What I really learned in university
Web-only article from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 4 (3)
As a young child, I was terrorized by disaster scenarios running through my head—getting run over by a speeding truck Roadrunner-cartoon style, or peeing my pants in public. As a young teen, I was terrified by car travel and was forever stepping on invisible brakes in the passenger seat. Then, at 15, a real disaster happened—my mother moved away. Instead of falling apart, I sank into the arms of a boy in a higher grade and surrounded myself with beer bottles and bags of weed. Fortunately, by grade 12 the smoke had cleared—but much of my confidence had disappeared with it. I breezed through some of my classes and struggled through others. My teachers chalked it up to laziness, but in fact it was self-doubt and anxiety eating my insides.
By the time I started university, my anxiety levels were sky high. I didn’t think it was possible to add more reels of disaster footage to the library of it in my head. But I was wrong. Even before my first-term classes had started, I was plagued with horror scenarios—being laughed at in class for saying something stupid, messing up a major assignment, going blank during a final exam. Sometimes my fears came true. I’d try to contribute to class conversations in a meaningful way, but only managed to blurt out half-thoughts that left me red in the face and sweating under the arms.
At the time I didn’t clue in that my anxiety might actually be a problem that could be solved. (That realization wouldn’t happen until the eve of graduation.) I went through university thinking it was quite normal to be riddled with thoughts of impending doom. Wasn’t everyone worried that a nuclear war was about to begin? Surely others lost sleep over not knowing when the big earthquake would shake the west coast. Even Monday’s mid-term exam and Friday’s term paper deadline were worrisome in their own way.
I was convinced others felt this way too. But I never found out for sure because I never talked about it. Instead, I went into red-code panic mode and submerged myself in my studies. This gave temporary relief from the thoughts that threatened to overwhelm me.
Excess stress leads to success?
Looking back, I can see that some of my anxieties actually worked to my advantage academically. I was so convinced that I had to work twice as hard as my classmates just to get by that I developed air-tight study and time management skills.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to function if I left assignments to the last minute. So, I’d start working on term papers the day they were assigned and always finished my first drafts a week before they were due.
I’d start studying for exams weeks in advance. I’d mark up my calendar, devoting healthy chunks of time to each subject. I built myself study charts, diagrams, flash cards—whatever I could think of to help plant material so firmly in my brain that it couldn’t possibly escape on exam day.
Or does success mask stress?
By fourth year, it was clear to me that my slow-and-steady approach to studying was paying off—I had top marks in every class. Nevertheless, I still couldn’t bear to look at the grade on my essays or tests until I got home and could prepare myself mentally for the worst.
Somewhere deep inside I was convinced that the facade would fall and my unworthiness would be revealed. Disaster, I believed, was imminent. I couldn’t picture myself graduating. I could only see myself struggling. Falling. Crumbling under the weight of it all.
I did, indeed, crumble. But it wasn’t because of poor marks that I collapsed. It was because of a person. A professor.
In my third year, this professor had told me I had high marks because I took easy classes with easy markers. He said I was able to write well, but that didn’t mean what I was saying held any substance. He told me he could help me become an academic.
Hoping to prove to myself—and to my professor—that I could learn to compete alongside “real” students, I applied for the honours program.1 I knew being in the program would make my final year tougher. But, hey, I had my professor, my new mentor, to help me learn how to be a rigorous researcher and truly successful student.
Because I needed a lot of assistance to do a good job—or so I’d been told—I took both my tutorial classes with the professor who had ‘taken me under his wing.’
It was a mistake to have asked for that much one-on-one attention, especially from this professor. His area of specialization was different from the one I wanted to pursue in the long term. I had to change my honour’s thesis topic so it would be in line with his area of expertise. I had to study subjects and areas that didn’t interest me and that I had no background in. For the first time, I found myself chronically behind in my work, because I couldn’t truly understand the significance of the readings I was assigned.
Worst of all, my professor disagreed with my take on my thesis topic. The more I read, however, the more I felt convinced that I had a case to make. I thought it was possible to agree to disagree and still produce a tidy piece of work—after all, isn’t university all about defending and debating different positions? He, however, expected me to come over to his side of the fence.
