What We Talk About When We Talk About College

It’s been rather quiet around here lately.

I’ve just started my senior year, and with that came a lot of reflection–what I want this last year to mean, how I can improve on the years that came before it, and, perhaps most importantly, why it is that my time at Northwestern has been so fucking painful?

I may never know the answer to that question, honestly. I have a few answers, but I don’t have the answer. The answers seem so banal when I list them, and they cannot do justice to my experience here: the depression, the social atmosphere, the pre-professional orientation, the year wasted in journalism school, the quarrels with the administration, the lack of adequate mental health services, and so on and so forth. None of these things, on their own or in any combination, can explain it.

I still remember the pervasive sense of loss I felt when I realized that I was never going to get what I came here for. That beautiful, glossy image of college that I’d been sold would never be my experience. Some days I love this school, but I will never be able to look at it with that fondness with which most older adults talk about their alma maters.

But the truth is that it’s not just me. This time is not universally wonderful. It is not the best time of everyone’s lives. For some people, it is a sad or boring or lackluster time. For some it isn’t really a big deal either way. For others, as we were reminded so horribly last week, it is a tragic time.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters. While I don’t think we should be unduly negative, we should not be unduly positive, either. Painting college as an unequivocally wonderful time–implying, therefore, that if you aren’t having a wonderful time, you are to blame–doesn’t do anybody any good, except perhaps for those who stand to gain from increased tuition revenues.

When we make college out to be the best four years of our lives and push all the unpleasant stuff under the rug, we let down students who are suffering. We let down those for whom the stress and loneliness triggered a mental illness. We let down those who suffer from substance abuse problems, and those who have been robbed, harassed, stalked, and assaulted. We let down those who can’t keep their grades up, who see their friends post Facebook statuses about their 4.0’s at the end of every quarter and think they are the only ones. We let down those who can barely afford to be here. We let down those who miss their families every day. We let down those who have been bullied or taunted because of their appearance or identity–because, yes, that happens, even on a “liberal” campus like ours.

Does this stuff suck? Yeah. Is it unpleasant to talk and read about? Yup. I don’t care.

Here are some things I went through while I’ve been at Northwestern. I’ve been depressed. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve cut myself. I’ve taken antidepressants. I’ve been so tired I couldn’t sit up. I’ve broken down crying in the garden by Tech. I’ve been harassed and assaulted. I’ve been bullied. I’ve been robbed. I’ve lost close friends. I’ve failed tests. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve tried to starve. I’ve hated myself and the world and wanted to quit.

And then I got lucky, and I found a second family and figured out what to do with my life and got good at the things I love to do. I found feminism and atheism and activism. I got lucky. But I will not shut up about what college was really like for me, because to do so would be to abandon those who haven’t found what they need here yet, or won’t find it ever.

A few weeks ago, a writer for xoJane wrote a piece called “When College Isn’t Awesome.” She discussed her own decidedly not-awesome experience and then published the stories of others. When I read it, I found myself wishing that it had been written years ago, when I was a freshman. The author wrote:

While reflecting on my less-than-picture-perfect college adventure, I asked other folks to share their own stories of college-era emotional and psychological struggles. My hope is that some suffering student will see this post and feel less alone. Maybe she or he will even be more inclined to reach out to the student counseling center, friends, or other resources for help. Or maybe she or he will just feel less like a freak for wanting to stay in bed and cry while seemingly everyone else excitedly skips off to the football game.

That is exactly why I keep talking about how difficult these past three years have been for me. It’s not just because it’s a relief for me to share my own story rather than trying to keep it to myself. It’s also because I want others to know they’re not alone.

What we talk about when we talk about college matters.

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Is Casual Sex Intrinsically Demeaning?

Many well-intentioned people decry casual sex (or hooking up, or what have you) and argue that there’s something inherently demeaning about it–that you’re just letting the other person use your body and then toss it aside, that you’re letting them disrespect you.

