We’ve all experienced it — the nervousness and constant self-deliberation. Do I sit next to that cute girl or boy in lecture? Do I introduce myself before the professor begins her spiel or after? Should I gel my hair on the first day? Jeans or sweatpants? These are the constant questions that many college students (including myself) ask themselves before the first day of classes.
I, however, must also deal with a different anxiety — I stutter. And while it’s not a major barrier in my speaking skills, whenever I find myself nervous, I stutter significantly more. It’s just a fact that I’ve noticed, and there’s little I can do to stop it. It’s unfortunate, and I hate it.
In high school it was easier, because I generally had classes with the same kids. Thus, I felt comfortable speaking in class and seldom worried about participating in discussions. In college, however, it has proven more challenging. Each of my courses comes with a new set of peers to learn and engage with. As a result, the first days of class are the most difficult for me. Not only am I forced to decide where to sit and who to sit next to, but I am also determined not to stutter.
Though I try my best to not let my stutter define my identity and actions, I know that it will always be a part of me. During my years in high school, I spoke in front of the entire student body and broadcasted sports games online. Why, then, do these first days seem so nerve-racking to me? Maybe I’m intimidated by my classmates? Like many University students, I was in the top of my class in many academic disciplines during high school. I felt confident in my ability to succeed in classes, be it Honors Spanish or A.P. United States History. In college, I am confronted with the reality that we all come from secondary schools where we strove for the best and achieved it. We all succeeded academically and that’s why we attend this university.
In my Spanish course last semester, for example, I stuttered more often than usual because of struggles with the language and because I strived to prove myself in the course. I wanted to prove that not only could I speak the language, but I could speak it fluidly.
For the majority of students, the icebreaker questions in those small seminar classes serve as a refuge from the monotony and boredom that may take place in the next 14 weeks. I enjoy these icebreakers as well. I get to learn about where my classmates are from and what they’re studying, for example. They also presents for me a challenge. In order to prevent my stutter from occurring, I try to think of my answers in advance. As soon as I hear the question, I began to say quietly to myself. “My name is Avi. I’m a freshman from Los Angeles. I’m undeclared but leaning toward American Culture or Public Policy.” For most, these simple questions are, in fact, simple. For the three million Americans who stutter, however, these questions may be the most anxiety-inducing part of the class.
Don’t get me wrong — I love participating in class. I enjoy demonstrating my ideas to my peers and professors. Despite my stutter, I enjoy crafting oral presentations (depending on the topic, however). In order for my presentation to come out as fluidly as possible, I must practice and practice. While some may feel comfortable simply reading through slides without practicing, I often must practice multiple times to truly succeed.
I enjoy writing because I am judged on the quality of my words, not how they come out of our mouths. In speech, while we would prefer to believe we pay attention to rhetoric, the words often only succeed during a charismatic speech, such as the empowering “Yes We Can!” pioneered by Barack Obama eight years ago. In writing, the writer does not require astounding oratorical skills. They need only “speak” their mind without actually speaking. It’s interesting to me: I love to speak my mind, yet sometimes it’s difficult not to articulate my opinion, but to actually “speak.” Few others have this problem.
On the first day of each semester I wish to share my thoughts with my classmates but sometimes refrain because we’re not acquainted yet. I have seen stares and whispering among neighbors after I added a comment in a freshman seminar. Whether it’s about my stutter or the accuracy of my input, I can’t say for sure. But it still brings me anxiety, simply because of my stutter.
Obviously, I wish my stutter could go away. As I learned from my speech therapist at a young age, it will always be a part of me. At some points in my life it will improve, and at other points it will get worse. I must learn how to manage it. In some ways, it gives me a determination that many lack. I strive not only to be the best in each course, but also to speak as fluidly as possible. In addition to my academic goals, I set goals based on how infrequently I stutter. While on the first days, it may be challenging, I know that as the course continues — as I develop relationships with my classmates and professors — the stares will disappear and the anxiety will cease. I can then focus on making friends to study with and sit with at the Crisler Center.