Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Think back to the admissions packet you received before going off to your university, a shiny folder with your new home’s colors and letters embossed on it. A letter sat inside the folder, telling you to prepare for the best four years of your life at X University.
For some of us, that prophecy didn’t hold true. We watched as everyone else seemed to fall in love with the place around them while we felt confused, regretful, and depressed. I spent a year in this state, trying to hide it from my peers but often times failing. The third time I called my mom crying and pleading to withdraw, I followed suit.
When I arrived at UW a semester removed from my prior institution, I was afraid the depression wan’t from my former environment and would carry over to Wisconsin. Finding success on campus didn’t seem likely for spring transfers anyway, most of the involvement employees seemed thrilled any time a transfer mentioned having “a friend.” If I couldn’t fit in with one crowd, I worried, what would make me fit in with this new one?
Students are expected more than ever to plan their journeys formulaically. Internships are given readily to high school students, rush events begin days before classes start, popularity can be determined by what one posts on their admitted students Facebook group. By transferring, I was defying the expectations set for me, breaking the structured plan.
It was clear I was not alone. At orientation, a blunt acknowledgement from one girl of her lack of friends in Madison made my dilemma non-isolated. Many there had similar demons, I realized, yet none of us wanted to admit it.
Bonding with this girl gave me assurance that transferring would give me, and everyone else, a needed fresh start. My dorm’s kitchen, a feature absent at my small liberal arts college, provided a breeding ground for late night bonding between new classmates. Perhaps most importantly, I found a friend in these adventures who led me to the spot on campus which I could eventually call home — The Badger Herald‘s office. After all, I had no clue how to get involved in student publications at my old school, nevertheless feel like I had enough of a voice to write something others would want to read.
I was surprised to find success in that office, in my personal relationships and on my transcript. The script wasn’t written for someone like me, and the negative emotions transferred with me after freshman year at first seemed like too much of a setback to overcome.
Even after a year, there are still occasions when I feel anxious about the choices I make on my new campus. I worry about whether I should raise my hand in class and contribute when I fear I might become the same stereotype I became my freshman year. I’m genuinely surprised whenever I feel included in a campus activity or praised in a social group. I wait just a little bit before I start talking to the stranger next to me in lecture, worried they might instantly hate me when I open my mouth.
Still, I know I’m not alone in this experience. As I sat behind a panel answering questions for newly minted transfer students, I was happy in a way to hear they also worried primarily about finding their home away from classes on UW’s campus. I could almost feel the same stress over fitting in each student had when they spoke that I had when I arrived. Of course I wanted to say everything would be amazing and like a dream, but I couldn’t. I still sit here wondering how my career in college would have been different if I had started at UW without the demons of my freshman year. Perhaps I would have gotten a research position, applied for admission to the journalism school, joined greek life. I’ll never really be able to tell someone the traditional UW experience because I didn’t get to see all of it.
Regardless of those doubts, I do know transferring made my mental health revive. That alone makes everything else twisted into it worth it. I hope I’m not alone in that as well.
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