It’s worth noting that, to these people, it’s only the woman in the (always heterosexual) pairing who gets used, abused, demeaned, and disrespected. But that sexist double standard is a separate conversation from the one I want to have, which is this: is casual sex intrinsically disrespectful? And is committed sex, then, intrinsically respectful?

My views on this issue have been evolving a lot recently. Overall, I’ve had a very negative experience with casual sex. The times that I haven’t been outright pressured and/or forced into it, I’ve been manipulated, insulted, and lied to.

I’m not saying that to get advice or sympathy, by the way. I’m saying it to explain why I can never really view casual sex as an Intrinsically Good Thing–my experiences with it have mostly been awful, whereas my experiences with committed sex have mostly been pretty great.

And that’s not to say that I see it as morally wrong or inadvisable, or that I think it’s too “dangerous” for people to do (that would be victim-blaming!). I do criticize it. But I also criticize people who moralize about it.

tl;dr my views on it are complicated and I can’t boil them down into a convenient soundbite.

But anyway, as I’ve gotten involved with organizations and people outside of Northwestern, I’ve started to realize that my views may be skewed somewhat because I live in a bubble. The Northwestern bubble. I live in it, I work in it, and, well, I have sex in it, too.

I know I should be careful about criticizing Northwestern’s campus culture. It’s not a homogenous thing, first of all, and it shares a lot of similarities with other campus cultures. However, now that I’ve met so many folks who are going (or went) to school elsewhere, I’ve become more confident in the fact that there are some things about this school that are relatively unique.

All of us at Northwestern are very intelligent. Many of us were picked on in elementary and middle school and self-identified as nerds in high school. Everyone I’ve met here has plenty of stories about that.

Many of us didn’t have much sexual experience before college (and many still don’t–a survey done here shows that almost half of the students have not had sex within the past year). However, we are all, to some extent, products of a culture that values sexual experience and “coolness.” We are a Big Ten school located near a huge city, and, to a greater degree than many other elite universities, ours is full of students who are on a pre-professional track–not here just for knowledge and intellectual growth, but to prepare for a career. And we know that in the workplace, we will be judged not only by our abilities, but by our appearance and our level of social aptitude.

Combine that appearance-focused, results-oriented mindset with pressure–both internal and external–to have sex, and you will have our campus’ hookup culture. It can be a lot of fun if you find the right people, but it can also be alienating, dehumanizing, and painful. I know, because I’ve been there.

And until recently, I thought that that’s just the nature of the beast. I thought that most people who like to hook up have stories like mine–if not only stories like mine. But as I’ve been meeting more people who don’t go here, I’ve heard more and more stories of casual sex done right–with respect, enthusiasm, honesty, and consent.

Although I’d long suspected that you don’t have to treat someone like an object just because you’re only hooking up with them for one night, I had yet to hear of any actual evidence for that. I had yet to meet people who could tell me that they’d had a casual thing with someone and it was not only consensual and physically enjoyable, but respectful and affirming, too. But now I have.

I’ve also realized that there are so many situations in which committed sex can be just as demeaning and disrespectful as my experience with casual sex has been. For starters, people can rape each other even within relationships–something that conservatives who wring their hands over casual sex don’t seem to understand (in many countries, marital rape was not criminalized until the late 20th century). In some ways, rape within committed relationships can be even more difficult to address because of expectations that your partner be available to you sexually whenever you want, and/or that you should be sexually available to your partner whenever they want.

Even if consent is actually given, sex within relationships can still be disrespectful (as I’d perceive it, at least). People can still be focused on their own pleasure without regard for their partner’s. People can still take their partners for granted. People can still objectify their partners. A serious relationship–including marriage–does not automatically imply that people are enjoying a healthy, mutually respectful sex life.

Ultimately, I think that any sexual relationship–whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime–can only be as respectful as the people involved in it. The partners I had were not respectful, and they would not have been any more respectful if I’d been in a serious relationship with them. I felt disrespected and demeaned not because I chose to have casual sex with them, but because I chose to interact with them, period.

