After admission to this great university, you walk through those looming iron gates, establishing your personal residence on an island of academia. In the foreground, Butler Library asks you to choose from the wealth of knowledge it contains: Homer? Plato? Vergil? From which (old, white, and male) philosophical perspective will you construct your opinions—that is, until you discover a flirtier, more intersectional lens (read: bell hooks)?
As students are confronted continuously with these decisions, impostor syndrome inevitably arises from a constant flurry of unresolved thoughts. Indecision festers and builds through the life-determining moments they face. Our brains attempt to solidify abstract value systems and grasp at a consistent personal identity for ourselves. While we are told to choose a perspective, a major, extracurriculars, and an internship, we hope that overflowing résumés construct a future path to employment but forget that we exist in the present.
As if to emphasize the looming and uncertain future, the skyline of New York City rises and falls in the background, hinting at the sea of culture and history that surrounds you. What will happen once you re-enter the world? With any luck, you’ll be somewhat smarter and only a little less sure of yourself. You’ll float into a life of success as if it’s inevitable, and begin the future that defined your undergraduate self.
Immersed in a campus culture of required excellence, our identities are not only formed during the undergraduate period. In reality, we use the undergraduate period to define our goals after graduation. Our present identities, then, are constructed to live into an imagined future. In fact, our enacted undergraduate identities are then ultimately restricted by this future. The present self, then, simply becomes a predecessor for following a future path. Consider your own introduction, which probably sounds something like mine:
“Hi, I’m Natalia. I’m a junior double majoring in neuroscience and English.”
At the beginning of our relationships, our names are usually linked to a preordained track through this campus. Our fates are predetermined, so our present selves are forced in line with our supposed futures. However, at the same time, we must integrate this heavy-handed, life-determining description of professionalism with a perfectly pop-cultured college student aesthetic. My own confusing identity as defined by two seemingly opposing majors must be perceived by others through the lens of the present:
“I mean, weird flex, but OK.”
We are constantly attempting to reconcile a pressure to live up to our imagined futures with a pressure to live in the unknown, changeable present. We’re high-strung overachievers with solidified, unique identities and interests mapped out by the time we submit our Common Applications. We’re asked to explore a new diversity of perspectives during our time here, while simultaneously living a predestined future. Then we’re constantly reminded to be chill about it.
Most days last semester, as I walked the brick-paved pathway between Pupin Laboratory and Philosophy Hall, I tried to judge the choices I’d made in the fading rays of the four o’clock sun. I’d consider my double major as a marriage of two things I love. I’m told it gives me plenty of choices after graduation, so I must be a Very Smart Girl.
Then, I’d question how Very Smart I am, given that choice itself is a paradox. Thinking about the multifaceted nature of this paradox in each of these moments, my brain bounces back and forth between Barry Schwartz and Brecht. I don’t know who my future self is, so I can’t know who my present self is. I also can’t live in the present, because I’m consistently defined by my future. The academic and cultural worlds held within this campus are vast and eternal. I am just double majoring in neuroscience and English and becoming totally incapable of relaxing.
It’s a difficult problem to confront because, at Columbia, this paralyzing, endless array of choices effectively informs a special kind of privilege. We are lucky because we have the intellectual space to explore unknown futures and decide between them. This education allows us to define ourselves. Students are given a wealth of knowledge and asked to propose our own path based on it. Of course, this path must be both impressive and unique. Simultaneously, we must inform our futures, be informed by our pasts, and live as our present selves.
The author is a junior in Barnard College who double majors in neuroscience and English, if you haven’t heard. She couldn’t even decide what to write for this byline but would love to hear your thoughts on indecision at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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