For the most part, when we talk about success at Columbia, the discussion tends to be a bit toxicnot 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 whats not successful enough. Success certainly cant 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 wont do it alone either: Landing a job in midtown, having an internship for the summerpaid or unpaidare disappointing compared to unreasonable expectations.
Perhaps its 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 slackers 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 barhoppingcant 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 dont accept me seem risky and half-baked. Am I overconfident, as I come across to my friends, lazy, as Im sure my mom sees me, or just crippled by self-doubt? For every email Ive sent out, at least five havent 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 isnt completely brokencollege graduates currently have an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, a number that would seem to prove the worthiness of higher education. What hasnt 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 theyll be the exception upon graduation, theres always that lingering fear that all of thisthe four years of college (even if you are successful) and the (hopefully forgotten) torment of college admissionswas for nothing. That youll 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 dont 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 youre doing a problem set while consumed with worry that other people in your class only spend half the time you do workinga sure sign that you are unsuccessful, a failure. Maybe you cant figure out what you even want to major in because youre paralyzed by indecision. You stop going to a publications 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 its just me.
Britt Fossum is a Columbia College sophomore with a prospective major in chemistry. She contributes regularly to The Canon.
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