Insecurity, I have found, is a dangerous force that can subtly permeate various aspects of one’s life. And that quiet insecure feeling if unrecognized and uncared for can become the driving force of the decisions that we make as opposed to letting love, passion and curiosity motivate us.
This fall is special to me as it marks 20 years since I first arrived on campus as a freshman. And as I reflect on that season of my life, I find myself remembering not only the joys, adventures and benevolent misadventures of that first year here at Penn, but also — and perhaps especially — the deep insecurities that I held. I share some of these reflections here as a type of commemoration and a gentle premonishment to the Class of 2020 (and really to all of us here in our community).
It isn’t hard to understand how so many of us find ourselves feeling insecure during our freshman year. In my case I had just left my high school a few months before. As was the case for many of you, academic work came easily. I served on our student council, played varsity sports and engaged in various other clubs and activities all the while being surrounded by family and friends that loved and cared about me. Home was safe. There I was known, loved, affirmed, successful and secure.
And no matter how welcoming and wonderful college was, it was different — it was less secure. Not just because of what I had left behind back home in Baltimore. I also felt an insecurity creep in because of who I was not.
At an early event I remember hearing an administrator speak about my new classmates. I was delighted (read devastated) to hear that there were 972 other student council presidents, 1243 valedictorians, 480 varsity team captains, 12 published authors who had written novels, one former Olympian and others who had started non-profits around the world, been recording artists, ran businesses, etc.
I got to my first track practice and found myself spending time with the other long and triple jumpers. I quickly noted that I was going to be at the very bottom of the depth chart as the juniors and seniors were jumping three feet further than I was. I also remember the petty and somewhat awkward detail that two of the guys on the team had full beards. I could barely grow a mustache. These were men preparing for real life next year and I was a boy who was at prom three months ago.
Predictably the “L’s” kept coming as I got my first “D” on an assignment, was fired from a campus job at a pizzeria (long story about giving away free food to friends), was rejected from an a cappella group that I tried out for and broke up with my high school girlfriend.
I’m tired just writing all of that.
Through my own experience after that rough start and after journeying with a number of students over the years since, I’ve come to see that the insecurities of life on a college campus can affect several aspects of our college lives.
One thing that insecurity can do is lead us to over-rely on the laurels of the past and on our resumes. This does not mean that one should not occasionally wear their old varsity jacket around campus. Rather it is a challenge to celebrate the past without relying on it for our identity. When asked to describe ourselves (as freshmen end up doing dozens of times over the first several weeks of school) so often we go into what we “did” in high school. Dangerously our resumes and transcripts become our identity. We are more than grades and activities. This only reveals what we’ve done, not who we are. And a lack of security in who we are apart from our accomplishments leads us to over-rely on class rankings, GPAs, titles and varsity letters. A difficult but critically important question for all of us to answer is, “Apart from your accomplishments, who are you?” Insecurity makes answering that very difficult.
And feeling insecure also causes us to overstretch in the present. There is a trap set during these earliest days of the semester. A walk through the activities fair will — if your experience is similar to mine 20 years ago on Locust Walk — present you with dozens of amazing clubs, causes, teams and groups that you will want to join. Similarly, a quick read through the courses offered each semester will tempt you to want to register for all of them. So many gems in so many tremendous departments and programs.
Many of us respond to current insecurities with an interesting application of the notion that “when the going gets tough the tough get going.” We feel insecure and thus busy ourselves wanting to “do” rather than “be.” We found success and security in the affirmation of others during our busy high school days so we busy ourselves here believing that we will soon find the security of previous years.
Here is the challenge: As you sign up for an activity or course ask yourself “Why?” “Why do this?” The same goes for declaring a major and choosing a profession. Ask yourself “Why am I choosing this?” “Is this coming from a place of insecurity or from a place of passion?” Phrased differently: “Am I choosing this so that I am liked, thought of as special, smart, talented? Am I choosing this because I’ve been told that I’m good at it? Or am I doing this because I love it or am intellectually curious about it?”
Sometimes we end up being interested in a large number of activities and classes not out of an unhealthy need, but because we really do like a lot of different things. In high school many of us were involved in a great number of activities (sports, student government, cultural groups, community service and music) all while still performing at a high academic level. We think that since it worked in high school we can surely make it work here. Being over-committed (even when we seem to be able to keep it all together) can be unhealthy and in many ways unhelpful to a group as our commitments end up not getting our fully-present best selves.
Insecurity also causes us to over-worry about the future. Contrary to how it may seem the people around you don’t have it all figured out. But we end up feeling like we need to know on day one what our majors and professions are going to be. We believe that we need to position ourselves to be the most attractive applicants for internships and jobs in the future. Being a camp counselor next summer no longer seems acceptable. Instead we need positions and experience for our resumes. This concern about future jobs and security in what has been over the last decade a questionable economy is something that many students receive from lovingly concerned parents who “just want you to be happy and comfortable.”
There is so much to say here — things that Career Services and CAPS can say far better, but as someone who changed my major six times before declaring sophomore year (PPE, Political Science, Sociology, Religious Studies, Urban Studies, Africana Studies) and didn’t “figure out” what I wanted to/felt called to do professionally until the summer before senior year — don’t worry or even think about it too much yet. You have plenty of time to change your mind and discern what your contribution will be. Further, I pray that your decision isn’t based on what others expect of you, but rather what you love to do and feel drawn towards. You will have a far greater impact if you let passion and love drive this decision rather than the gaze of others.
And the final point of this rant is — if I may — a preachy one. Insecurity can lead to over-partying and making unhealthy decisions in an attempt to escape the pain. Insecurity hurts. And the temptation is to block, drown and escape that pain or stress so that we don’t have to deal with it.
Have fun — safe fun while here at Penn. We have a great social scene and I have so many amazing/ridiculous memories of house parties, frat parties, fun times at Smokes, Fling, Penn Relays and more. Our social scene allowed me to meet my partner! Thanks Penn!
Party in an attempt at happiness and connection, not at escape. Going out because you had a bad day is a terrible decision and it often leads to a series of terrible decisions. Don’t let insecurity even creep into your social life. Maybe instead our social lives can be driven and motivated by love and joy.
My time at Penn was wonderful. I learned a tremendous amount in and outside of the classroom. I gained friends that I cherish to this day. And I sincerely loved my time here. If given the opportunity I would choose Penn again. Again and again. But I certainly wrestled with my own insecurities. Truth be told, I still do. Insecurity and uncertainty are real for all of us every day — even members of our faculty and staff. College is an opportunity for us to learn how to develop the important life skill of balancing our fears and insecurities with our hopes and the healthy constants in our lives that keep us grounded. My prayer for you is that you will be able to live in the secure truth that you are great already, that you are enough without your resume and accomplishments, that tomorrow will fall into place and that you have already made us proud just by your being here.Comments powered by Disqus
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