Most of the time, I love my school. Some might even say I'm obsessed with it, constantly posting photos of campus and wearing my branded sweatshirts around all the time. The Barnard and Columbia community is an incredibly passionate, inspirational group of people to be surrounded by, and I'm so, so grateful to be here.
Most of the time.
The flip side of those Instagram photos of campus, lazy and quiet in the morning, isn't quite so pretty. What you don't see are the four hours of sleep gotten the night before, the days of 8AM-9PM classes, the four books that are meant to be read in a single night. The constant pressure to be the smartest in the room, the most intelligent and knowledgeable. The very best at all times.
This is not to say none of this was expected; of course it was. I knew exactly what I was getting into by choosing to come here, and I knew exactly how much work it would be. I don't mind the work; I like reading all the time and feeling productive, feeling as though I am intellectually bettering myself. But the stress culture associated with it is a different thing entirely. This is a school that felt proud when we got ranked the #1 most sleep deprived school in the country; we have an hour during finals season where everyone stands outside and screams. The work is worth it, yes, but there's a fine line between studying late to make good grades and overdoing it completely.
For many of the kids who come to schools like Barnard and Columbia, they were the best back home. They were valedictorian, or they led the discussions in their English classes, or they solved problems faster than anyone else. They made straight A's, they excelled at sports, they had more volunteer hours, more extracurriculars, more knowledge. Loved by their teachers, marked and known as the type of student who could go on to attend a selective university, who could handle the pressure, make the grades.
They were the best. But now, they're surrounded by the best of the best.
Everyone who is here is here because they're capable, smart. Forward-thinking, intelligent. You might have been the best in high school, but that's a very different thing here.
Before he committed suicide in 2008, David Foster Wallace wrote, "You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it's hard."
Columbia is known for its stress culture, for the pressure surrounding students to be among that hundred best. And lately, Columbia is also known for its suicide epidemic.
This past week, the New York Post shared an article discussing the seven suicides and drug overdoses that have occurred this school year, three in January alone. The article outlined the students and provided quotes from the families, discussing the lag in mental health services and the constant pressure to perform. Like many of the other articles students have been sharing these past few weeks, it talked about how Columbia should prioritize student mental health over far more trivial things, such as keeping the lawns green (they're nearly pristine all year round). They offered a story from a recent graduate on her experience attempting to get help: “ 'I told them I was feeling suicidal,' she said of calling the school counseling service, 'and they told me the first appointment they could give me was in two weeks... I told them my symptoms were very serious — they told me to surround myself with friends and there really wasn’t anything they could do at that time'".
There are hundreds of stories like hers. And for every student attempting to find help, there are ten more drowning in work, too scared to say anything for fear that it would seem like admitting defeat. Columbia is the kind of place where if one person says to another, "Wow, I'm so tired. I only got five hours of sleep last night", the other person replies, "Yeah? Well, I only got three." Even when it comes to slowly tearing ourselves apart, there's still pressure to be the best.
The comments on the article were what really struck me, however. I had begun reading them hoping to see messages of hope and fortitude, backing for the fact that universities (and not just Columbia, but universities in general) should start prioritizing student mental health. Instead, the comment section was a mess of adults calling all the students "snowflakes" and "unable to handle the pressure". For reference, here are some of the most memorable ones:
"Sad to see anybody commit suicide but what did you expect when your little snowflake got out into the real world? You don't get a participation trophy for life in the real world, and it's also tough for these buttercups to realise that their opinions don't matter to the majority of those around them."
"These kids are so ill prepared to face the realities of the real world. Life should not be so overwhelming if you are prepared. These helicopter parents have not let these kids know that life is hard and frequently unfair."
"When did it become a universities job to take care of the mentally ill? If you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen."
"This is what happens when everyone expects a part on the back and a trophy for showing up. And 'losing with benefits' (awwww, poor baby, you lost. Let's get ice cream/new clothes/ jewelry/etc) teaches them that they don't have to lose gracefully."
Here's what I know: majority of the kids I've met here are not "snowflakes". They are not ill-prepared for the real world. They can handle the heat; they are the heat. They do not believe that their opinions are always going to matter to everyone around them. And they know how to lose gracefully.
The students at this university are undoubtedly the most hardworking people I have ever met. And it is that ability to work hard, to push yourself past limits that most people can hardly fathom the thought of, that makes this pressure even worse. Even if you don't necessarily feel it, it's there, creeping up somewhere behind you. If it's not you in Butler at 2AM on a Thursday night, it's one of your friends. And if it's not one of your friends, then it's the stranger sitting across from you at Joe, the boy in your psychology class, the girl eating at the table next to you in John Jay. The point here is that this pressure is communal; it's a part of the Columbia community as much as the students are. And talking about suicide as though it was the product of getting a C on a test and not knowing how to deal with it is so incredibly wrong. Not only it is shameful and disgusting to have to read some adult sitting behind their computer voicing their thoughts about a teenager who is no longer alive, but it hurts; it hurts because these commenters are wrong. It hurts because they have no idea what it means to be a college student in 2017, where you could devote your entire life to education and end up working in a Starbucks, despite your PhD.
I did not personally know any of the students who died. But I know that the loss of them was felt all across the four undergraduate schools here, wave after wave of emails from each respective dean rolling in to inform us of the tragedies. The week I got back to school, the five most recent emails in my inbox were "notifications on the passing of...". I don't want to have to keep reading these emails. I don't want to have to watch people I am surrounded by every day feel this constant pressure to perform. And I really, really don't want to have to keep reading these Facebook comments.
We need to be better, yes, but being better doesn't mean you have to be the best. And not being the best doesn't mean you're not good at what you're doing. Getting a normal night of sleep doesn't make you any less hardworking than the people slaving away all night in the library, and slaving away all night in the library doesn't make you any smarter than those who don't. We're all just people, doing the best we can to live a decent life. Feeling subjected to this pressure doesn't make you a "snowflake" or "unprepared". It makes you human.
I'm not sure what the solution to this is. I'm not entirely sure there is one. But whether there is or not, we should be looking. We should be supporting each other and supporting ourselves the best we can. But there's nothing wrong with you if you need to reach out for help; there's nothing wrong with you if sometimes it all seems like it's too much. It is too much, always, and some will say that life is about learning how to balance it all. They might be right. I don't think it really matters either way. I think that we can be good without needing to be better. Sometimes I think I might be doing everything wrong entirely. It's okay. We all do, sometimes.
Edna St. Vincent Millay captures this feeling much better than I can, so I think I'll let her take it from here. As she writes in her poem, "Dirge Without Music":
"The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love-
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."
In short: live, the best you can, while you can. Keep your mind open and your heart open. Reach out and reach in. Never pay attention to those arguing in the comment section on Facebook. And do not be resigned.