The sun sets and rises on Morningside Heights. The air grows frigid and then warms again, the Journalism School reflecting squares of light on Butler Library's windows as you sit behind them. Then suddenly, there's only weeks left, days left. Four years on this campus behind you before you've quite grasped the time's passing.
The four years contain in their small frame a profound amount of growth. Fears and anticipations that students carry with them as they begin college are inextricably linked to their expectations for the final moments of reflection near graduation: Looking back, will I have achieved what I want to achieve?
The burden of those fears of unfulfilled potential is often compounded by an awareness that a student may not have developed their goals in a meaningful, concrete way at the onset. Some first-years are weighed down by the knowledge that they don't know how to make those crucial initial decisions—selecting a major, pursuing career goals, or choosing a broader life philosophy.
Matt Munsil, a first-year at Columbia College, fears that at the end of his time at Columbia, he will not have gained clarity of purpose. "One of my greatest fears in life is being carried by some sort of tide," Munsil explains. "Drifting through four years and graduating and thinking, that was fun, but I don't know what I want to do now."
The fear that they won't find that kind of focus by the time they leave Columbia can be overwhelming for some students. Sophie Edelhart, a first-year at Barnard and the Jewish Theological Seminary, hopes to find it by the end of her senior year. She sees the classic linear path before her—job, family, kids—that she knows she could take, but she isn't certain she's ready to commit to such a path.
"I would consider failure to be me at the end of my four years with no more decisions made than now," Edelhart says. "Right now I'm not actually choosing between things—and I feel like I need to make choices eventually."
Whether students enter college undecided or committed to their major, their first formative experiences can feel like forbidding omens. At the beginning of college, a low grade in a class or a failed relationship may seem to be a harbinger of things to come or a reflection of a larger failing.
Yet as Columbia College senior Seun Omotunde describes, such weighty conceptions of the nature of failure sometimes change over the course of four years; successes and mistakes don't seem to negate one another so much as build off each other. Omotunde describes how his errors were crucial to his growth.
"Looking back, the mistakes I've made have definitely put me where I am right now," he says. "Even if maybe I would have done things differently, I don't think I would change anything now, because then I'd be in a different position. I'm pretty happy where I am."
But he wouldn't have been able to do it alone. There are a number of times in college during which we seem to get off track, where mistakes threaten to derail us. Omotunde believes that support systems are invaluable to getting back up from mistakes.
"I think that people here sometimes struggle to find support systems, whether that's friends or professors or in the administration," Omotunde muses, "but I think that's a major key in terms of being able to pick oneself back up after failure. To have people that will validate you, and say that you may have failed, but we've all failed, and have been in similar situations. To have people who will tell you that you're smart, you're good, you're talented."
Columbia College senior Noah Schoen explains how important such relationships have been in his time at Columbia.
"I'm lucky to have mentors and support systems who constantly push me to think about the bigger picture," Schoen says. "My advisor when I was struggling in college, he told me, 'Noah, don't worry about achievement, go take care of yourself.' That was an important message for me to hear."
The questions of self, place, and purpose that students wrestle with at times can provoke deep uncertainty and fear. Schoen recognizes the universality of such discomfort with the future.
"As young people, we've been told that so much is riding on us," Schoen explains. "There's lots of pressure from people, and so there's a way in which I think people turn too inwards here and grow anxious and don't want to sit with the discomfort of being young and unsure. They feel they need to get a job, find something that's going to make them a living."
The anxiety that such an unknown factor induces is a consistent presence in life on campus from the first year through graduation, and even beyond. Students begin to fixate on whether they will succeed at providing for themselves after school ends.
Munsil describes this struggle as a battle between "the fear of financial danger versus the desire to do something incredible." Fears of the future, despite the gravitas of one's ambitions, are persistently tied in with the worry about financial security. Schoen agrees that "this is a story about money, in a lot of ways."
Whether students seek to maintain the lifestyle they knew growing up or to attain a level of material prosperity they have not had before, money remains a dogged concern. "For most people, that fear eventually wins out," Munsil says. "For me, that would be failure."
Schoen acknowledges that realistically, students have to be concerned with their future income prospects. "But it also gets at this question, how much money do you need?" he asks. "Is anyone really asking that question out loud? I haven't heard it."
When searching for clarity or direction in college, money and financial security often haunt the edges of the picture. Omotunde believes that one doesn't have to compromise their passions to be successful.
"People have to come to terms with not only recognizing their passions, but having follow-through," Omotunde observes. "If you don't have follow-through, you might think that your passion's just a hobby, but I really believe that you can find that passion that can lead to a job."
