Opinion | The Canon

Measuring up to our peers and ourselves

For the most part, when we talk about success at Columbia, the discussion tends to be a bit toxic—not in the “putting-down-others” kind of way, but more in a “defensive self-deprecating” style. No one knows what “successful” means here, but almost everyone can tell you what’s not successful enough. Success certainly can’t just be the on-campus kind of successful: grades good enough to brag about, a leadership position in a club, finally getting on the masthead of a publication. Off-campus success won’t do it alone either: Landing a job in midtown, having an internship for the summer—paid or unpaid—are disappointing compared to unreasonable expectations.

Perhaps it’s all about perspective, and what we feel comfortable calling success. For example, no matter how busy you are or claim to be, it will never be enough. Four classes seem like a slacker’s course load for some, and five classes are barely pushing the limit. You can get as high as seven classes, if one of them is physical education. At Columbia, students laugh about going to Butler after a late night spent barhopping—can’t let that social life slide, or academics falter. And always in the background are ambitious goals for the future. I heard that a friend applied for nearly 50 internships this summer. Suddenly, my plans to quietly email professors in case a few research applications don’t accept me seem risky and half-baked. Am I overconfident, as I come across to my friends, lazy, as I’m sure my mom sees me, or just crippled by self-doubt? For every email I’ve sent out, at least five haven’t left my outbox.

So much about success at Columbia seems grounded in what happens after. We are flooded with horror stories of college debt, unpaid internships, and permanent day jobs at coffee shops. 

At least college as a system isn’t completely broken—college graduates currently have an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, a number that would seem to prove the worthiness of higher education. What hasn’t been quantified is the dissatisfaction of college graduates, which turns a low-paying, entry-level postcollege job into the worst kind of hell. After earning your four-year degree in a bubble of bright young people who are finding themselves and having a “college experience,” entering the real world four years after becoming a legal adult can be a shock. What these recent graduates are lacking is not employment opportunities, but the ability to move past the extended adolescence that college gave them.

As much as everyone wants to believe that they’ll be the exception upon graduation, there’s always that lingering fear that all of this—the four years of college (even if you are successful) and the (hopefully forgotten) torment of college admissions—was for nothing. That you’ll be another aimless college graduate drifting from dead-end jobs to unpaid internships. What good are your college triumphs then? 

Sure, there are some preternaturally self-confident folks here who somehow don’t let the school get to them. 

For the rest of us, though, something about being surrounded by the pressure of hundreds of similarly driven people just grinds at us. Maybe you’re doing a problem set while consumed with worry that other people in your class only spend half the time you do working—a sure sign that you are unsuccessful, a failure. Maybe you can’t figure out what you even want to major in because you’re paralyzed by indecision. You stop going to a publication’s meetings because you fear your ideas will get shot down. Or you try all of these things anyway, but with a defensive attitude. 

Sure, we can meet our own definitions of success. But buried deep under the tough talk and exhaustion of the typical Columbia student, this seems less like success, and more like a lack of absolute failure. Or maybe it’s just me.

Britt Fossum is a Columbia College sophomore with a prospective major in chemistry. She contributes regularly to The Canon.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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