I believe that sex is ultimately value-free, as long as it is consensual. No “type” of sex–casual, committed, kinky, vanilla, straight, gay, solo–is intrinsically anything. Sex of any kind with someone who respects you and treats you well can be wonderful, and sex of any kind with someone who does not will probably be terrible.

Unfortunately, fixing the latter problem is much more difficult than shaming and scaring young people out of hooking up. We’d first have to create a culture in which people don’t view each other as a means to an end.

And, I’ll be honest, I have no idea how to do that.

More Than Just a Body With a Broken Brain: Why I’m Choosing Social Work

It would be nice to be called “Doctor.”

It would be nice to be paid a very high salary and have a stable job, and to be able to produce an official piece of paper proving that I am Smart.

It would be nice to be published in prestigious journals, to receive emails from others curious about my work. It would be nice to be quoted in newspapers and magazines as an Expert.

It would be nice to be part of the elite–the less than 1% of Americans who have a doctorate.

It would be nice, but it won’t be me. At least, not for a while.

Until recently, I left unquestioned the notion that I want a PhD in clinical psychology. I just wanted it. Why? Well, it would allow me to be a therapist, which is what I want. I would get paid a lot. It would carry prestige.

But gradually my resolve started to break down and I started to wonder, Why?

I discovered that I disliked research. When I told people this, they were often shocked. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you care why people think and feel the way they do? Don’t you want to understand?

Yes, I am, and I do. I’m deeply curious. That’s why I read voraciously. And I am more than happy to read all the answers to my questions when they’re published rather than to work long days in a basement lab somewhere.

I can do research, I’m sure. But it’s not what I love, and there are others who want this much more.

The turning point came when I attended a panel of graduate students in psychology, along with an admissions person for a doctoral program in clinical psych. They all told us that when we apply for grad school, our entire resume and personal statement should discuss nothing but our research experience. Everything else I’ve done wouldn’t even matter–not the year I spent as an RA, not the three years I’ve spent as a member (and, then, a leader) in a sexual health and assault peer education group, not the summer I volunteered at a camp for at-risk kids in New York, not the initiative I started to implement a peer listening program at Northwestern, not my internship at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I shouldn’t even include it, they told me, because it would annoy the admissions people.

The work that I love, the lives that I hope I’ve changed–it would be an annoyance.

At first, I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Who cares what I put on my application as long as I get in?

But then I learned more. I learned that I probably wouldn’t be accepted if I admitted that my goal is to be a therapist, because they want to spend their money on someone who would bring prestige to their institution by publishing research. I realized that I would have nobody to turn to for support–no mentors–because I’d have to hide my dreams from them. I learned that clinical training in clinical psych programs is mostly lacking (ironically), so I wouldn’t be learning the practical skills that I need to help people.

And, most of all, I understood that my time in graduate school would be miserable beyond belief, because I would be living a lie, facing extreme pressure to publish or perish, and wasting at least five or six years of my life. During that time, my life would be completely on hold–I wouldn’t be able to move, work, or start a family, if the opportunity presented itself.

The future that I had once dreamed about turned into a nightmare.

It was then that I finally stopped listening to my professors–who, of course, all have PhDs–and listened instead to the friends and family I have who actually are therapists, or hoping to get there. And increasingly I understood that a masters in social work would be a better option.

MSW programs emphasize learning practical skills, and many of them have you start a clinical internship as soon as you start the program, because the best way to learn is by experience. They understand that people aren’t just isolated brains inside bodies, that circumstances affect individuals and that psychological problems aren’t always caused by faulty brain chemistry. They emphasize understanding societal inequality, working with marginalized groups, and picking up where clinical psychology leaves off.

I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” for a masters in social work, that I will be “offended” when I see how little they pay me. People who say these things must not know me very well. Although I wanted a PhD before, I’ve never really needed my career to make me feel important. I don’t need to be important. I just need to be helpful.

As for “too smart,” that’s ridiculous. The helping professions need more smart people.

The truth is that, in my hour of need, it wasn’t a man with a white lab coat and a doctorate who saved me. It was–as corny as this is going to sound–the social justice movement. That was what finally taught me that my feelings are justified, that my thoughts have merit, that my words matter.

