Maintaining your Individuality in College

By: Humeyra Cengiz

One’s college years are quite different than the other eras of a person’s life. In those years we receive an academic education on a high level that’s accepted across the globe, and we get to know a wider environment. Moreover, this environment is probably more free than the ones we’ve known before  in every aspect. We can take classes on general subjects or follow our passions through specialized courses. One’s will and preferences come to the forefront. The way that we express ourselves becomes more varied as we grow. But at the same time, these years can bring negative emotions such as fear and anxiety along with the new and positive aspects as well.

In college, students often make choices that are influenced by their family, past, and previous academic background. These choices often bring about a very heavy academic load. Tough exam periods, homework, projects, deadlines, and presentations can be very taxing mentally. This level of effort has the potential to make students burn out, both physically and psychologically.

Academic pressure: Your grades are not your truth!

In some schools, evaluations are based on one’s performance relative to their classmates. Other grading systems may not be based on comparison, but final exams can be quite difficult.. These systems can lead to feelings like inadequacy, failure, and dissatisfaction for students. This may cause mood disorders, specifically depression. According to a study, the rate of depression and anxiety disorders is 15.6% in undergraduates and 13% in graduate students. In the same research study it was observed that the risk of a mental disorder is higher for students who have financial issues. Of course, university education is also financially challenging both for students and for their parents. 

Unfortunately, most educational systems are based on a vertical evaluation system where everybody is assumed to be on the same plane. This means our differences, interests, and tendencies can be overlooked. For some of us, written and time-restricted exams feel suffocating. You may have experienced a panic attack in such situations, or know someone who has. In addition, some of us don’t feel comfortable with verbal communication, or don’t like speaking in public. Do you remember moments in which,even though you had pages of words in your mind, the second you started your presentation or went to the blackboard, you were unable to even get a word out?

If you are expected to perform similar to your peers in every field, this is a unique opportunity to find the kind of work you’re comfortable with and the areas you’re talented in. Seeing and appreciating that you and the people around you may have different areas of development might be one of the keys to dealing with feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction. However, sometimes the fear of being unsuccessful bothers us so much that we cannot see this opportunity clearly. If you are conditioned to the idea of always being successful, the voice in your head that says “What if this goes wrong!” may immobilize you by causing panic in your system. The number of students that feel unhappy when they compare themselves to others constantly is quite significant. We are evaluated by a standardized system, and we attribute negative results from this system to ourselves. If you live within a culture that places a high level of emphasis on grades, you may at times feel unsuccessful compared to those around you.

Are these feelings familiar to you? Does thinking about whether you’re succeeding or failing make you feel out of breath from nervousness too? If so, could these thoughts and comments have magnified the situation and become even more intense due to panic and fear? This feeling of being out of breath makes your mind even more confused and inefficient — and all the while you have your courses to focus on. And this experience of being unfocused and unproductive may feed into the feelings of failure. Accepting that we all feel like we’ve failed sometimes, and that everyone else has felt like this at some point in their lives as well, is the first step. To break the cycle, remind yourself that you are a unique individual and thatyou exist with your zigs and zags even though these thoughts may not seem convincing to you at first.. We all have the our own rough edges and difficulties,  and college life is one of the best places to see and observe this in ourselves and others. Would you seem that “unsuccessful” if you were to see yourself from the eyes of your teacher, friend or family member? Or are you just a student that makes the best effort possible despite having normal ups and downs in her focus and motivation?

Maintaining your individuality in your social life 

Questioning and learning more about yourself is one of the best opportunities you’ll have within the dynamic social environment of college. Since faculty buildings and dormitories are often close to one another, campus life is like living in a small town of students. In fact, interaction with your peers is often more intense than just taking classes together.. For me, it was a very different experience to stay in the dorms when I first moved to another city. The people I lived together with became like my family, and I shared so many good and bad things with them. Many people remember these times with lots of memories, fun, discoveries and and travels. “I wish I could be in college again!, “You should wander and enjoy yourself before you start working!”: you may have heard these sentences many times. For example, living in other countries through exchange programs is such an opportunity to experience other cultures while you’re still a student! Or doing internships in different fields to get to know the business world may make you learn about what you like to do. In all of these college experiences, we have the chance to have a close level of interaction and sharing with those around us.

In this high-speed environment, though, we also can focus on existing as our person and not losing ourselves in the crowd and social life we’re surrounded by. Just like in the classroom setting, you may label yourself as “good” or “bad” when comparing yourself with others, and it’s normal to feel compelled to do this. Sometimes we adopt the habits of people around us that we look up to. Sometimes we may do things just to fit in. Does it feel familiar to you to be in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable and are worried about being accepted? 

All of us, in our lives, want to be seen and appreciated, and we behave according to these desires. However, you may stumble sometimes in this period since these intense interactions and the desire to fit in coincide with the period of transitioning from a teenager to an adult. To expect our thoughts and actions to settle down in this period is not that realistic, though. This age is the one in which we slowly become separated from the support of our family and our old comfort zones. Just like growing up as a kid, watching yourself become more mature and being able to hold your own hand one of the best lessons we can get in life. ”Some” decisions or actions don’t define who you are. This is a delusion. However, judgements from others may reinforce these delusions. When you’re young and confused, being affected by one’s surroundings or judging others is easier.

How to manage this?

When you’re under social pressure, problems may seem bigger than they are. With a mindset that “negative thoughts feed negative emotions,”, it’s possible to look at ourselves from a more objective perspective. Talking with people that have been through similar periods may help to see these problems as transitory and as a part of life. You shouldn’t hesitate to share your feelings with your friends in your close circle. Seeing and understanding that everybody may sometimes feel the same usually eases these thoughts. If you really feel stuck, down, or stressed, you can also turn to psycho-social support. Group activities, art therapy, or spending more time on hobbies can support developing a positive approach by appreciating your individuality. 

While juggling so many activities and responsibilities on a daily basis, searching for your individual identity in college can be tough sometimes, and you can feel like you’re stretched in so many different directions. But this “stretch” is one of the milestones of knowing the world and of starting to get along with the world, I think. We take steps towards being an individual while trying to solve our problems and get in touch with our environment too. Sometimes feeling alienated from ourselves can be included too. They all have a role in finding the balance. If you do not let negative thoughts and fears take over your mind, finding motivation to take positive steps gets easier. While you are young and motivated, nothing is like experiencing college life with all its ups and downs!

How about you? Have you ever had hard times where you felt worthless instead of appreciating yourself as a different and special individual in college? Do you have an efficient way to deal with this? If not, can you try to be mindful about what you’ve read in this article next time you encounter these kinds of thoughts and feelings?

Eisenberg, D., Gollust, S., Golberstein, E., & Hefner, J. (2007). Prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among university students. American Journal Of Orthopsychiatry, 77(4), 534-542. doi: 10.1037/0002-9432.77.4.534

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