By Halley Gradus || Contributing Writer
It was a Friday afternoon and I found myself doing the same thing I did every Friday of my early sophomore year: crying on the phone, telling my mom I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was Halloween weekend and I was heading to a dinner party at a friend’s house. I should have been excited, ready to hang out with the people I loved. Instead, I stood in an empty parking lot on West James, venting to my mom about how overwhelmed I was feeling, and trying to cover my tear-covered face from the enthusiastic trick-or-treaters roaming around me.
Throughout my time at F&M, I have consistently struggled to make sense of feeling overwhelmed and inadequate on campus. I have always been an anxious person. However, my anxiety was not nearly as pervasive in my life as it has been at F&M; it never led to panic attacks or symptoms of depression. For a while, I understood my feelings of overwhelming inadequacy as a biochemical problem. This helped me realize that I should not blame myself for feeling the way I did. With help from counseling services, I learned to manage my stress and feelings of insufficiency with “coping skills” and, eventually, medication.
At this point, you may be wondering, So what? Why does this matter? I have come to the conclusion that, while “coping skills” and medication helped me manage my stress on campus, they served only as Band-Aid solutions to a problem that extends far beyond my biochemistry. Even on medication and with sufficient “coping skills,” I struggle to slow down and to convince myself that I am enough. Based on my interactions with other students, I believe that I am not alone in this struggle. I am writing this because I think my experience (and possibly the experiences of others) is, in part, a result of F&M’s culture. I have come to believe that my overpowering feelings of insufficiency have been able to reach such extremes because of particular cultural phenomena that exist on our campus and I am curious if other students feel similarly.
In this article, I want to touch on some of the ways in which I believe F&M’s academic and social environments have made me feel overwhelmed and inadequate in order to start a dialogue about the various levels of such feelings on this campus. I want to try to understand how other students who feel this way make sense of their experiences. More specifically, I think it is necessary to think about the similarities and differences between our experiences to start to figure out if and how F&M’s campus culture affects mental health and what we could do about it.
To begin, I believe that some of the feelings of extreme frustration I have experienced have stemmed from being overbooked. Academically, while I am not sure if this is the case, it seems as though some professors assign rigor for the sake of rigor, which creates a heavy workload that is not always conducive to learning. I have also found it easy to convince myself that I always need to be working on something in order to get good grades or impress my professors. So, whenever I used to have free time, I would try to fill it by doing work. And when I wasn’t doing work, I would feel guilty for doing something else. In this way, I would always feel anxious to get things done without ever feeling relieved from such anxiety when I accomplished a task.
Academics have not been the only reason I have felt overbooked at F&M. Socially, I have felt pressured to be busy. I have felt as though I would be missing out if I didn’t join as many clubs and organizations as possible. Once I joined as much as I could handle, I felt the need to be the leader of at least one or two clubs. So, by sophomore year, I was in Frisbee, Dance Company, and Just Say Yes (a dance improvisation group), and was also the vice president of Frisbee and the president of Just Say Yes. If I wasn’t going to class or doing homework, I was at frisbee practice, scheduling tournaments and events for frisbee, at dance, or trying to schedule rehearsal. I was so busy that I had to schedule time for my friends; I would literally put my friends in my calendar to force myself to make time for them. My panic attacks, I believe, were a symptom of this hyper-scheduling and my body’s attempt to get me to stop going, going, going.
In addition to feeling overwhelmed and overworked, I think I have also struggled with feeling insufficient on this campus. Unfortunately, I have grown up learning to value my worth by my grades. This only intensified in college. I found myself prioritizing grades over learning while completing assignments. For instance, when studying for exams, I would focus on memorizing the information in order to get a good grade, rather than actually learning and thinking critically about the material. As a result, I would either feel insufficient for not getting the desired grade or for studying so hard and not retaining any of the information after the exam.
Socially, I have felt insufficient in two ways. The first way goes back to overbooking. It was hard for me to cut back on my club involvement when everyone around me was so involved. This led to feelings of insufficiency when I started to feel overwhelmed. I would ask, “why can’t I handle everything I’m involved in?” or I would think, “if everyone else can handle being involved in a million things, then I should be able to as well.”
I also felt insufficient because I was struggling to figure out my social place at F&M. First, I felt like there was something wrong with me when I was hesitant to join Greek Life. I could not help wondering why I did not feel the desire to be in a sorority like other girls. I ended up rushing during spring semester of my freshman year and received a bid from Alpha Phi.
I remember bid day pretty vividly. We all got our invitations to become members of the sorority that was our “best fit.” There were girls screaming and hugging each other because they got into the sorority they wanted and others who were crying because they didn’t get into the one they wanted. I remember standing in the middle of it all just feeling pretty confused. All I had proven was that I knew how to fake it. I had proven that I knew how to compete through “girl flirting” and I really didn’t feel connected to any of the girls that rushed me or any of my “sisters.” This was another source of feeling insufficient; why didn’t I feel genuinely connected to this group like the other girls seemed to?
After about a week, I came to terms with the fact that the idea of sororities themselves made me feel uncomfortable and decided to drop. This was a hard decision. During that week I kept asking myself, what would happen if I dropped? Would I have friends? Would I feel supported? All but one of the girls who I met during that first week seemed interested in being friends with me. To their credit, those first couple of weeks are jam-packed and you spend all of your time with the other girls, leaving little time to spend with people outside of your pledge class. I felt isolated from this group of friends that I could have had. On top of that, my friends that joined other sororities were also super busy.
All of this social tension made me feel incredibly insecure in my friendships and insufficient for not being able to stay in a sorority. Luckily, I have found community in Frisbee and Just Say Yes. I have found, however, that even the groups I am a part of perpetuate exclusivity in ways similar to Greek Life. It concerns me that it seems as though the only way to feel part of a community on this campus is through membership in some group.
This is how I feel as a white, cisgender woman from the upper middle class, who is also a U.S. citizen. In a lot of ways, I have it easy. I have had access to education and a variety of constructive social spaces since I was four years old. At F&M, I am able to focus on getting good grades and also reflect on campus culture, because of the privileges that I have. What concerns me is that this educational system is supposed to be built for people like me, yet the environment still makes me feel anxious and depressed. For a long time, I told myself: Get over it, at least you actually have access to higher education. But recently I started wondering, if this is how I feel, how do those who have had to work twice as hard as me just to prove they deserve a higher education feel within this culture? And what about students who feel that their safety is threatened on a daily basis at F&M? Why is it problematic that people like me feel overwhelmed? Again, I am choosing to share my experience in order to reach out to other students who feel overwhelmed and/or insufficient on this campus. I want to start a conversation: How do F&M students who feel this way make sense of their feelings? Do other students feel as though F&M’s culture is a primary cause of their stress and self-doubt? What does this say about our culture? How do we, as students, produce and maintain the cultural phenomena that promote stress and feelings of insufficiency? Do these feelings prevent us from adequately self-reflecting on our experiences and the world around us? Do they prevent us from supporting others in our community? I think by answering these questions, we might start to understand why those with marginalized identities feel unsafe on this campus.
Additionally, to begin to understand some of these questions, I am conducting anthropological research on if and why students feel the need to be overbooked and how this busyness is connected to stress. If you are interested in participating in this research, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senior Halley Gradus is a contributing writer. Her email is email@example.com.