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Viewpoint: An impostor no longer

I didn’t love my time at Carleton, but I love Carleton. Let me explain. 

It took a while for me to get my bearings at Carleton, and an even longer time for me to accept that there’s no need to either love or hate our school—the gray area in between is just fine. If anything, I’m deeply grateful that I had the opportunity to study at a college that cherishes learning for learning’s sake above all else.

I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else. Being a Carl is core to my identity. But it took me a long time to reach this point. 

I’ll never forget one of Carleton’s outdated admissions brochures: in a nod to the benefits of the trimester system (one extra class each year!), the brochure showed one alumna’s entire academic schedule, from freshman fall to senior spring. Three classes each term, varied across disciplines and anchored in a single major. I initially thought I would follow a similar trajectory. Then I met Carleton rigor. 

I struggled with the adjustment to Carleton’s academic expectations. This school is intense, to put it lightly. I late-dropped not one, but two classes in my first year—yes, you heard that right. I felt so much shame at the time, but I was genuinely at risk of failing Ancient Greek and microeconomics. I took winter term off my sophomore year to take care of my mental health. These experiences were not part of the brochure-perfect college experience I thought I’d be getting. But I’m also human. 

Rigor and mental health are, of course, not unrelated. 

Talking about (or worse, questioning) academic rigor at Carleton is frowned upon. We’re here for the world-class education, right? Stop complaining and toughen up. That’s the impression I often felt when I tried to broach the topic with peers and professors alike. In an age in which college students are branded as “snowflakes,” the last thing I wanted was to be looked down upon for seemingly not having the resolve to tackle the workload.

But not only does the workload at Carleton frequently feel insurmountable, it’s also constrained by the pressures of a ten-week academic term, in which there’s no easing-in period, save for the first day of classes. There’s barely time to question one’s schedule and thoughtfully rearrange courses without falling terribly behind. And once you fall behind at Carleton, trying to catch up is a nightmare. What particularly worries me, though, is that my own trepidation in speaking candidly about Carleton’s academic intensity is undoubtedly a reflection of the impostor syndrome that this college fosters.

At Carleton College, it’s so easy to feel like you’re not capable of keeping up with the excellence that surrounds you, and, as a result, that maybe Admissions made a mistake. Nothing feels worse than disappointing your professors, and a lot of professors here make it easy for you to feel like you’ve disappointed them. That was my experience, at least, in countless courses and departments. Sometimes, all it took was asking for extensions to set my professors off, leading them to sternly warn me about the prospect of never catching up and possibly failing. Other times, disappointment felt more overt: for instance, before I dropped microeconomics my freshman spring, my professor, who had taught me in a Carleton Summer Academic Program, told me, “you’re not the Ross that I remember,” when I got the wrong answer on a practice problem on the chalkboard in his office. Imagine being a college freshman and hearing that. 

Oftentimes, I felt alone in my struggles. Interactions with professors, like the ones I mentioned, led me to believe that I couldn’t handle Carleton. That I was the problem. Carleton presents itself as an academic oasis, where students effortlessly learn challenging material, produce world-class research, and remain involved in extracurriculars to boot. It is also a campus where, according to the 2017 Healthy Minds Study, 25 percent of students screened positive for depression, 22 percent screened positive for anxiety, 24 percent screened positive for disordered eating, 14 percent experienced suicidal thoughts, and 29 percent of students engaged in non-suicidal self-injury. Evidently, I am not alone, and it is not just a shame, but an abject failure in community-building that so many Carls suffer in silence. 

Mental health at Carleton feels like an afterthought, unless a tragic and public-facing event throws the college’s mental health pitfalls into plain sight. I was startled, to say the least, when there were two student suicides my freshman year. I felt that the administration’s response was severely lacking. The candlelit vigils were important and necessary, but from a policy and communications perspective, I saw nothing change. I had heard rumblings about the Carleton Phoenix Project, a Division of Student Life initiative in which students, faculty, and staff would share videos about times they experienced and grew from moments of failure in college, but that never really took off. All we have are occasional visits from therapy dogs, overbooked SHAC counselors, and a culture of binge-drinking at lackluster parties that end up getting shut down by Campus Security. The image of Carleton perfection, meanwhile, remains intact.

