College Is Hard, And These Are My Struggles
Updated: Jun 7, 2021
I am going to say it. College sucks. The reason? My deteriorating mental health. In my freshmen year, I was consistently stressed out and overwhelmed by the academic pressure. My anxiety and distress were perpetuated by a highly competitive school environment. My only haven on campus was my dorm room, where I could cry freely away from prying eyes. I would experience multiple mental breakdowns within a week and my only source of comfort was advice from online threads. I did share my struggles with family and friends. However, they could not empathize with me because they were in different phases of life. Having almost no friends in college made it difficult to share my struggles openly as well.
Over the year, I realized that my emotions are valid. I cannot discount them just because the people around me do not understand how I feel. It was the lack of support in my freshmen year that empowered me to start my website. I wanted to create a space for struggling students like myself and reassure them that they are not alone. We all doubt ourselves privately but believe that we are alone in thinking this way. It is because no one else really voiced their doubts. This article is meant to detail my struggles and how these struggles defined my college life.
I like to use comics and memes to express my crippling depression. (Source)
Suffering from Imposter Syndrome (Believing I Did Not Deserve A Place in College)
Do you feel that you are not smart enough to be in college? Do you consistently compare yourself with the people around you? Do you feel like the only person who does not have their shit together? I admit that I am very guilty of all the above. Enrolling into NUS was a game-changer as I grew up attending neighborhood schools. Here, I am competing with students from better ranking schools and are from the cream of the crop. They were better prepared at managing the academic rigor of higher education. They too were more resourceful and adjusted faster to university. Despite coming from the same education system as them, I felt intimidated and under-equipped to manage this tricky situation.
My self-esteem plummeted throughout my freshman year. I was consistently comparing myself to my peers. Many students were on gifted or scholarship programs, excelling in professional networking, participating in academic competitions, or holding a high committee position. Meanwhile, I had no other achievements that could supplement my portfolio. The demanding curriculum made it difficult to take on extra commitments because I needed time to study. My lack of time caused me to question my intelligence. Was it because I am not smart enough to comprehend concepts quickly? Was it because I am not good enough to in NUS? Maybe I should just accept the fact that I am a failure compared to my classmates. With each passing day, my mind would continue to spiral with these negative thoughts.
Upon enrollment, I realized I was younger than most of my peers. Many people within the cohort were older due to various reasons. To add to my anxiety, my frantic mind assumed that my young age was a disadvantage. I started to nitpick on my mistakes. After all, experience in life comes with age. If I made a wrong decision, was it because of my lack of maturity? If I said or did the wrong things, was it because I am ignorant? This mindset affected my ability to perform in school. It was difficult to voice my ideas and opinions in group projects because I believed that I lacked wisdom and judgment. I had concluded that perhaps I should not even be in college.
Every day, I felt that I did not deserve my place in NUS. It seemed like there are way more qualified individuals than myself, and I was accepted because I was lucky. Even if I performed well on a task in school, I would attribute it to hard work instead of my intelligence. There was a nagging doubt that I did not earn my accomplishments using my intellect. Self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy would continue to plague me for the majority of my freshmen year.
In hindsight, I was likely suffering from imposter syndrome. It is said to occur among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. This experience is common among individuals who are starting a new and challenging position. Imposter phenomenon is not a mental disorder. Instead, it is a reaction to external stimuli or events. Imposter syndrome is having the feeling of phoniness and believing that you will be found as a fraud. Instead of acknowledging my abilities, I often attributed my successes to external forces. When I am around schoolmates, I often fear that they would uncover my lack of abilities and expose my incompetence. Despite obtaining decent grades in school, I continued to doubt my capabilities. It seemed as though no threshold would put these feelings to rest.
How Did I Manage Imposter Syndrome?
Now, I believe that the first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is a problem. It was in semester 2 of my freshman year when I started to recognize my unhealthy thought patterns. I had placed a large emphasis on success and achievements and was constantly under tremendous pressure to perform. After all, I wanted to make up for the perceived lack of capability between me and my peers. Constant comparison between myself and them, me nitpicking my failures and my feelings of inadequacy perpetuated the problem. How did I recognize that I was suffering from imposter syndrome? My father reminded me that the pressure I was under was created by only myself. It then dawned on me that perhaps, I was being too hard on myself. Then, I still could not name what I was feeling. The term imposter syndrome was introduced when I was in Year 2 (By a great friend that shares the same name as I do. Big shoutout to Wei Ling if you are reading this!).
