Written by McKenzie Hohenberger. Also published in the Liberator’s Spring 2017 print issue.
What starts here changes the world. It gave us chills at orientation. We cheered when the class president closed his speech with it at Gone to Texas. We, the proud students of this acclaimed university, claim it as a truth. Sometimes, however, it might ring a little too loudly in our ears. Sometimes, it may sound more like a threat than an inspiration. Sometimes, in the quiet of our ambitious and competitive hearts, the words twist themselves into something that sounds more like Am I the only one who isn’t changing the world?
Feeling inadequate is not uncommon among students at the University of Texas. As we sit with one another at meals, watch each other’s lives on social media, and walk with one another to class, our accomplishments, academic backgrounds, and professional goals inevitably arise. We gauge our own successes based on our peers’.
During the holidays, as we float like mutants between the comfort of childhood and the respectability of adulthood, we answer the same question over and over, “What are you going to do with that after college?” As if familial expectations weren’t heavy enough, we also carry loaned or granted money in our pockets to pay for our years of progress here. Our scholarships carry the names of honorable intellectuals who have passed on, or who have maximized their resources so successfully that they have the ability to set aside money for intelligent strangers. Put bluntly, this amazing opportunity is also an anvil hanging over each of our heads. This is the nature of student anxiety.
For each of us, there is a face or a name that takes on all the characteristics of success. For me, it is the face of a friend of mine who works on the legislative floor at the Capitol here in Austin, is involved in a non-profit organization benefitting Dell Children’s Hospital, and even has time to read in her spare time (whatever that is). As I interviewed some of my peers, I discovered that even the most accomplished among us feel like they could be doing more.
Laura Laughead, a freshman journalism major, finds that her insecurities are rooted not in what she could be doing here at UT but what she could be doing outside of the academic world. Laura has already interned for an agency in Houston, and she participates in four different committees in an on-campus organization called Texas Students’ Television. She has been selected recently as one of five finalists for a television show that she wrote in a contest, and she is waiting to find out if her show will be picked up by the TSTV station and produced.
Yet, when asked about feelings of inadequacy, Laura explained, “There’s this girl from my hometown, and she’s not in college. But she is out in the world, and she’s been in Vogue editorials. She models. And so, whenever I see that it’s like, oh my gosh. You know, you’re out in the real world having real experiences, and I’m here in college. Even with the stuff that I’m doing I’ve felt inadequate, like I shouldn’t even be in college. I should be working, I should be in the real world, you know, traveling like she is.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Rachel Mattison is a senior biology major in the midst of interviewing for various medical schools across Texas. She utilizes her summer and winter breaks to work at a pediatric clinic in her hometown, and she was recently given a preemptive offer to run the practice, which has a branch in Dallas as well. As we spoke, she informed me that she had experienced feelings of inadequacy during conversations with other medical school applicants while waiting to be interviewed.
“Some of them have been published, and others have started health initiatives. It just makes me realize how much I haven’t done, you know. I also wish I had been able to gather the money to go on a mission trip. Mostly everyone has helped bring medicine or healthcare to somewhere abroad.” Rachel has maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout her undergraduate career and is involved in a women’s spirit group and medicine organization on campus. She is also using her senior year to take advantage of the research program available for STEM majors at UT. Despite her many qualifications and her wonderful résumé, Rachel is not immune to feelings of inadequacy among her peers.
Like Rachel, Daniela Banci is a pre-med student. She is a sophomore, and she speaks from the perspective of a student whose main goal is to validate the investment her parents have made in her education. “For me, my parents didn’t start out rich. They came from the Philippines. So, they came all the way from there, and then they went to Canada, and then they came here, and they worked. And they didn’t even really want me to come to UT. I had to convince them that I could do it. And they did everything to get me where I am now, so I want to give everything I can to make sure it’s worth it.”
Daniela’s strength is in her dedication to her coursework and to creating relationships with her professors. She often visits office hours, both for help with her coursework and to learn more about them as individuals. She is an active member of Future Doctors of America and Global Medical Training, which are both on-campus organizations that will cater to her career goals. She often feels pressured by the success of her peers, as well as the expectations of her parents.
These stories and many more were all held together by a common thread—each of these students has a specific image in their minds that means success, and they often use these images not to inspire themselves, but to increase the heavy pressure that they feel daily as UT students.
The key here is not to rid oneself of ambition, nor is it to advocate a stagnant academic career. It is to truly understand that you are neither alone in your feelings of inadequacy, nor are you likely to rid yourself of these feelings by overloading your schedule and neglecting your mental and physical health.
Rather than keeping student anxieties buried deep in our private lives, we should acknowledge that they exist and allow this truth into our conversations with peers. As students at this prestigious university, we should commit ourselves to three mental practices—first, we must abandon fear of failure and actively involve ourselves in activities on and off campus. Second, we must make ourselves vulnerable by speaking freely about our imperfections and fears. This will unify our student body. Third, we must deny any inner voices that tell us we are the only one feeling this way. It isn’t true.