Excellence. It’s a standard that very well may be the heartbeat of this campus. It looms over everything we do, from class projects and exams to student clubs and social events. Without fail, we seem to incessantly link our worth as human beings to the caliber of our accomplishments.
As a board member of Columbia’s National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter, a pre-professional and community outreach club for students of color, this is a dynamic I’ve become acquainted with all too well. Our organization’s mission concerns an area where many of our members feel the most intense pressure to succeed: career. The bar for securing an internship at a “top” company is high, and the process of clearing it can feel well-nigh impossible. For many students of color, this pressure may also be negatively intensified by a strong sense of impostor syndrome and (if pursued in an unhealthy way) a desire to “represent” and give back to our communities. Thus, for many of us here at NSBE (and Columbia at large), excellence isn’t just something we want to be known for, it’s something we strive to embody.
And what does this pursuit bring us? Recognition, high salaries, prestige, and a sense of control, yes. But all too often, at least on this campus, it also seems to bring isolation, depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. Why is this the case, though? Are these simply the inevitable side effects of a campus dominated by perfectionism?
At the end of the day, I can’t claim to know the answer to these questions any more than the next person. I’m still trying to figure it all out. Through my experience with NSBE, however, I have become more and more convinced of something that’s helped me begin to process it all: Excellence pursued in isolation is dangerous.
Yes, not just sad or less-than-ideal, but dangerous. It becomes a zero-sum game. When the focus of my life becomes the pursuit of my personal excellence, everything I encounter is either an opportunity or an obstacle. My peers are only worth my time when they fall into the “opportunity” category. Their role in my life is always subject to change. As a result, I can never fully trust them, and I shoulder the burden of my pursuit alone.
Isolation is a tendency that may seem harmless at first glance. At worst, on a day-to-day basis, it’s often more than frustrating. I can’t tell you how many times I (and countless people I know) have made plans with friends only to cancel them at the last minute because everyone has a paper to write, or how many times I’ve seen only 10 people come to an NSBE self-care event, when 50 will fill the room at a workshop we host with Google. These scenarios all illustrate a campus culture that values personal achievement over almost everything else. By participating in this culture, we only serve to further isolate ourselves. What happens, then, when one of us experiences severe depression, sexual assault, financial hardship, or family issues back home? Will we have people we can turn to, who will care for us regardless of whether or not it interferes with their pursuit of excellence?
The times I have seen NSBE thrive the most—when our members felt supported and empowered, when we consistently experienced high attendance, when our members achieved their goals while staying emotionally healthy—have always been accompanied by a pursuit of excellence in community, not isolation.
In practice, this often means putting the interests of our NSBE family before, or at least on par with, our own. It means being part of something bigger than ourselves. It means desiring something beyond our own personal success and working to make that a reality. It means I shoulder some of your burdens, while also allowing you to help me carry mine. It means recognizing that our worth is not merely tied to what we can produce, but to our humanity, humanity we share with our community.
Now, I don’t for a second think that this is an easy fix to the issues we see on campus. Community is costly. It requires sacrifice. It means that I must wake up every day in an environment that rewards the selfish pursuit of excellence and actively commit myself to the well-being of others in addition to my own. That’s hard. Really hard. And it only addresses one aspect of a campus culture that is too often suffocating and toxic. But I believe that it’s a sacrifice worth pursuing, for the sake of ourselves and the people we care about. At NSBE, it’s something we’ll continue to strive for and explore.
We’re confident that it’s a necessary step towards helping the students of color we support, and by extension all of campus, thrive.
The author is a junior at SEAS studying industrial engineering and operations research.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.