By Anonymous, Contributor
I was never a Welcome Week rep, so being on campus during Welcome Week this year was my first reacquaintance with the emotional rollercoaster of starting university since being in first year. I remember standing bashfully in the middle of a circle of clapping reps, overwhelmed by their kindness. I remember feeling like I didn’t deserve to be here, and hoping that would change soon.
For me, though, it didn’t change, not for a long time.
This year, talking to first years and learning about their hopes and fears reminded me that my first year at university felt less like swimming and more like drowning.
I was always more of a literature person, but swayed by my own uncertainty and the emphasis placed on math and science as more “useful” majors, I chose to go into STEM.
There were so many good things in my first year of university. There was my residence with its pretty arched windows. There was friendship. There were string lights and jam sessions and group photos and marathons of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
There was warmth, but I could barely feel it.
I spent my days and nights shut away, working around the clock, yet watching as my grades plummeted. I felt paralyzed at the bottom of a vast and suffocating ocean, watching from below as everyone else swam up into the sun. And that feeling became my normal.
I regularly received test grades I never thought I’d see. I took it personally. I fluctuated between shock, sadness and ringing numbness. I was warned against trying to go on. But I still persisted, driven to continue pushing myself and retaking courses to get better grades.
Why? You wouldn’t be the first person to ask.
Whenever I felt like it was time for a change, I would feel my chest tighten. I could never really identify this emotion, but I thought that if it kept me motivated to persevere without changing my mind, it was ultimately good, right?
But it wasn’t good. It was fear.
I was afraid to accept what I considered a failure. Everyone around me seemed so certain of their futures to me, and I felt so ashamed when I thought about admitting that I had just been trying to imitate their confidence without really feeling it.
It felt like trying to draw a perfectly straight line freehand when everyone else had a ruler.
And … it was university, right? The best four years of our lives. It’s supposed to be perfect. We’re supposed to make it perfect.
And therein lies the core of this harmful way of thinking.
Culturally, we’re so obsessed with the myth of the perfect postsecondary education experience (and our individual responsibility to make it so) that any mistake feels like an unforgivable failure of the self.
And I think my shame at the struggle I was experiencing stemmed directly from my belief in that myth. I was so worried about how what I was doing looked to everyone else that I forgot to ask myself how I felt about it.
Even if we hear it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s so hard for us to actually believe it. And some of us never actually hear it at all.
I think it’s past time to turn that around.
Pushing myself to the limit in pursuit of a false narrative of perfection took me farther from true understanding, not closer to it. Only redirecting my energy to something I wanted to pursue and overhauling my entire mindset about university could do that.
And that wasn’t a fast process. At first, when friends and family suggested that I look into changing my major, I resisted.
But closer to the end of the year, while reviewing for finals, I started to go through my old notes, written painstakingly down on paper, late into the night. I had worked so hard, so much harder than I even realized. Shouldn’t I be happy? Shouldn’t I finally, finally be proud of myself?
But I wasn’t. I had missed out on spending time with my friends. I wasn’t taking care of myself like I should. I spent all my time not looking forward to what I could gain, but dreading what else I might lose. And, ultimately, I hadn’t brought myself any closer to a student life that I could thrive in.
I was still reluctant to admit that I needed help, but I came to realize that unless I wanted to graduate in this exact same situation, I needed to make a change. There was no other option.
So I reached out, asked for help, and decided on a new direction. I took that leap and changed my major, and it was a massive relief. When I started a new subject, I learned to listen to myself, to recognize happiness and excitement in myself and follow where that led me. Suddenly, I loved what I was doing. One day in fourth year, I realized I could look back on my past mistakes with compassion instead of shame. And that’s when I knew: that’s what I should have done all along.
I never want anyone to feel how I felt back then. But maybe you have. Or maybe you do right now.
So, with my own past in mind, I’ll tell you what I’ve told every first-year I’ve met who has asked me: it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay if you need help. And no mark on your transcript, whether it’s a one or a 12, could ever, ever cost you the right to your own happiness and well-being.