The ultimate meaning of success, though many people share components of it, is formulated individually. "You have to figure out your own definition," Haley Sellers, a Columbia College senior says. She explains how her understanding of success and failure has evolved over the past four years.
"Gradually, I started to learn that it's because of failures that you become successful, depending on how you handle them," Sellers explains. "That's a big thing that I've only recently stumbled upon last semester of junior year. I had based a lot of my concepts of success on how other people had defined them."
The ideals of certain generations—of our parents and of our peers—also shape our conceptions of success and failure, sometimes in terms of climbing a more conventional ladder to prosperity after college. Edelhart finds that "entrenched in youthful idealism is this idea of breaking the mold," but she doesn't believe that this ideal remains steady as people age.
"So many people settle down, have a job and a family in order, and there's a reason people do that," Edelhart muses. "It's not just stability and security, I think people gain a lot of pleasure from that. But it feels easy. And I think that's what feels off to me—it seems too easy to just go that way."
In some ways, college is the time to do what is difficult: to push the boundaries of our understanding and conceived ability because we have the room to do so. Yet that room isn't infinite, and the strain of the future presses upon us even from our first year of college, along with sometimes immense pressure not to fail.
Saba Askari, a junior at Columbia College, feels the threat of failure at the crossroads she is currently confronting.
"A lot of how I think of failure is whether or not my parents think I'm a failure," Askari acknowledges. "I haven't defined those terms on my own very solidly yet."
As an art major, Askari finds that the act of creating brings her happiness, and it has helped her out of a period of depression. She is torn between pursuing the fine arts and following a path that will provide financial stability that she is used to.
At this point, Askari knows who she is as a person, and she has come to a sort of emotional understanding about what she would like to do. "I have a feeling like I know what path is the better option, because I know that I like making things," she says. Yet her choice, however personal, doesn't affect just her own life.
"I just want my parents to be happy for me, and I don't know how to do that yet," she says. In every choice we make, with its risk for failure, however that's defined, there are always others involved who shape our decisions—and who at times are vital in facilitating our ability to choose.
With such intense pressure, sometimes it feels easier to sink than to float. Sellers found that one surprising expression of validation from a professor made her realize that she'd found it hard to try because she believed that she had already failed.
Her new concept of success began with a religion seminar, where the weekly assignment was to write journal entries about the texts they were reading. Each week, a randomly selected person would have to instruct the class. Sellers, one of the few undergraduate students in the class and one of the only pupils the professor didn't know, felt distinctly out of place: a sentiment that only worsened when her name was the first to be called to discuss a Søren Kierkegaard reading that she'd found hard to understand.
"When he called on me," Sellers recounts, "I was just sitting there, looking up at him and saying, 'I think I did the assignment wrong.' And he goes, 'OK, and do you have anything?' I remember panicking and reading what I had. And he looked at me and furrowed his brow and said OK, and then moved on to other people." That afternoon, Sellers considered dropping the class, feeling that she'd begun the semester hopelessly on the wrong foot.
"But then I got an email from him," she recounts. "It told me, 'Good job in class today.' I'd never gotten such an email before, and I decided I would stay in the class." Though Sellers still felt like she had failed in the beginning, she was motivated to keep trying. The term paper deadline loomed, a massive 30-page assignment that felt to her like pulling teeth. She picked a book of poems by Anne Sexton, The Awful Rowing Towards God, and matched it with the dreaded Kierkegaard of the first day.
"I needed to tackle it and show him that I did try," Sellers explains. "I remember a day later getting an email back that read, 'This is why I sent you the email the first day that you did a great job. I knew you could do this.'"
Her professor had written his first book on Kierkegaard, on the same text they read that day. "He told me I had put [Kierkegaard] in a light he had never seen before," Sellers says. "He said, 'I just want you to know, don't doubt yourself, even when you feel like you're doing the wrong thing. Always say it, let someone hear it.' It was very profound."
After that experience, Sellers' attitude markedly shifted. "I've started to look at things with a different mentality," she says. She's now focused on taking advantage of every opportunity possible during her last year. That means being cognizant of the wealth of relationships that a student at Columbia can develop and nurture—academic, professional, and personal.
Schoen sees the relationships he has formed at Columbia as not only instrumental to his growth, but also the reason why he doesn't believe that he has ever failed throughout his struggles.
"When you isolate yourself and start defining success in narrow terms outside the scope of people, you lose sight," Schoen says. "Because you really can't do it without the love and support of other people. So to me, even if I haven't always succeeded in my goals, or struggled, keeping my relationships front and center has centered me. I would say that's the number one reason why I don't feel like a failure at all."