nail on the head. The true slogan here should be: "Columbia, the dream, the nightmare."

Anonymous posted on

Ever since the first day I stepped into Columbia I felt that way. I was not enjoying my engineering experience. This piece states all that I felt. I too was sent to CPS, and despite their kindness, they were not able to help me. However my advice is take a break. Do not wait till it all becomes way too unbearable and others start making decisions for you. Getting dismissed from this school this past semester was both a blessing and a curse. I would not have had the guts to transfer on my own, however now because of the way I left CU, I have limited options. Take time to think about what you want and what is best for you. I am sure you will do just fine.

Anonymous posted on

Can you elaborate on this?

Anonymous posted on

Both my roommate and I struggle with similar feelings on a regular basis. The sleeping and the mental absence from class and those feelings are so much more common than most people think or admit. What helps us is venting to each other, and approaching grades and learning with a modified attitude. Find the things that make you happy, go into the city, try new foods, walk new neighborhoods, join new clubs. It makes a huge difference. Good luck, and just know you're so not alone. :)

Anonymous posted on

<3 I feel you. Do what you need to do for yourself. Saying no to things that don't serve us can often be the bravest and most loving thing we can do for ourselves, even if those close to us can't understand that.

Anonymous posted on

Transfer out. You decided to accept the challenge when you chose to enroll in one of the MOST STRESSFUL UNIVERSITIES IN THE UNITED STATES. You're gonna have to put up with even more sh*t when you graduate, and there won't be as many safety nets and support services to help you out.

Anonymous posted on

Sometimes going to Columbia isn't really a choice. I come from a low-income family, and Columbia was actually my cheapest option, even cheaper than paying in-state tuition. As the first in my family to attend college, rejecting the Ivy league is something I would have never even considered. Also let's be real, many of us come in with these grandiose expectations of what Columbia will be like, and most stressful school in the nation is not really one of them. It's not until you get here that you realize how shit actually goes down, and there is literally nothing wrong with not being okay with that reality.

Anonymous posted on

While my heart goes out to the author and to you, I don't really understand your comment. Columbia is meant for students who want to challenge themselves. Personally, I enjoy taking an ambitious amount of classes and clubs and pushing my own limits. I think that the upper-tier colleges are meant to attract those like myself -- and there are thousands of kids throughout the country as motivated as I who end up going to less prestigious institutions who would very much appreciate the "stress" you complain about. What I'm saying is that Columbia is meant to be high-stress, and if it wasn't then we would really have a problem. If you are mentally unfit to cope with the workload (I don't mean that in a derogatory way), then I don't see that as a failing of the institution or the system but a personal problem of the individual student. What do you want the school to do? Lower the standards? Sure, there will be some kids who can't manage and realistically decide that they would be happier outside of Columbia. That's perfectly fine. I don't consider stress a widespread problem (as stress is necessary to some extent, and it's a fine line between challenging and unmanageable), and I can't think of many specifics I would change within the "system." From this article, as far as I can tell there needs to be better CPS and the option of a one-semester mental health break (though to be fair, it seems like the author would benefit from at least a full year off). But what else?
You seem to have gone into Columbia with the expectation that this would be a walk in the park. In high school there is this notion that everyone should go to the highest ranked college they can get into, even if it's not the right match for them or they really can't handle the intensity and would do better in a state school or the like. I went in to Columbia fully expecting this level of stress, and I'm sure most do. And I love every second of it. At this tier, every college is this intense and so it should be. Regarding your financial situation, that is regrettable but I doubt there are many students who go to Ivy League colleges for the low costs.
Cheers and good luck!

Liam Bland posted on

I think you're very off the mark on that last comment. Low income students are really limited in their college options. It's either get into a school that offers you amazing financial aid or get scholarships. When I was applying to Columbia, the most attractive thing about it was that if I got in I knew I wouldn't have to worry about paying for it, that my parents could be equally excited about my time here as I could because it wasn't a burden to them like my sister getting into a "regular" liberal arts college was. I just wanted to say that, not to be aggressive or yell at you or whatever, just to try to explain the logic there a bit clearer. I can't consider transferring because there's nowhere to go that would make an affordable option.

Anonymous posted on

I am a low-income student who picked Columbia because it was my cheapest option. Need-based scholarship with no loans is better than anything my other options offered.

Class of 2011 posted on

Thank you for this great piece Chayenne. I graduated from Columbia two years ago and had my fair share of struggles. I somehow found myself lost here, without momentum or motivation, both of which I had plenty in high school. Columbia is right for some and not a good fit for others-- I found out after my first year that this wasn't quite the right school for me. Looking back, I wish I had transferred, but I too was hesitant to leave this prestigious school. Just wanted to let you know that you are not alone, and hang in there.

