Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
With an ice cream in hand and a smile on my face, I sat enjoying one of my first days in New York City at a semester-away program, until I looked around and realized my teacher was missing. My anxiety surged. I looked down and saw a white envelope on the table in front of me. I opened it, confused, to a challenge that read: “WHO YA GONNA CALL NOW? Get to Columbia University by 4 p.m. sharp.” I suppose the note might have said: “Welcome to CITYterm: the next four months will resemble the bewilderment of this exact moment.”
I took a couple deep breaths. We were on “tech pause” meaning all of our technology had been taken for the week. Along with five of my fellow students, we frantically rummaged through our backpacks, ripping out the city maps that we’d received from the program a week prior.
Before this moment, I had been anxiously wondering, “Am I going to like CITYterm? Who will be my friends? Am I going to miss home too much? Will people like me?” Now, I instead found myself wondering, “How do I get uptown from here without the security of my cell phone?”
Before applying to CITYterm at the Masters School — an experiential learning based semester-away program in New York City, I had suffered with anxiety and perfectionism. Sometimes, I didn’t even feel in control of my own life, and my fears often guided my decision-making. I almost didn’t submit my application to CITYterm, because I knew that if I was accepted, there was no way I could turn the opportunity down — even though the idea of leaving everything behind completely terrified me. I was so scared to leave my hometown of San Francisco. The anxieties of living away from home for the first time, making new friends, leaving old friends behind for four months, and hoping that the program would live up to its promise haunted me once I had received my acceptance email.
But after completing the four month term, I can wholeheartedly say that CITYterm was the greatest decision I could have ever made for myself — and I can hardly believe that I almost forfeited my admission to the program out of fear. I loved my newfound independence, I made friends for life, my friendships from home remained strong, and my time there was more meaningful than I ever could have imagined.
Being abandoned that day on Roosevelt Island forced me to embrace ambiguity, and in repeatedly conquering my fears over the course of the semester, I learned that life is less about knowing where exactly you stand, and more rooted in the struggle of not knowing.
Thinking back to my philosophy class during high school, I finally internalized what Plato was talking about when he said, “Everything I knew I threw away.” I stepped out of my “cave” to attend CITYterm – and the teachers, my classmates, and the city I now call home emboldened me to suspend judgment, trust myself, and lean in.
Wandering throughout this once unfamiliar city gave me the will to battle against my anxiety: I am now no longer afraid to get lost.
I never could have imagined that I would be able to navigate myself through such a huge city without any guidance, or that I could write a thirty-two page paper on entirely new topics. I learned how to face the unknown, open my heart to new experiences, allow myself to reflect, and see things differently.
I always thought that the more someone knew, the smarter they were. However, at CITYterm, we practiced the skill of “not knowing,” which at first sounds counterintuitive because people are constantly trying to know more. CITYterm taught me that “not knowing” has little to do with trying to know something — it is about how someone deals with ambiguity in the moment, not escaping it. By cultivating this skill, my anxious tendency to always have control started to become less and less of a habit. I learned that sometimes the most gratifying experiences are ones that approach without warning.
Spending those four months in New York City cajoled me to try new things, grow, question my beliefs, and see the world through a different lens. When I had only myself to rely on, I realized that all along, I had the strength within to battle the unknown.
I still vividly recall, during my last week of CITYterm, exploring the neighborhood of Williamsburg alone for the day. I had this magnificent plan to walk over the bridge at sunset, which all went according to plan — until my phone died. Instead of resorting to the cycle of panic that I knew all too well, I laughed at what should have been a very stressful situation. Where did my anxiety go? In retelling this story to my peers and teachers, I could hardly recognize the person I had become. I had conquered the anxiety that had tormented me throughout most of my childhood years by embracing the unknown.
I often compare myself to the person I was before I went to New York: a person who relied on others more than trusting herself. In this girl’s place, the strong, confident woman I am today continues to explore by herself.
If you told me three years ago that my phone would die while I was alone on the Williamsburg Bridge at night, I would have panicked for my future self. If you had told me three years ago that I would walk the entire length of Manhattan, I would have laughed in disbelief. If you told me that in the first week of being here, my teachers would abandon us in New York City and that I would absolutely love it, I would have thought that was ridiculous. And if you told me three years ago that my life would completely and forever change in the course of four months, I would cry. I would cry because I needed so badly to be in a community of love and acceptance. I needed to grow. I had an option: I could take the chance, or I could go on living my life the way it was. I chose change.
Whenever I really think about what CITYterm gave me, I always tear up because of the deep gratitude that I feel for the internal freedom it gave me.
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