Acknowledging the limitations of my competence and capabilities improved my mental health significantly. Previously, I was caught up in chasing the goals and expectations others had set for themselves. Whenever I fell short of those expectations, I was reminded of my ineptness. Coming to terms with the fact that I am just not as intelligent, talented, or capable as others have relieved the pressure to perform on the same level. Why was I stuck in the cycle of chasing expectations that were determined by other people? Should not I be comparing my achievements to my expectations? This realization broke the chains of despair that had been holding me back for the entire academic year. My academic progress was on track with the goals I had set, and I did not fall short of my expectations. I had been so caught up in the rat race that I forgot to ask myself why I was in it.
Do gauge where you stand in the cohort within the first few weeks of school. From there, decide whether you want to join the crazy study grind or take things easy. Reaching this decision early can help you to deal with the overwhelming stress and competition in college better. In NUS, there are also counseling services at the university counseling center. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the academic pressure, talking to a counselor or therapist may help you to cope better. Do note that there is a long wait time (about one month) for the counseling services.
Remember that you are not to be defined by any assignment, exam, or GPA. You are bigger than that. We want the effort we put into studying to be validated, but this validation does not have to come from grades. It hurts when we do not get what we work hard for, but it does not mean that we will not be successful in the future.
Feeling Lonely in University
If asked to describe college, the word lonely is an unlikely adjective. After all, college is meant to be fun and exhilarating and the media reinforces this concept continuously. Like everyone else, I was excited to enroll in college and have the best time of my life. I was ready to drink, party, and make lifelong friends. I am young, in my prime, and ready to have fun. What could go wrong?
I joined several freshmen orientation camps and met numerous people. My contact list grew longer and my followers on Instagram increased significantly. As the academic year started, I was kept busy for the first few weeks as I attended school fairs and welcome events. Eager to partake in the robust co-curricular activities my school had to offer, I joined several clubs. Yet, the enthusiasm and keenness started faded away fairly quickly before recess week.
Although I enjoyed myself during orientation, I never saw some of my orientation mates again. I also stopped talking to the friends I made because they already had friend groups from high school. I did not move away from home to attend college and many students in my college were the same. Yet, none of my friends were in the same college as me so I was alone.
Moreover, I felt that the friends I made in college did not put in the same effort as I did to maintain the friendship. I presume that it is because they already have friends from high school. Friends in college seem to just hang out to have fun and they have no interest to get to know one another better. Friendships formed from project groups feel transactional as well. It feels like the friendship purely serves to facilitate good teamwork.
It is depressing and demoralizing to witness so many people having their closest friends with them. Together, they can create memories while they experience the ups and downs of college. I cannot help but feel alienated from the very community I am in. It is the feeling that nobody is there for me when I want to socialize or hang out with someone. I have friends outside of school but the situation I am in perpetuates the feeling of loneliness. Moreover, freshmen year can be a breeding ground for Instagram posts. I would open my app and see uploads of people having fun and enjoying themselves. Although the posts may not reflect the emotions others feel all the time, it is still difficult to dissociate the feeling that others are having fun, but I am not.
How do I Cope with Loneliness?
I am learning to be comfortable alone and it is difficult. However, I do realize the slew of benefits that comes with being alone and I am trying my best to focus on the good. FOMO is real but I do not have to let it control my life. Being alone has nothing to do with my personality, my ability to make friends, or loving myself.
I used to consume mindless entertainment or spend my time with fair-weathered friends whenever I felt lonely. These temporary comforts brought nothing but emotional unfulfillment. In hindsight, I deprived myself of precious self-reflection time. Clear answers and true internal reflection can only happen during a period of solitude with no distractions. Being alone gives me the time to better understand my thought process, understand myself, and regulate my emotions. Meanwhile, I now have the opportunity to create meaningful work and it has injected purpose into my life. I can see my loneliness for what it is instead; that I simply have time for myself to do or create what I want.
There may be an expectation to meet your best friends at orientation and start school with a large group of friends. It is highly unrealistic, and it is perfectly okay if you did not find people you would vibe with. Real friends are hard to come by. That is why when we meet people we click with; we recognize that it is special and will sincerely work on the relationship.
Although I cannot banish these feelings completely, I believe that we can have open conversations about the challenges students face in college. With increasing awareness of how common these experiences are, perhaps we can feel freer to be frank about our feelings and build confidence in simple truths. I am capable, I deserve to be in college, and it is okay to be alone.