Another perspective: College and mental health

Life can be hard, change can be hard, Carnegie Mellon University can be hard.  My time at CMU brings back some difficult memories for a few reasons. During the first year, I had an exceptionally hard time adjusting to college life.  During the remaining years, I was stressed beyond comprehension.

I wore the same hoodie every day for what feels like the entire first semester of college because I was sad.  I slept more than 8 hours a day because I was sad and it was a way to pass the time. I didn’t put much effort into doing my hair or my appearance because it felt like it didn’t matter because I felt like I didn’t matter.

These actions weren’t the usual chain of events for me. Growing up, I was a relatively happy child.  I had loving parents, a privileged life, and generally no complaints. However, I was an anxious child. The smallest discomfort or unfamiliar situation would send me into bouts of tears.  This wasn’t because I was a brat, this was because I didn’t know how to deal with my anxiety-ridden emotions. Social situations were never my forte.

I’ve never considered myself the type of person who is good at making friends. It takes me awhile to form a bond of friendship with new people. Like everyone else, I distinctly remember going through the middle school years feeling like I didn’t fit in. There were girls I had been friends with since elementary school who no longer seemed to want to talk to me. There were cliques of kids who didn’t want to let anyone else in.  I remember spending a lot of these years lonely and wondering why friendships were so hard for me.  Luckily, during these years was when I met my lifelong friend Evie who helped ease the awkwardness of this life stage. I’ve always been exceptionally grateful for her kindness. Throughout these years, I also always had my sister, Angela, and my cousin Heather as default friends. I’ve always been thankful for the closeness of my family.

By the time, I entered high school things were looking up.  I no longer felt as isolated as I did in middle school.  I had corralled a small group of friends who I could hang out with on the weekends and during lunch period. I was never the girl with thousands of Facebook friends or the girl who would get the most carnations on Valentine’s Day, but I was okay with that, as long as I was happy.

During high school, I also had my first boyfriend for about a year.  Due mainly to the fact that I was young and didn’t know how to date someone or how to stand up for myself in a relationship, this inevitably ended. As if someone’s first heartbreak wasn’t hard enough, I distinctly remember reading snide comments on social media by his friends not-so-subtly insulting me. Thanks social media! Anyways, that was something that brought me right back to how I felt in middle school, like I didn’t fit in to these groups of friends everyone else had already formed.  If I recall correctly, I think this actual friend group called themselves “the group”.  By naming themselves, you knew whether or not you were in the group.  I was not.

As you do, I recovered from this trial and began building a new friend group slowly of trustworthy friends with whom I could enjoyably spend my time without feeling like I didn’t belong. After years of feeling alone in middle school and mocked by people in high school, I was so relieved to have achieved some sort of social stability.  Then, I graduated. Everyone moved to different colleges.  I felt alone again.

I was being forced to start over. Making friends and meeting new people was exhausting to me. I wasn’t ready for it. The first year of college I felt incredibly alone.  I didn’t put myself out there to make new friends at CMU because I didn’t think anyone would like me, because plenty of people hadn’t liked me before. I was completely miserable.

Along with the social stresses, the academics at CMU were something that I wasn’t ready for.  I graduated from high school as the Valedictorian without putting in much effort. I was naturally smart.  I could study the day before an exam and do perfectly fine. I didn’t take physics in high school because it wasn’t an AP class. I opted take a different AP class because I wanted the GPA boost (#nerdalert).  Going into my freshman year of college I remember taking my first physics exam, after studying the amount of time I would study for exams in high school, and getting a D.  I was devastated. I had never gotten a D before in my life.  I always felt that I was never the girl that was good at making friends but I was always good at school. Now I didn’t even have school.  I was literally falling apart at all angles.  If I couldn’t even succeed at the one thing I had always succeeded at then what good was I?

I eventually decided that I couldn’t be unhappy every day.  I swallowed my pride and enrolled in CMUs tutoring program.  I started to use office hours and peer study programs.  I was able to build myself back up and get an A in the class.  I also slowly started to interact with people more.  I began making friends at CMU.  My first friend at CMU was Kruti.  She was a chemical engineering major like me and lived in the dorm building across the courtyard.  We had met during the orientation activities that I literally hated but didn’t hang out much. Once I started to come out of my shell, she was one of the first people who would invite me to do things.  Again, so thankful for her friendship.  I met my second friend at CMU, Hari, by being group members on a class team. We met during the first day of classes and then worked together for an entire semester.  By the end of the semester we were more than just classmates, we were actually friends!  One by one, I began making friends again and most importantly, I began liking myself again.

Making the decision to not be unhappy everyday isn’t so easy for other people and that’s unfortunate. I remember going onto Facebook and seeing all of my peers posting about how much they loved college and I would wonder why I couldn’t be like everyone else.  When it looks like everyone else is happy, you start to wonder what’s wrong with you.  But the thing people have to remember about social media is that for the most part people are only posting the highs and you don’t get to see the lows.  Just because you don’t see the lows doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I know for me, it would have really helped to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with transitioning into college.

After I overcame the difficult first year of college, the next three years weren’t smooth sailing. I now had a network of people and a support system, but the stress to get good grades never went away. I know full well that this stress is something I placed on myself.  These are expectations that I set.  I think it’s that way for a lot of people who go to Carnegie Mellon.  The students are all bright and ambitious. At times this can be inspiring to be surrounded by so many driven people, but at other times it can be hard to not get caught up in the stress culture that has developed at CMU.

This article published in the Tartan in 2012 ( says it best, that student’s parade their stress as a badge of honor.  The article states that in high school “we were at the top of our classes with minimal effort, and that mentality hasn’t changed. The more work you can accomplish without cracking, the more impressive you are. Unit count translates into intelligence.”

There were countless times were I would revert back to childhood Julia’s coping mechanism and just break down into tears when the stress was too much. I remember getting into a fight with my friend over when she was getting her passport renewed (like who cares?) because we were both so stressed out. I have another friend who always offhandedly mentions that “CMU broke him”. I have yet another friend that always talks about how he hated his 4 years at CMU.  There are innumerable other people who have posted on Facebook since graduating describing how Carnegie Mellon was a hard time for them.

We were all stressed. But no one was vocal about how difficult some days were at the time. Getting an education is important, but not at the expense of mental health.

When asked the question, if I could go back in time would I choose Carnegie Mellon again, I think the answer would be yes. The friends I was able to meet through this school are invaluable. The network of people I’ve developed in my new home city of Houston as result of CMU is also something I’m very grateful for. The career I’ve been able to build from my education and networking opportunities offered by the school are another great benefit.  But if asked would I recommend CMU to a prospective student? I think my answer would be no. I’m not sure what that says.

All I do know is that going to any college can be hard.  Going to Carnegie Mellon may have been harder.  But as I’ve grown as an adult, I’ve learned that everyone has ups and downs.  It’s okay. I’ve also learned that if you feel like you have more downs than everyone else that’s okay too, but you need to talk to someone.  Mental health shouldn’t be a second thought, it should be a priority.