It is surprisingly easy to take on unreasonable burdens here. New responsibilities are never in short supply; with so many opportunities, we end up feeling compelled to join and contribute to every academic, activist, political, and professional club that reflects our passions and interests. Some of these responsibilities can simply keep us connected to hobbies we’ve maintained since childhood, while others can represent a commitment to something much larger than ourselves.
Most of the responsibilities I chose to take on at Columbia came as a direct consequence of our current political climate. Directly preceding my first year at Columbia was the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, anti-affirmative action measures from the Department of Justice, and the release of the Google Memo. As a Mexican-American, I felt responsible for convincing my peers that immigrants don’t jeopardize the values and integrity of the United States, that minority representation in higher-level academic institutions is important, and that women aren’t pre-destined by their biology to perform poorly in STEM fields. The responsibility to prove these things was always front and center in my mind—a factor holding the heaviest weight in the balance scale of my decisions.
During my first year, I tried to check off all those boxes. I stood outside Lerner and protested CUCR inviting Mike Cernovich, a self-proclaimed white nationalist, to campus last fall. I joined the professional organizations of Hispanic and women engineers, among others that were emblematic of the truths I was trying to prove.
This responsibility—this burden to constantly prove my own worth—soon wormed its way into every aspect of my life from the calculated way I asked questions in massive lectures to the vernacular I avoided using when meeting new people.
When I succeeded, I felt like I was debunking the belittling caricature that ignorant people expected me to be, but when I failed, I felt that I was physical evidence for the merits of their low expectations. Taking on this duty made me feel failure on a whole different level. I felt that any subpar performance meant I did not deserve to be here. Convincing myself that I could be contributing to the problem devastated me—at my lowest points, it seemed that I was trying to put out a fire that I was re-lighting through my own shortcomings.
As the year progressed, I began to see the emotional cost of carrying these massive responsibilities all on my own. In phone calls home, my mom tried to reassure me that a low grade on a test didn’t mean I was letting down my people, which, through the lens of responsibility that I’d adopted, felt bizarre and untrue. I would tire myself out calculating the wording of every question in every lecture or discussion section. The pervading nature of this responsibility felt suffocating. There was an unattainable standard of how I felt I should act, and it was impeding my happiness. I knew I had to readjust the way I approached the responsibilities that I had taken up.
With time, I’ve learned that it is much easier to carry this responsibility alongside other people who are also passionate about proving the same truths. There are so many of us who feel the same urgency to represent the best of our communities, especially when our communities are threatened. Realizing that I had compatriots comforted me, but I was also saddened that so many others carried that all-consuming burden.
Working alongside other students that feel an equal responsibility and burden to represent their community in an empowering way has been a more effective approach to representation that can cause real, tangible change. Witnessing the urgency that other students felt in conducting meaningful community outreach and executing events with inspiring guests gave me hope for what a collective group of people with so much to prove can achieve.
This was definitely the case for my work with CUvotes, a student-run organization founded to increase voter participation for students on campus. Many of its members were women who were passionate about increasing voter turnout among other young college women due to both their unique perspective on and personal stake in the issues and candidates of last week’s midterm elections. Being around other people who felt like there were urgent goals to meet and narratives to prove made my burden so much easier to carry.
For so long, this burden convinced me that there was a tangible and achievable end goal I could accomplish. I naively thought I could disprove disempowering narratives all on my own. I thought there were specific boxes I could check, and then in one fell swoop my worthiness to be here would be validated and the ignorant perspectives I was fighting against would disappear for eternity. The burden of representation is fatiguing and incessant, so find people to fight alongside you—it’s going to be a long ride.
Maria Castillo is a sophomore in SEAS studying environmental engineering and minoring in political science. She’s still starstruck from seeing Nate Silver unpack the midterm elections in Casa Italiana on Thursday. If you want to console her over Beto’s loss (Ted’s Win), reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tex-Mex Near You runs alternate Mondays.