It’s the beginning of midterm season at Georgetown, and my advisees are coming to see me about the upcoming barrage of midterms and papers. While those meetings are a typical part of my job, this year, I’ve felt a heightened sense of anxiety from my students. The return to campus has not meant not a return to normalcy. The stress about the Omicront variant, balancing a myriad of responsibilities, navigating and mitigating COVID exposure risk, has heightened our already-elevated anxiety that we’ve been struggling with over the past two years.
As students enter my office or log onto our Zoom meeting, there are tears brimming in their eyes as they shakily describe what’s consuming them: doing poorly academically, struggling to deal with family issues, financial concerns, and other large existential woes. I have found that as we talk, it’s sometimes difficult to convey to them that they are not alone.
When I tell them that, I openly reflect on my own season of dread in college. Like them, I feared that I was going to fail and disappoint everyone. And while I don’t keep my college journal in my office, the memories of those dark moments come flooding back as I recall ...
October 1, 2004
I am tired beyond belief and yet I can't sleep. For the past two nights, I have gotten a combined total of 8 hours of sleep. But when I get back to my room between classes to take a nap, I can't sleep. I do not know how I am going to be able to survive like this.
I am also very stressed. I think I've had two panic attacks in the past two days. My heart is racing all the time, even when I'm trying to nap.
I don't know how much longer I can go on like this. I don't think I'm really happy anymore. My parents want me to do really well, but they don't want me to go over the edge. Before I went to college, my mom told me how a childhood friend had a brother who killed himself because he was afraid to tell his parents about his grades. She shared this story as a cautionary tale and an explicit reminder that my parents love me know matter what grades I get.
My stress keeps building up, and I don't know how I am going to figure this out.
Did I really make the right choice going here? Or am I slowly killing myself with everything going on here?
I have no idea what I am going to do. All I want is to be happy.
At that moment, I could not see my way out of that mess. There was nothing to tell me that not only would I graduate from college, but I’d eventually earn my doctorate. But I also didn’t know then that anxiety would become a lifelong disease that would follow me throughout my life’s milestones, including graduate school and giving birth to and raising our daughter in the early days of the pandemic. But with therapy and medication, I have learned how to quiet the anxious voice in my head - not turning it off completely, but turning the volume down so I could plan my way out of a dark place.
When students talk about their fear of failure, I remember mine all too well. In my own advising, I have found that by sharing my own experiences with them, including that I was able to get on the other side of things, I can provide students with a sense of authenticity and the knowledge that they’re not alone.
Had I ever told a professor or advisor in college that I had felt so anxiety-ridden and afraid of failure, I know that they would have offered me reassurance. But I kept silent and lived in fear of disappointing everyone.
So now, as students describe those worries that are all too familiar to me, I tell them they’re not alone. And I share my story, in the hopes that they see that they too can come out on the other side. As my parents stressed to me nearly twenty years ago, I remind my students that they are not defined by any grade. Instead, it is their continual presence here that is what matters most. I never know if the message always resonates, but I’ll keep sharing my story in the hopes that it pulls someone out of the darkness and points them towards the light.
Vanessa Corcoran is an advising dean and adjunct professor of history at Georgetown University. Her memoir, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: My Road to the Marathon and Ph.D. will be published on March 8, 2022 (via Amazon). She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband Pat and their daughter, Lucy. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @VRCinDC