Carleton further overlooks students’ mental health in its callous, empty, and frankly discriminatory responses to acts of violence, near and far, against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. One might think, or at least hope, that the combination of a ravenous global pandemic and state-sanctioned murders of Black people would warrant top-down leadership from the outset. But President Poskanzer’s two email communications to the Carleton community only showed that he is willing to say very little with a lot of words. Deans were notably silent as well, leaving efforts to press for compassion and accommodations on the backs of students and select faculty members. And when one Black student posted in Overheard at Carleton about her harrowing experience getting totally dismissed by a tenured professor, simply because she expressed that she was disheartened by her department’s silence, she was met with a pathetic, face-saving excuse of an apology. I can’t claim to imagine how detrimental behaviors like these are to the mental health of my BIPOC peers, but as a member of the Carleton community, what I can say is that the college’s routinized practices of silence and insidious aggression are not only deafening, but are offensive and discriminatory.

Moreover, when higher education consulting firm Keeling & Associates came to campus last spring to conduct a review of student health and wellness supports, I volunteered to participate in a student panel that left me and my peers in tears—yet the firm’s findings, which were supposedly delivered to the college in a report last fall, remain sealed within the administration. Cordoning off information like this only perpetuates the harmful image of the perfect Carleton student. I firmly believe that Carleton can and should do better on this front. 

Even though the college has plenty of room for improvement, I also want to note that I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for the moments of failure, joined with moments of success, that I experienced while at Carleton. Yes, the work is really hard, and sometimes filled me with agony, but in hindsight, I’m all the better for it.

My time management skills grew from mediocre to awesome. I tried to build my own major, and while that flopped, I ultimately found an academic home within Sociology and Anthropology. I studied abroad, and while my experience at a Buddhist monastery in northeastern India was chaotic, it was also life-changing.

I also found journalism at a school that has no formal journalism program, just The Carletonian. And, reader, I married it. I grew from a fledgling contributing writer my freshman fall to a News Editor by freshman spring. I became an Editor-in-Chief my junior winter and spring, and won a national award for my work. And with four years of guidance from the Career Center, I landed several awesome internships, and ultimately, my dream job as a reporter. 

I learned a lot at Carleton. I developed an appreciation for the ways in which art and literature create and challenge culture. I learned how to interpret data and question methodologies and assumptions. I learned that correlation does not imply causation, and that the phenomena we take for granted have been socially constructed over time. I learned about the importance, and limits, of objectivity in scientific inquiry. I learned how to ask questions, do research, and make the most of a library. I learned how to thoughtfully converse, debate, and write. But most importantly, Carleton taught me that if you reach for the moon and only land among the stars, that’s still quite a feat. 

I want to conclude with a memory that I’ll never forget. Late into my junior spring, I had a lousy excuse for missing one of the class sessions for the methods course for my major. Any Carl knows that missing class certainly doesn’t go unnoticed here, and methods courses are particularly important. My professor asked me to meet her after class for a chat. She was not thrilled. But instead of knocking me down, this professor built me up.

We went for a walk by Lyman Lakes and opened up to one another about our vulnerabilities. She taught me that just showing up is 90 percent of the battle. She taught me that what I thought were my greatest weaknesses were my greatest strengths—secret weapons that would allow me to see the world uniquely and be an even better scholar. I had never felt so motivated by someone before. I worked my tail off on the final for that class and for a subsequent class with her, and she eventually became my Comps adviser, and hopefully a friend for life.

I am not the same person I was in September 2016, when I showed up to Myers 337 with two duffel bags. Carleton was far from easy, but I got the education of my wildest dreams, and no one can ever take that away from me.

These were not the best four years of my life. But you know what? That’s perfectly okay. If anything, the best is yet to come, and my Carleton education will have prepared me to make the most of it. 

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