The tension became unbearable and I worried that my professor was about to abandon me. He sensed my fear and let me know that there may be ways—sexual ways—of making him change his mind. We both knew my future rested in his hands: without a finished thesis, I wasn’t going to graduate.
He had asked me many times before why I was “holding back.” I thought he meant academically and could give no answer because I was trying my hardest to be ‘brilliant.’ But that day, when we stood in a crowded common area of the university looking as if we were having a normal professor–student conversation, I realized he meant something else. I had probably known it all along, but just didn’t want to face it.
The room spun. I knew I was in way over my head. And it was entirely my fault. I had let our student–professor relationship become too personal; the lines had blurred.
People talked. I knew what they were saying, but because I wasn’t having a romantic affair with him—I shrugged it off. If only they knew what was really going on. I wasn’t sleeping with my professor. The truth, to me, was so much worse. I was a failure. A fraud who would never be taken seriously.
As graduation day grew nearer, I still hadn’t won my professor’s support for my thesis, despite having worked on it for an entire year. I had handed in nine different versions, but with just one month before it was to be published, bound and placed on the shelf in the honour’s room with all the other theses, he still disapproved.
One Saturday in early spring, after spending eight hours trying to revise one paragraph, I fell apart. I lay in bed and shook uncontrollably for hours. My boyfriend wanted to take me to the hospital, but I wouldn’t let him. I was too embarrassed—about the mess I had gotten myself into, about not being able to finish my thesis, about not being able to graduate, about not being able to stop shaking. I thought about suicide. I thought I was finished.
Learning what and when to quit
I called my dad and told him I was quitting school. All he said was, “Okay. Why not take a vacation?”
I was shocked to hear his response. Looking back, though, I should’ve expected it. After all, one of his favourite sayings was: “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.” Still, I found it hard to believe he wasn’t embarrassed that his daughter couldn’t cut it. I’d been working on my degree for seven years. And in the end, I had failed, had quit, had done it all for nothing. How was this not the end of the world?
As I wrestled with this question, new ones emerged. Could it be that the end result—graduation—wasn’t the end all and be all of education? Or could it be that the situation wasn’t really a reflection of what I could or couldn’t do?
I started to consider that perhaps the problem wasn’t really about me after all. Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was the post-secondary system itself. Maybe, just maybe, the problem was my professor.
In the end, I didn’t quit university. I quit my professor. I arranged to finish my thesis with another professor, one who more or less shared my position (and who liked the first draft of my nine attempts at my thesis). A month later I graduated with first-class honours and two academic prizes.
Life 101: my real education begins
More importantly, I began to slowly overcome my anxieties. I started by reading self-help resources and confiding in my friends and family. I never officially sought professional mental health assistance, so I never received an official diagnosis. However, through self-tests in books and online, I discovered that I had walked around for decades wearing a cloak of sometimes-debilitating anxiety that I needn’t have worn.
I still have irrational fears and I still panic sometimes, but I now know that what’s in my imagination isn’t real unless I let it be real. More often than not, I’m able to talk myself out of my fears by simply sitting down and seriously questioning what’s really at the root of my problem.
I now understand, for example, that growing up in a house filled with suppressed tension and secrets created in me an ever-present feeling that my world was about to collapse. (My parents at last divorced when I was 15.) That feeling of unpredictability made me avoid or fear things I couldn’t possibly control, such as the weather or bad drivers or the whims of political leaders. Over time, I lost my confidence in being able to “control” or trust my own self—my academic abilities, my relationships, my gut instincts.
Understanding my triggers and their roots helped me very clearly establish the kind of home and work life I wanted to have. So far, things are working out as I had imagined. I have a husband, a beautiful six-year-old child and a job that involves helping other people struggling under the weight of anxiety and other mental health issues.
About the author
Tamsin works as a writer for a university-based research organization. She also freelance writes for various newspapers and magazines. She lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and daughter
- A typical honours program is a “practise” version of graduate school. To enter the honours BA program at my university, I needed to have a grade point average (GPA) of at least B+. To finish, I needed to take special courses reserved for honours students, complete a slightly different set of core courses from regular BA students, and complete an undergraduate thesis at least 50 pages long. To graduate with first-class honours, I had to have at least an A- GPA.