I finally learned to see myself as more than just a body with a broken brain. I’m a whole person enmeshed in particular circumstances, and the interaction between the two has made me who I am now.

I still agree with what I’ve written before. Medication can be useful. Therapy works. Psychiatric labels are important.

But my strengths and goals require a different sort of education than what I could receive in a doctoral program, and they point me to a different sort of career than a PhD would prepare me for.

True, I’ll earn less money. There will be hard times. There will, I’m sure, be bureaucracy, budget cuts, and crappy bosses.  There will be days when I don’t love it.

But there will not be days when I’m living a lie. There will not be days when I’m sitting in an expensive lab at a prestigious university, doing work that may be meaningful, that may get published, that may be improved upon, that may someday, maybe, help someone. Maybe.

And I have nothing but respect for people who want to do that. I admire that, and maybe someday I’ll return to school for a PhD. But at this stage in my life, it’s just not for me. After all, I can always get a PhD; what I can’t do is unget one and unwaste all that time.

I don’t expect every single day to be productive, every session to help every client. But I do expect that at the end of my life I will be able to look back and know beyond a doubt that, in my own way, I changed things for the better.

That’s why I’m choosing social work.

P.S. A little disclaimer–I’m not looking for any comments on how I’m wrong about the doctoral route or why I should reconsider my decision. There’s a lot more than went into it than I could even discuss here, and there are enough Older and Wiser People trying to tell me how to live as is. Thanks. 🙂

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the B’s

College students seem to love this poster, perhaps because it reminds us to calm the fuck down. Did you know it was originally created by the British government during WWII to keep citizens calm in the event of an invasion? How’s that for perspective.

A few weeks ago, our final grades for spring quarter were posted online. This usually happens on the Monday evening after the end of the quarter, and you see people posting Facebook statuses about their grades all night.

I used to be one of the people who’d sit there refreshing Caesar or at least checking my Facebook newsfeed so that I would know my grades the second they were handed down from above like a court decision. When you work for something for ten weeks, you want to know the results immediately.

But this time, I didn’t check my grades right away. In fact, I still haven’t checked them. And I’m not going to until the next time I need to update my resume.

It’s not that they were going to be extra crappy this quarter or anything. It’s not that I need good grades any less than I did before. Nothing changed, except that, one day not long before the quarter ended, I realized that grades had started to rule my life.

This is a long story, and one that will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a school like Northwestern. This story involves panic attacks, hours on the phone with one’s parents, Red Bull, and contrite emails to professors. It involves checking the average GPAs at all the top grad schools and choosing classes based on how likely you are to get an A in them. At times, it involves sacrificing education–true education–for a false feeling of accomplishment.

There are many episodes in this series. There was the time I sat in the snow winter quarter of freshman year and bawled before going back into Tech, finding the computer lab, and dropping a class for the first time. There was the time I told my mom I was going to just become a housewife after graduation (a housewife without a husband?). There was the time I seriously considered just moving to Israel and joining the army. There were the times–yes, unfortunately, that’s plural–when I did something self-destructive.

All that, because of a number.

One of the most insidiously dangerous things about the culture at Northwestern (indeed, probably at most elite schools, but I can only speak for this one) is how driving yourself crazy over grades and schoolwork becomes normalized. If a normal, average, non-Northwestern person saw me a few weeks ago–when I was freaking out and crying because I might do poorly on my Hebrew final which might give me a B in the class which might lower my GPA substantially enough which might prevent me from getting into graduate school which might prevent me from having something to do after I graduate–that person’s reaction would probably be horror and pity.

But a fellow student at Northwestern would just nod their head and smile and perhaps suggest that I get drunk this weekend to forget all about it.

While it’s great to have people who understand what we’re going through, I think it’s hazardous to our mental health that we have such an echo chamber of academic anxiety. Because any informed adult will tell us that this is all ridiculous. You’re not going to be screwed for life just because you failed one class at some point in college. You’re not going to be turned down from every job just because you only got a C in calculus. It just won’t happen. These are lies we sell to ourselves when we’re (understandably) worried and uncertain about the future.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me exactly how it’s all going to work out–whether I’ll go to grad school right after college, which one I’ll go to, which degree I’ll get, where I’ll live, who I will be.

