Gliding on the surface, many college students paddle frantically to stay afloat

The AJC has the benefit of a dozen smart college interns working with us this summer, including Allison Gordon. Gordon is a rising junior at Brown University. Born and raised in Atlanta, she is pursuing a B.A. in history. This essay was inspired by a series of interviews she conducted for her Writing Medical Narrative class.

In her first column for the AJC Get Schooled blog, Gordon talks about the often unseen stresses facing college students at elite schools. She discusses the "curated" life these students present on social media and how those sunny photos often mask doubts and struggles.

A few years ago, I wrote about the increasing concern over anxiety levels in college students, especially young women. The 2013 National College Health Assessment found half of students report experiencing overwhelming anxiety. My observation at the time: Somehow, we've communicated to young women that because more options are open to them --- they can run track, run for class president and run for homecoming queen --- they should do it all and do it well.

The pressures show no sign of abating. (Here is a story suggesting some reasons why.)  In its fall 2016 National College Health Assessment,  the American College Health Association found 66.8 of female college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety sometime in the last 12 months, compared to 46.7 of male students. Forty percent of college women reported finding it difficult to function due to depression some time in the last year, compared to 31 percent of their male peers.

With that background, here is Gordon's column.

By Allison Gordon

I first came across the “swan effect” in an article about suicide. The young woman who died was a track runner at an Ivy League school. She had a big, loving family and a large group of friends. She was pretty, popular, talented. Her name was Madison.

Hours before Madison sprinted off a Philadelphia parking deck, she posted a photo on Instagram. It was twinkly. Heavily filtered. People commented. Scores of her followers liked the photo.

And that night, she was gone.

This track runner had seemed so polished, so “together.” Few saw her struggle, and when they did, she shrugged it off as a normal part of the college transition. Like a swan, she was gracefully composed on the surface. But beneath the water, she was paddling desperately.

After learning of Madison’s suicide, I read about other young women at high achieving places who had committed suicide. I began to think about how the “swan effect” plays out on my own campus, Brown University. In 2010 and 2011, the Princeton Review ranked Brown as the “happiest” college in America. This semester, I became a tour guide. At the beginning of each session, I proudly explain to parents how this community can’t be replicated anywhere else.

Allison Gordon is a rising junior at Brown University.

Brown is the “hippie Ivy.” We are a living, breathing brochure. In the winter, we play in the snow and upload happy snapshots to Instagram. In the spring, the Main Green is full of students strumming instruments, reading in the sun, discussing the issues of the day. And for the most part, my Brown experience has genuinely felt happy. The people I meet are passionate, excited, and dynamic. I love my friends and my classes. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

But Brown is not immune to the swan effect. In fact, it is very present here, albeit in a specific way. At Brown, many of my peers (especially women) curate their social media to only highlight the good times. Everything looks beautiful, effortless. But it’s no secret that Brown has struggled with mental health issues in the past. It makes sense; the pressure to succeed can be suffocating. It feels selfish to experience sadness when every opportunity has been afforded to you.

Since middle school, I've worked to be high achieving. I constantly set goals for myself, and when I don’t reach them, I feel crushed. When I do accomplish something, I immediately cross it off a growing list and attack the next problem. When people would ask me how I “did it all,” I would smile, deflect. Any compliment reacted to my skin uneasily. Each nicety felt falsely coated, saccharine.

With every accolade, that anxiety grew. Getting into Brown felt like a tipping point. I saw the “Congratulations!” and exploded. Stars lit behind my eyes, a world of possibility opened. But something else lurked beneath the surface, a weight of new insecurities. Did I actually get in? Was it a mistake? Am I a fraud?

Apparently, that feeling has a name. Coined in 1978, the imposter syndrome encapsulates “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” I argue students at Brown, particularly women, are susceptible to this feeling. When I would feel homesick or burnt out freshman year, I would remind myself to Appreciate everything! It’s a miracle you got in! At Brown, there is an unspoken imperative to keep any “unhappiness” to yourself. So many people would kill to go to Brown. Don’t mess it up.

This tacit pressure is why Madison’s suicide felt so resonant. I know so many girls at Brown who look perfect and happy and whole. But I am friends with these “perfect” girls, and I know how much they struggle. Madison’s case is not isolated; according to the American Freshman Survey, the emotional well-being of incoming freshman has hit its lowest point in 30 years.

My intention is not to “expose” Brown students as secretly unhappy. In my biased opinion, I attend the happiest school. I desperately want to stay there forever. (Sorry, Mom and Dad). But after two years, I understand it’s okay to feel more than pure joy toward this place. As a scared freshman, I was afraid to ever feel unhappy.

My group of tour guides and I have labeled certain days “Early Decision Days.” At these times, the quads teem with students. On ED Days, you can hear snatches of laughter and Nietzsche and neuroscience. I love those days at Brown.

But even tour guides aren’t immune to darker moments of insecurity. After two years, I realized ED days are often the exception. And that’s okay. Normal weeks are laced with overdue assignments and gulps of coffee and the occasional bout of loneliness.

“College is the best four years of your life,” everyone always says. But I think that’s only possible if you accept your experience for what it really is -- beyond a glossy brochure. I am learning that everyone benefits from discussing imperfect moments. I am learning to be less hard on myself.  I am learning it’s okay to show how much you’re paddling.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.