I blinked rapidly to ward off the tears forming in my eyes, my computer screen a blur. Tucked away in a 5th floor Hatcher Graduate Library study carrel, I battled an evil practice question that I just couldn’t seem to get right. The infamous organic chemistry examination — the first of the semester — was the next day, and I had foolishly started preparing only a few days prior. While I angrily scrubbed my eyes with the sleeve of my jacket, a wave of despair threatened to overwhelm me. Pull yourself together. I tried, in vain, to figure out why the answer key displayed a completely different answer than what I had pretty confidently penciled in. In a bout of frustration, I opened my phone, relishing in the sweet relief brought by mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and numbing my brain. Next, I absent-mindedly opened YikYak, and the most recent post read, “Good luck to the orgo students u guys are brave fr,” which forced me to crack a smile. But I knew that if I spent any more time on my phone, I’d begin hating myself for my avoidance of studying. I sighed and put my phone away, dragging my unwilling eyes back to the hateful problem as darkness set in outside.
A few days later, while I was pushing a cart of loaded groceries at Trader Joe’s, I got an email that test scores had been posted. My heart started pounding. I gingerly opened Canvas the way one would a cage housing a poisonous snake. Memories flashed back to me: my sweaty palms, the clock ticking down to the final minute, my frantic circling of random answers in hopes of salvaging lost time. In the frozen aisle, I steeled myself and peeked down, my stomach dropping to my shoes. My grade was nowhere near what I had aimed for. At checkout, the cashier’s friendly chatter turned into white noise as I sulkily thought about those torturous days spent slogging at the Graduate Library. My thoughts played ping-pong in my head:
Maybe don’t cram right before the exam next time!
Well, I still did study hard. I did all the practice problems.
That’s even worse. How did you do badly even AFTER all the prep?
I don’t know! I was really stressed, that could be it…
This will tank your GPA, you know.
The lowest midterm is dropped!
The first one is the easiest one, and you couldn’t even manage it.
I’ll study harder for the next one…
Maybe you’re just not cut out for the University of Michigan.
There it was. The all-encompassing thought and sense of imposter syndrome hit me across the face as I loaded my groceries into my trunk. But it hits me quite frequently: when I watch girls with massive iPads take the neatest, color-coded notes (next to my smudged screen covered in a messy scrawl); when I watch people nod in understanding while a boy solves a problem on the blackboard that I can’t begin to comprehend; when someone tells me they found organic chem to be “so easy” and it just “came to them naturally” (while I, at home that night, erase yet another wrong answer from my worn textbook). All of these scenes rushed back to me in the parking lot, playing in my mind like a movie. Driving home, I wondered if I was the dumbest one at this university. Did everyone else just have their shit together all the time?
Once home, opening YikYak yet again proved to be a pleasant deterrent from my state of despair. “i wrote sorry 2 coppola on my exam,” read one. “Whoever got a 1/125 in chem1, i just want to talk…” Another: “i can’t believe i got a C i hate this.” Here were fellow suffering students. And if they felt the way I was feeling, then surely I wasn’t an imposter. A combination of Reddit threads, YikYaks and lamenting discussions with grieved friends in the course helped me out of my sad slump very quickly. Sure — I didn’t do great. But neither did loads of people. At least I’m not alone.
For many, popular U-M culture is built around tailgating, Joe’s Pizza, No Thai, fraternity parties and Ricks. But I’d argue that certain classes shape our campus culture as well. Before the organic chemistry exams, half of Central Campus looks worried as they carry around worn copies of “Structure and Reactivity.” Even my non-chem friends will give me knowing, sympathetic looks as I trudge around the apartment looking like a sad raccoon. When the libraries are filled with gesticulating groups, I know that the EECS Euchre project is due. These campus-wide events make me feel like I’m a part of something bigger — that all of us are experiencing collective trials. For some reason, the sense of communal suffering alleviates, to some extent, my sense of individual suffering. I nod at the girl in Starbucks working on the same textbook as me and compassionately watch people frantically running to different halls for their midterms.
