One of my first NU memories is Morty giving the Class of 2021 a 30-minute speech in the sweltering September sun about how “‘And’ is in our DNA.” This slogan, which highlights one of Northwestern’s greatest strengths, also masks a muted campus culture – one where there exists an unspoken pressure for students to engage in every possible (and impossible) academic and extracurricular task. Everywhere I look, students excel in both STEM and humanities, succeed as both athletes and musicians, exceed a full course load of four units at 5.5 units while working two part-time jobs. To do everything and to do it well appears to be the norm.
For some, this is not a horrible thing. This atmosphere of navigating as many social roles as possible has encouraged countless students to find new passions, explore areas of interest and express themselves in fulfilling and joy-inducing ways. In fact, some even thrive under these high-pressure environments, like first-year Weinberg and Bienen student John Cao. Cao is currently enrolled in five and a half units while being active with Northwestern Undergraduate Research Journal, NU Powerlifting and Asian American InterVarsity, all while competing in consulting and opera.
“I just do the stuff I like,” Cao said. “I always write down what I want to accomplish and try to make it as idealistic as possible, meaning that I usually don't finish what I write down. It's fine though, because planning a lot of things in advance keeps me motivated.”
On the other hand, this same culture places unhealthy and unrealistic expectations on students. Students are pressured to achieve the “full college experience,” to actively pursue a concept that is left to them to imagine, but is undeniably influenced by Northwestern’s definition of success. The idea of success, which may once have been externally evaluated, has been internalized for many to become measured by how involved students are on campus, so that quitting anything is a taboo.
Just as students internalize success, collective beliefs that feed into constant reminders that perfection is the minimum become adopted as personal beliefs of individuals. As a result, students participate in this culture and thereby self-perpetuate this belief, which contributes to creating stigma. In fact, the stigma of dropping a class has personally deterred me from dropping courses that were out of my breadth at the expense of my mental well-being, which I feel is an attitude that I am not alone in. Rather than dropping a class and admitting that I was not capable enough to handle the coursework, I tell myself to suck it up and “try harder.” For too many quarters I have crammed for finals that I was destined to fail because I couldn’t grasp the idea that perfection isn’t the standard, and taking on a full course load is not mandatory.
“I don't think it's beneficial to have the feeling that you need to be doing everything,” McCormick sophomore Andrea Lin said. “It's more worthwhile to help people figure out what it is they want to be doing with their time. It's really easy in college to spread yourself too thin, and leaving or dropping previous commitments isn't a bad thing as long as you aren't dropping everything. I don't think people should stay in clubs they aren't excited and passionate about putting time into.”
At the same time, this perception that it is the norm for students to exceed in any and all areas provides students with a warped schema of our campus. Those students who are most involved tend to be the easiest to remember collectively and serve as the most “typical” example of Northwestern students, especially since they reach so many people. Considering that it is these students who have the most involvement in different campus organizations, they are also the ones who have the largest presence on campus. The reality is that no one person can achieve everything, but it definitely seems as if it is normal and even expected for students to come equipped with a multitude of different responsibilities to different student groups.
Amidst this pressure to tackle as many areas as physically possible, it is easy for students to feel like moths surrounded by butterflies. But students must remain aware of their own limits and prioritize their own mental wellbeing. There is no shame in sampling and dabbling, but there is also no shame in stepping away from organizations or classes that add undue stress and clutter to our already packed schedules.
“People value overcommitment more than they do a healthy balance of activities and relaxation,” Weinberg junior David Morales said. “For me, thriving on this campus means that an individual has their own community and a support network you can fall back on. Having that support group gives you something to push you out of your comfort zone because you’ll know that you have people to catch you if it doesn’t work out. You are passionate about what you're studying and you have people to support you through that.”