Before I even enter the lecture hall, I'm met with a mass of students with notebooks and lecture notes balanced on their arms. They pore over figures they've attempted to memorize for weeks and calculations they could type into their calculators with their eyes closed. They are frantic to cram every last bit of data possible into their brains.
I stand alone towards the back of the group. I carry only two pencils and a calculator. I begin to question my preparedness.
As we march into the lofty lecture hall, the head of the department barks instructions. As if students were not nervous enough, we do not even start on time because the department head has to go over all of the exam rules. Finally, we begin, filling in 25 circles that will determine 25 percent of our grades. I watch my hand shake as lead scratches the first page of the test.
The word "midterm" alone is enough to invoke stress in most students without even considering the hard-and-fast procedures of test day. Regardless, coming from an underfunded and underperforming high school just outside of Chicago, I wasn't sure what to expect from my first midterm in a class full of cutthroat premeds. In high school, testing had never been something I feared. I was not competing against my peers for a spot at the top end of the curve. I was close with my teachers, which made it easy to walk into the classroom at any point and address any issues with the material. Thus, I was confident in my abilities and supported by my teachers. The intimate classrooms of high school forced me to take pride in my work, and I saw tests as an opportunity to prove to my teachers that I had not taken their time for granted.
Here at Columbia, however, there is no sense of connectivity during testing season. Rather, students are locked into their own bubbles of stress and intimidation. I am taught to treat the student seated next to me on test day as a rival, rather than another first-year blitzed on nerves, because they pose a threat to my potential spot at the top end of the curve. Furthermore, office hours are intimidating, and students buzz about afterwards snickering about questions they deem "too stupid for a Columbia student." Scantrons are spit out by machines in less time than it takes to fill in the first bubble on the sheet. If I walked up to my professor today, two months into the semester, he wouldn't know my name. I don't think he would know I was even taking his class.
While I had convinced myself that this difference in test day format was just another factor to be adjusted to in college, I am realizing how harmful this adjustment has been. It has become increasingly difficult to feel confident in my abilities. The curve looms over my head while I'm studying, convincing me that no matter how well I understand the material, I cannot measure up to the prep school graduates of Exeter and St. Andrew's in the room. I feel unsupported and unable to prove myself to the bubble sheet in front of me. Testing season has left me feeling so nervous and unprepared that I often psych myself out before I even enter the testing room.
Adding to this sense of a one-man battle are the interactions between students in the same class. In high school, students united under the opportunity to learn more together. Entire classes would meet up at local libraries, hold study groups with the teacher, or collaborate on study guides for everyone to share. At Columbia, however, students appear more apprehensive to admit they do not understand the material. As students discuss their advanced knowledge of subjects, others shrink back and wonder about their place on the curve, or worse, at this University.
After my exam, I walk down Low Steps remembering the glossy poster I received in my acceptance package. Once a visualization of the spoils of years of work, it now reminds me of how out of place I've felt all semester. I think, "I shouldn't be here." I ignore my accumulating texts and FaceTime my mom, finally admitting this sentiment aloud. Her face communicates her concern. She asks if I think I can handle the pressure of this school. I start crying immediately.
During the remainder of the conversation, I realize that midterm season has magnified all of my concerns about attending Columbia. I do not feel I have been put on a level playing field; instead, I feel that the difference between myself and more privileged students are all the more present.
I do realize my greatest hurdle is coping with the intensity of student culture at Columbia. As such, it's worth reminding myself that more privileged students have had to face this stressful culture much sooner than I was forced to. I remember that while it may not get easier academically, I will be better prepared to face challenges with every moment I work through at this school. This moment, however impossible it may seem, is singular and passing.
While the fear accompanying midterms may seem like the smoke and mirrors of the system, it's still harmful for students. Columbia's weed-out culture makes students entering this University from lesser-tier high schools feel even less prepared during their transition. The people who harbor the most fear during midterm season are the low-income, first-generation students who are desperately in need of the most support. Although this high-strung image is iconic of the Ivy League, it is important for students, professors, and administrators alike to step back and reassess their role in making academia accessible to and accepting of all backgrounds.
Alexa Roman is a Columbia College first-year studying English.
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