Anonymous posted on

Only problem is, what can the admin really do? Offer group therapy classes? Lower the academic standards? Free painkillers for all? This is the Ivy League, nobody minced words and said it would be easy, nobody said you were supposed to like studying for hours on end. That's what college is - a time to suffer through the hardship with your peers and grow as a person as a result.

Anonymous posted on

Take a year off. You're very young, and it only seems like a long time. In the grand scheme of things it is no time at all, and it has potential to completely change your life for the better. I was worried about taking a year off, too, for so many reasons. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Anonymous posted on

Excellent piece, Christine, with extra credit for integrity. Increasingly and unfortunately, it seems that Columbia's foundation of a liberal education has evolved into survival of those who can manage the most stress. "Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than conform to higher authorities." (Nussbaum, Martha C. (Summer 2009). "Education for Profit, Education for Freedom". Liberal Education (Association of American Colleges and Universities) I would argue that the ethos at Columbia (and too many other colleges), has become more one of competition and conformity and less of completeness. With the decades of increasing numbers of students applying and attending college, pride and honor seem to come not from educational and civic preparation but from the lowest acceptance rate. I hope you--and the many others--find better support and collegiality ("shared responsibility", Oxford def.) at Columbia. Be well.

L posted on

Cheyenne, I just wanted to say that a year away from school truly isn't much when you think about it in the scheme of your life. One semester off is really just a few short months, and may not even be enough time for you to sort out all you're going through. There are many, many people here who are older and have taken significant amounts of time away from school. Think about taking a year of medical leave, and be kind to yourself. Going home and working for one year could give you a lot of perspective and make you cherish your time as a student. This is coming from someone who's been there. Try not to blame yourself, and know how many people have been in your place- and flourished after some time away!

humberto velazquez posted on

la mente del ser humano a veces se controla a veces no, pueden existir cosas difíciles cosas que de repente te pueden pasar y te das cuenta en ese momento que no puedes manejarlas, eso aunque algunos no lo sepamos es algo muy normal, lo que pasa que uno se quiere desquiciar estresándose de mas pero es bien importante pedir ayuda a un consejero también a los padres,y si en realidad lo que una vez te perecia un sueno hermoso se puede convertir en tu peor pesadilla en esos momentos siempre tratar de mantener la calma jamas pensar en renunciar a la vida si bien es cierto que el camino se esta presentando bastante difícil, siempre habrá otras alternativas , mi consejo como adulto a un estudiante seria pensar mucho lo que vas hacer sobre todas las cosas el estudiante es un ser oh una persona importante porque esta allí luchando y tratando de ser alguien buscar tranquilidad buscar a dios pedirle que te despeje el camino, hacer ejercicio físico tratar de relajarse.quiero terminar felicitando a los estudiantes que están batallando pero siguen allí luchando por ser alguien en la vida tener una carrera profesional nunca ha sido fácil por eso nomas gente emprendedora talentosa y luchista como ustedes lo logran vamos contra el estrés vamos contra cualquier obstáculo y nuevamente felicidades y hechenle ganas jóvenes estudiantes dios los bendiga.

Anon posted on

Granted, achieving the educational and financial success proves extremely difficult... but where did the fun go? We're in college! People always say that this is the best time of their life! Do something memorable. Share some more laughs with that awesome roommate of yours. Don't let your own misery hide the greatness that surrounds you. More importantly, don't let your misery hide your greatness.

In a different context, Lance Armstrong (I know, he's not exactly a role model but hear him out) once said, "Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever."

Hang in there :)

Anonymous posted on

First, I'd like to congratulate you for moving so many people with this evocative piece. But really, I have to wonder. How does a member of one of the most elite academic institutions in the world not realize that she has free will? I don't mean that in any demeaning way, but "the system" does not control you. Ok, we can have a huge physiological/psychological/philosophical debate about whether free will is an actual thing or not; but to the best of your ability, you have the freedom to say no to the system.

I also have to wonder, what exactly about Columbia is "the dream"? Is it its status that is so appealing or its potential? The status argument is easy: don't do it for the status. The potential argument is more complicated. "I hated that I actually needed this system to “succeed.” First of all, you mock success with quotations, which means that you don't know what "success" means to you. If thats the case, then how do you know that the system will help you in any way? I think that the high level of education that you are receiving frightens you so much because you don't know what to do with your education. You don't know what your dream is. All you know is that "Columbia is [your] dream".

My theory is that you are at Columbia, unintentionally, because of its status. You're scared because you want to be successful but you don't how, why, or with what. You think that the Columbia's status can bring a variety of guaranteed success, only you don't know what that looks like either; but you settle for this anyways instead of figuring out what you really want.

Speaking as previous student that got the most out of Columbia as I could carry, my advice is to not waste your time. Period. That's why you're skipping out on commitments; you're spending time on things that you simply don't care about. Instead, figure out what you care about. Make a career out of it. Then, make some success out of it.

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