I think it’s safe to say that when you attend a school like Columbia, everyone expects you to be extraordinary. Your family, your friends, your high school, even your Columbia peers and professors. I look around and I find myself surrounded by so many outstanding people: students who have done more in the span of their four-year high school career than others have done in 15; professors who are pushing the boundaries of science, challenging the interpretation of identity, and dissecting the meaning of age-old and contemporary pieces of literature alike.
If nothing else, the Admissions statement makes clear Columbia’s “commitment to attract and engage the best minds in pursuit of greater human understanding, pioneering new discoveries, and service to society.” A Columbia news article consists entirely of a nine-question Buzzfeed-style quiz to reveal “Which Famous Columbian” you are. Google “Barnard College” and under the blue link is a tagline that reads: “Since 1889, Barnard has emboldened exceptionally curious and driven women to become leaders and innovators.” The home page of Barnard’s website touts Zora Neale Hurston, class of ’28, as a “Trailblazer” in big, bright letters. Scroll a little further down and you’ll quickly learn that “Award-Winning Nonprofit Media Executive and Anchor Maria Hinojosa ’84 Joins Barnard College As Inaugural Journalist-in-Residence.”
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Columbia and Barnard advertising their graduates’ world-changing achievements. They’ve got a lot to be proud of. Plus, I can’t (and won’t) deny that my attendance at this school does fill me with pride, and I’d be lying if I claimed there was no voice in my head saying, “Look at me, I swear to God I’m going to change the world one day, because I wouldn’t be here if Barnard didn’t think I’d do so.”
It’s just that sometimes… I don’t feel like changing the world. And the initial voice in my head—the one birthed from fire and made of ambition and driven by passion, the very voice that got me accepted to Barnard—tells me that she’s tired and that she wants to sit this round out.
And a different voice, this one harsher and more aggressive and with an edge as sharp as a dagger, slices through the silence of my first voice’s slumber. It threatens me with a pointed, “You’d better prove them right.”
In America, a nation where the fabled “American Dream” is built on a foundation of capitalism and in which elitism counts for far more than most would like to admit, Columbia is the keeper of a positive feedback loop that primes its students for alleged greatness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into class on the first day and heard, “But you’re not just anybody, you’re a Columbia student.” This school proceeds to feast on the achievements of its graduates as if they were currency, a loop that encourages stress culture and that directly exploits the impostor syndrome that plagues too many of its students.
I, personally, am constantly plagued by the paranoiac idea that if I’m not doing something directly related to my coursework, I am not being productive. It doesn’t matter if I’m cleaning my room, or completing extracurricular commitments, or even working a literal job—if I am not doing homework, I feel like I’m being utterly unproductive, and that my time could be better spent studying.
I know it’s not healthy. It’s the exact opposite, actually. Half of the insane balancing act that we have to do to live life as well-adjusted people is self-care. And guess what? Part of self-care is admitting to yourself when school is too much, when you’ve overloaded yourself as a result of the unreachable standards imposed on you, and when you just need to take a fucking nap.
During my time at school, I don’t want to have to go into every single thing I do with the intention of changing the world, or of changing people’s minds, or of causing waves in the campus political sphere.
Don’t get me wrong; I love how driven Columbia students are. I feel such gratitude for my peers who yearn to learn more, to see further, and to understand deeper—these are the people I always wanted to find myself surrounded by. But the prospect of living a life in which I have to prove myself every day and through every action I take sounds exhausting. Shouldn’t I be allowed to take a break? After all, the weight of the world is not on each of our shoulders individually. I don’t have to change this world alone, and I don’t have to change it with every single action I take, either.
In my creative writing courses, I’ve learned that intentions can be at any magnitude, from great and complex to small and simple. I could tell a story—ignited by the ambitious, passionate voice in my head—with the intention of igniting that same voice in others, and that is enough. Or, I can tell a story for nothing more than the sake of telling that story… and that is enough, too.
Kalena Chiu is a senior at Barnard studying English and concentrating in creative writing. She once dated a boy who told her that “artist intention doesn’t matter”—they broke up. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please Remove Your Shoes runs alternate Wednesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.