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.
Like other newly arrived first-years on my college campus, I once thought my success was a product of the activities I took part in. And in some ways, it was.
High school had been the training ground for this outlook, as I was very active in and excelled at many of the extracurricular activities I did. That was what I spent my free time doing, and that was who I was.
Freshman year of college we were barraged with advice to branch out, take chances, start over. Activities piled on, and the more I tried to hold onto my old hobbies while also exploring new ones, the more I struggled. In no area did I struggle more than with music, which has always been a part of my identity. Thus, when I made it to the final round of auditions for my favorite a cappella group freshman year, surrounded by upperclassmen whom I looked up to so highly, I thought it was just my identity shining through again. I was so sure it would work out, because it had to.
However, the morning when we were supposed to find out whether we’d made it into one of the groups, no one came to pick me up and give me the good news. Hours ticked by, until I realized no one would be coming for me, because I wasn’t chosen.
Many things went through my head at the time. If I can’t be part of that a cappella group, does that mean I have no talent? Who am I as a person? Dramatic as it sounds, those were my thoughts, and just like that, my tiny ego was damaged before classes had even begun. After all, I was a music person — I played three instruments in high school, sang at a county, district, and state level, and joined my church’s adult choir. I couldn’t figure out who I was going to be without music.
Thankfully, music still was a huge part of my freshman year, as I joined an all-girls’ choir and was also part of its a cappella subset. Continuing to sing kept me sane; it gave me something to hold on to of my “former” identity. However, the time commitment took its toll, and sophomore year, I decided I couldn’t return, especially given the slew of pre-med requirements I needed to take. Not to mention, I desperately missed singing in a mixed ensemble (which often requires male voices, not a component of the all-women’s chorus).
After quitting my chorus, I knew that, as much as it was going to demoralize me, I might as well put myself through yet another set of a cappella auditions. I thought it would be slightly less of a time commitment and would give me the chance to sing in a mixed ensemble, again. This time, however, I made it into one of the a cappella groups.
And then I had the best sophomore year ever! (Right?)
I ended up being so busy with schoolwork, as well as trying to balance rehearsals, that I ended up stepping away from the group mid-way through the fall. I was heartbroken, largely because it really made me question where music was in my life, and what that meant about me as a person. This time, rather than using my choir to cling to my old self, I used the time to refocus on academics, and really figure out how I could branch out, start over, as they had advised me before.
To my great surprise, junior year was my best year yet. Having extra time not consumed by all of the activities I thought I needed in my schedule had given me time to think about what I really wanted, and who I wanted to be as a person. It gave me time to really see my friends, to try new things. I had my best academic semester that fall, got to make some really wonderful friends — including my current boyfriend — and even decided to interview for something that I wanted to do for a long time — to be a peer counselor on campus. It wasn’t a new identity; it was a new sense of agency I’d never had before.
Now that I’m a senior, I can more fully appreciate this agency. Last December, while I was sitting in the audience of a concert put on by my former choir, something happened: I felt the music move my soul. When a song started to play that I recognized, I felt swept up in it as I’d ever been. Not sad like before, because I wasn’t part of the entity making the music. It made me realize that you can still enjoy, appreciate, and immerse yourself in something without having to be part of who or what is making it. Music could be part of my identity, but it didn’t have to be.
As college students in a competitive extracurricular and academic environment, we can often feel threatened when this environment calls us to question our abilities and identities. Four years later, I can finally, honestly say thank you to those groups that rejected me freshman year. It gave me time to see who I was without music, and that music could be part of my identity as long as I wanted it to be. That being said, next year, wherever I end up, I hope to find a community choir of some sort. It will be not because I feel like I have to in order to be myself, but because I genuinely love to make music with others.
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More on Mental Health on Campus:
What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need
If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help
The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis