This past Monday, we all suffered a great loss. I was shocked and saddened to hear that a Penn student took her own life, but as cavalier as this may sound, I wasn’t too surprised. Our university has had a string of suicides over the past three years and that by no means creates a culture that condones suicide, but it makes it start to feel like ‘something that might happen at Penn.’
It’s true that Penn is competitive, but in my almost two years here I’ve never actually felt like I’m competing with another student directly. People don’t sabotage one another or wish for others to fail — in fact, countless times I’ve been touched by the incredible generosity and support of my peers who have gone out of their way to help me.
But we are competing at Penn with this abstract ideal person, this ideal self. The one with a 4.0 GPA taking six classes who’s on the executive board of five clubs and somehow still makes the time to go to the gym every morning. The one that is successful. And striving towards this ideal of success can be motivating.
I can honestly say I’ve never worked harder than I have at Penn, and it’s probably pushed me to develop a work ethic that another environment might not have. However, it’s easy to forget that this ideal of success you are striving towards is actually unattainable. And so when you fall short, you are inclined to doubt or criticize yourself. And I think that leaves you constantly feeling dissatisfied, or even unhappy, with your achievements.
For me, it was this pernicious feeling that I was selling myself short, and not making the most of my Penn experience, that I should stop slacking and start doing more. After all, “everyone else” seemed to be even busier and they all seemed to be coping, if not thriving. Only I wasn’t achieving success.
And that underlying sense of ‘I’m not successful’ made other stressful events in my life seem unbearable.
Last semester I was juggling six classes, serving on the executive board of a club and stressing about how to get an internship for summer. A few of my close friends at Penn were already recruiting for big firms, but I hadn’t yet decided whether or not I wanted to enter the finance or consulting industries or try something else. There was a midterm coming up that I was grossly underprepared for and I didn’t even know where to begin. And these things on their own are stressful but I think they all just piled on top of the underlying unhappiness I felt.
I started to withdraw into myself because I felt like a failure. I would walk down Locust Walk and actively avoid any acquaintances or friends because I didn’t want to have to engage in conversation. I couldn’t work up the motivation to do things I loved. I failed a test in one of my favorite classes because I couldn’t muster up the energy to study. During my runs downtown along Walnut, as I crossed the Schuylkill, there would be this part of me that wanted to leap over the edge into the water. I imagined I would feel free and weightless, and yet I knew that wasn’t true. But it took me sitting in my room one day, spontaneously bursting into tears to admit to myself that I was deeply unhappy and I could no longer ignore it.
The part that scares is me is that as this was happening I recognized that I was being irrational, but I still couldn’t get rid of my irrational thoughts. And it wasn’t until I finally opened up to someone else that my perspective changed. My own experience showed me that it’s necessary to talk to someone else or physically change your environment to gain an outside perspective on your life. When I did so, the worries that were weighing me down didn’t seem so critical and became more manageable. Now that I’m studying abroad, I realize how easily I got wrapped up in the Penn bubble, especially last semester, and how I’ve unconsciously associated that place with stress and work, when it can and should be a place of learning and growth.
I wanted to share my experience so that if you’ve ever felt similarly, you know you’re not alone. Sometimes being at Penn feels like being tossed into an ocean with no life vest, and as the weight of academics or clubs starts to drag you down, it’s up to you to fight to stay afloat. With everyone in the same position, I was worried that burdening someone else with my problems would drag them down, but I’ve found it doesn’t. Sharing these feelings with someone reminds you both that you are not alone in your vulnerabilities.
I didn’t know Olivia personally, but I hope that part of her legacy is to encourage people not to bottle up these feelings of doubt and stress, but express them. I also hope on the institutional level for honest conversations on why students at Penn find it so easy to feel overwhelmed here, and what we can do as individuals, communities and a University to redefine success. We need to be reminded that being successful is not about being perfect; being successful is about being dedicated and resilient and seeing yourself as a work in progress.
Finally, as you finish up the semester and head into finals, please take care of yourself. Make sure you have a few people who you can trust and depend on to talk to and know there is always someone who can make the time to hear you out. You never have to struggle alone.
RITIKA PHILIP is a College and Wharton sophomore.
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