But I don’t. And in the meantime, I want to live my life.

It’s entirely possible that right there in my Caesar account, unbeknownst to me, is a grade so horrendous that I actually will get rejected from grad school. So I’ll go get a job until I can get into grad school. And if I can’t get a real job, I’ll go volunteer and work part-time until I can get a real job. It’ll work out, even if I might have to live paycheck-to-paycheck for a while.

Of course, it’s impossible to aspire to go to grad school and yet completely not care about your grades. I need to care about them and keep them as high as I can, and I think it’s natural to worry occasionally that they’re not good enough.

But this constant catastrophizing of every single exam, paper, and assignment?

That needs to go. I can’t live like that.

More to the point, living in a state of anxiety probably doesn’t do wonders for my academic performance anyway.

Regardless of my grades, everything will be okay and life will eventually work out.

Update: And because I can’t write a post without including something political and sociological, read this.

“There are no hot girls at Northwestern.”

The other day at a certain user-submitted news website, a new Northwestern student was asking for advice about “the party scene” at our school. He also inquires about the attractiveness of the “females” at our school (I think he means “women”), and several dudebros inform him not to get his hopes up. One writes, “No offense to the girls, but Northwestern is just not an attractive campus overall; guys and girls complain about it all the time.”

Lest you think this is just Reddit stupidity, it’s not. The alleged unattractiveness of Northwestern students is something that I’ve heard referenced many times. There’s even a related term: “Northwestern Goggles.” Urban Dictionary says that “Northwestern Goggles” is “when a female student from Northwestern University is considered “hot” only because most of her fellow students are ugly.” Dictionary db has a lengthy explanation of it too, except it references men rather than women. (Northwestern Goggles is, apparently, an equal-opportunity phenomenon.)

A student review of Northwestern at Vault.com states, “And if you’re looking for attractive male students, look elsewhere. Students develop “Northwestern Goggles” where people who, outside of NU, wouldn’t be considered dating material quickly become eligible and desirable bachelors or bachelorettes.” Campus media references the term, too. A few years back one of Daily’s sex columnists pondered this issue. And, of course, there’s a GIF.

I don’t believe the Myth of the Ugly NU Student. First of all, it just doesn’t jive with my experience at Northwestern and that of the friends that I’ve talked to. I know that’s circumstantial, but I think it’s still worthwhile to point out that some of us disagree. Some of us think that there are plenty of people at NU who look like they could be models. I can think of a number of qualities that are lacking on this campus–for instance, compassion–but attractiveness is not one of them.

Second, I’m somewhat disinclined to even consider the validity of this myth until someone designs a reliable, scientific measure of human attractiveness, applies it to representative populations of a number of universities, and shows me that Northwestern’s Attractiveness Quotient is lower than average.

And “I visited my friend at a state school once and the girls/guys there were so much hotter” does not count. That’s circumstantial evidence, and it’s also confirmation bias: we’ve all heard the Myth of the Ugly NU Student since we got here, so as soon as we get off campus we’re probably eager to try to find attractive specimens to validate our expectations.

Third, I’m not exactly sure what people hope to accomplish by constantly restating the Myth of the Ugly NU Student. While I’m not a huge believer in karma, I’m still pretty sure that it doesn’t exactly do wonders for your love life if you go around moaning about how ugly everyone at Northwestern is. And since most people do realize that beauty is subjective, “There are no hot girls/guys here” is really more a statement of “Look how Cool and Picky I am” than of any actual lack of beautiful people at Northwestern. Congratulations, you’re really Cool and Picky.

Ultimately, whether or not you find attractive members of your preferred gender(s) at Northwestern is entirely up to you. I think it’s pretty judgmental and shallow to dismiss our school with terms like “Northwestern Goggles.” If anything on this campus is ugly, it’s that.