With this in mind, I’ve realized that the biggest form of comfort I’ve found on this massive campus is the relatability that exists within it. With nearly 33,000 undergraduate students, the University seems to guarantee that whatever you may be experiencing, you’re not the first, and you’re not alone. For example, when Googling questions related to my major, I found a Reddit thread from three years ago where another U-M student voiced the same doubts over the same requirements and classes. Or, freshman year, when the fire alarms went off at 7 a.m. in the Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall, the grumbling of the students around me and grumpy, humorous discourse on our floor’s GroupMe gave me respite. There are smaller moments of relatability, too: I overhear students complaints about dining hall food and how the ice cream machine is always broken, I see groups of people argue with the seemingly permanent preacher on the diag who’s insistent that we’re all going to hell, I watch other students running in the rain because, like me, they didn’t predict the moody Michigan rainfall. I even like the posts on the UMich Affirmations Instagram which poke fun at all of these communal instances. Each of these moments make me feel like all of us are, in some way, going through this — the stress, the absurdness, the hilarity — together.
Although there are so many relatable, universal aspects of our daily life on campus, sometimes it is easy to lose sight of that sense of community and togetherness — just like I did during my orgo exam fiasco. I personally find it convenient to forget about the inevitable relatability among all of us here and focus instead on how I’m alone, an imposter, while everyone else is seemingly sailing through. It seems as though other students feel alone in their experiences as well. According to the School of Public Health, 66% of U-M students indicated feeling sometimes or often isolated from others. With rising anxiety and depression among adolescents, along with “hustle’’ culture breeding competitiveness due to job insecurity, it’s no wonder that students feel isolated. The ironic part is that we all feel isolated — we are thus all united by the same lonely feeling. Puzzling over a physics mastery after your friend had no problem with it, trying to make sense of a poem for English class that just can’t possibly possess a deeper meaning, doing badly on an exam you studied for; these are “common college experiences.” But, when I was crying by myself in the Hatcher stacks, the act didn’t feel so common to me. I felt like I was the only one experiencing any of this stress, the only stupid one on this campus. Surely the admissions officer let me in by mistake because why else can’t I get this problem right?
With rigorous academics, packed class schedules, lengthy labs, club meetings and study groups, I find it easy to get overwhelmed. For example, if you miss one lecture, and then maybe another, you then can’t go to discussion because you’re behind on materials, and then you’re stuck frantically binge-watching 10 lectures over the weekend before your exam with the professor’s voice sped up enough to sound like the newest member of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Sometimes I feel like a hamster sprinting on its wheel, mindlessly pumping my feet as the world whirls around me. Personally, even after running as hard as I can, I still don’t always get the results I want. Even when I stop running, the wheel’s momentum keeps going, flipping me round and round until I fly off. I open my eyes to a spinning world and slowly start to pick myself back up again.
There are countless semesterly occurrences that make me feel isolated and alone on my wheel: flunking an exam, forgetting to turn in an assignment or breaking down because everything is piling up and I know I’m going home to an apartment where the dishes are stacked high in the sink and my clothes are scattered on the floor. And, of course, feelings of competitiveness and inadequacy reliably bubble up. There will always be a girl sitting next to me in class wearing a cute matching set with her hair slicked back in a perfect bun. Her appearance tells me her assignments are probably taken care of. She drinks from her Stanley cup as I resort to the water fountain because I forgot to wash my water bottle. The old thought strikes yet again: Why does everyone have it together except me?
I must, we all must, remind ourselves: No one truly does. The girl sitting next to you has probably had a breakdown about an exam at some point or another. Someone who did amazing on their exams is lamenting that they haven’t seen their friends in weeks. You’re not the only one going through any of it — the feeling of isolation, of tiredness, of dejectedness, of homesickness, of being overwhelmed and underprepared. Just because you don’t physically see others around you feeling the same way does not mean that it isn’t a common, universal experience. I wish more people used forums like YikYak or Reddit to voice their more vulnerable (not just humorous) anxieties and problems, striking the chord of online relatability for people who can’t find it in person.
Until then, I’ll get back on my wheel and start running again, trying to prepare somewhat in advance for the second orgo exam. And this time, I’ll remind myself that even if I feel alone, countless more are probably invisibly struggling with me. The image of thousands of hamsters, all running simultaneously on their wheels together, does provide me with a measure of relief and peace and a smile.
Statement Columnist Myrra Arya can be reached at email@example.com.