By Kendall Burchard. Original publication, proFmagazine, February 11, 2017.
As we approach mid-August, students are once again facing the typical stressors of a new semester. Moving to campus, starting new courses, and finding your place in an unfamiliar community can cause students to experience an identity crisis. However, COVID-19 will certainly intensify the pressure on students seeking to excel. The once celebrated, yet oftentimes toxic, work ethos of all-night study sessions and endless iced coffees may not prove to be the healthiest. Students may, understandably, find themselves worrying about how their institution will support both their academic and personal well-being if cases continue to rise. Others could be faced with a balancing act of caring for the health of themselves and family members while keeping up with classes. While this article was written before the pandemic, we think that Kendall’s reflections on how to maintain your sanity and self-worth in times of struggle are relevant today. Yes, the struggle is real. We hope that you can give yourself some slack—we’re literally living through a chapter in a history book.
According to a quick Internet search, referencing “the struggle” became popular colloquially in 2014.
We talked about how “the struggle” was real. We claimed that we rode (or were run over by) the “struggle bus.” Some claimed citizenship in “Strugg City.” I became very comfortable joking about struggle, and I did so frequently. Almost everyone could identify with the common inconveniences of bad hair days, bum coffee machines, or assignment due dates looming dangerously near. We’d all experienced the same vexations, or knew that we would soon. On its face, “the struggle” is easy to understand. Common frustrations, disappointments, or fleeting annoyances bond us for a moment, but often extend no further than temporary circumstance.
However, despite this overall acceptance of “struggle,” real, genuine, substantive struggle has been purposely expunged from the conversation. The genuine struggles of 2014 still exist in 2017 – and yet, in an age in which most are willing to share their views on current events quite openly, the silence around substantive struggle remains the same. The big struggles – the consequential challenges, the fears and insecurities that deprive us of sleep – are often left unsaid, scribbled in a journal or confessed during a panicked phone call home.
In university settings at both the graduate and undergraduate level, the struggle is real. However, in most cases, it is the fear of the struggle that is truly crippling.
For students first entering a new academic setting, be it a new program or a new semester, exposure to students of comparable qualities, skill sets, and similar levels of success to their own is riveting, daunting, and, at times, intimidating. Excellence is no longer an anomaly. It is an assumption. My first year of law school, I quickly realized my campus awards, impressive internships, and perfect GPA did little to set me apart from my classmates – if anything, only having an undergraduate degree and limited work experience put me behind the majority of my class.
An identity crisis ensues for many high-achieving, well-intentioned students suddenly in company with their true peers. Previously held truths are stripped away, leaving the student disoriented and potentially disheartened. After years at the top, who are they once they are no longer the “smart kid” in the class? Who are they without the titles they proudly placed on the bottom of an email signature at a previous place of employment, or at a past educational institution? Who are they after the degrees and accolades to their names have been reduced to a line on a resume – and even then, what was once instantly impressive now needs context and explanation to have half of the meaning it once did?
The struggle is real. But owning and admitting the struggle is quietly forbidden and feared.
I live for the quiet conversations in the library late at night, or the fleeting moments in the hallway where the struggle can be voiced, accepted, and shared. My classmates and I express how we feel incompetent on a daily basis, and we often yearn for the day where we will at least be adequate at something. We confess how much energy we expend focusing on the strengths of our classmates as we desperately try to gauge our chances of success, and how truly, genuinely exhausting self-doubt can be. Maybe we’re hopeful for the next day or the next class—maybe we aren’t. It varies by the day. But, regardless, the genuine, authentic exchange of insecurities is refreshingly humbling and inherently human. Just as our skill sets are no longer overtly unique in this new environment, neither are our self-doubts.
Whether you are struggling now or will be struggling soon, there is comfort in common humanity. There is strength and power in vulnerability, and there is little shame in insecurity. From my experiences in higher education, I’ve observed that all students hope to prove to themselves and their peers that they are worthy of the seat they occupy in the classroom. But we are all worthy. Regardless of age or experience, we are all attempting to understand who we are and who we hope to become by the time we pursue the next opportunity and repeat the struggle again. It’s a vicious cycle, but growth and prosperity were not promised without frequent hardship and periodic triumph.
Beneath the thick reading glasses and obvious caffeine addictions, we are all hot messes holding up. Give yourself grace. Forgive yourself for your shortcomings, and find the inner courage to boldly fail and give it another go. Naming your struggle does not diminish your capabilities or potential for greatness; it reclaims your life from the confines of fear and enlist others in your fight against it. Besides the words “I love you,” I think we all yearn, more than anything, to hear “me too.” To be understood, to be validated, to have your feelings and your struggle vindicated by another person is a powerful thing. Sometimes, it is all the encouragement we need to persist.
And this applies to so much more than just higher education.
Struggle well. Embrace it as part of the process and as an opportunity to grow, and share in the struggle with others. Honor and admit the substantive struggle, and seek to move your conversations about “the struggle” beyond the weight of your backpack and the assignment that’s due in class next week. By investing in the power of vulnerability, we give others the awesome permission to do the same.
Your burdens are not yours alone to bear.