As I was reading William Zinsser’s College Pressures, I couldn’t help but feel a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was one of those students. Even though I may not get straight A’s, I get a few smatterings of B’s and C’s; but I used to be a straight A student at one time in my college years. However, I have never felt the kind of pressure that Zinsser talks about, that is until I came to Stony Brook University. The first semester, I began to fall into a deep depression. I missed my husband and my daughter. I missed my town. But most of all, I missed getting A’s. Coming to Stony Brook was a real shock for me.
I hated (and still do, albeit not as much) the “system.” The exam schedule was/is bizarre, the holidays that most people at other colleges were off for, we weren’t, the pressures of the heavy readings, the writing of papers that came with the inevitable “writer’s block,” the impossible tests, the asinine concept of “pop quizzes” that some professors had, the hour long commute that involved me desperately trying to leave the house at a decent hour, the back-to-back classes, the ridiculously long lines at the SAC for food to the point where you eventually say, “fuck it, I’ll just starve,” the arrogant and idiotic TAs who graded papers listlessly, the professors that just should have found another day job, and the overall high expectations that drove me and other students like the ones in Zinsser’s essay to anxiety and dispair.
Zinsser talks about the pressures college students face these days from high pressure academic standards set by not just the schools, but the students themselves, and sometimes from their family members. The essay starts off with frantic messages to Carlos (the Dean of Branford College, at Yale University) about needing more time for tests papers, etc., to messages about why the student was unable to fulfill certain tasks at school because of work, family, and/or other pressures outside of school.
One line, describes how Zinsser thinks the nation’s youth is at stake and what he hopes for them. He says, “One of the few rights that America does not proclaim is the right to fail. Achievement is the national god, venerated in our media—the million dollar athlete, the wealthy executive—and glorified in our praise of possessions (this one really got to me). In the presence of such a potent state religion, the young are growing up old.”
This is where I stopped to think about my own college experience in relation to the world. Why am I going to college? The simple answer is to eventually get a better job, because everyone is doing it. But when I really started analyzing the reasons behind getting that glorified piece of paper, it came down to this—money. As a student, I am constantly bombarded by the fact that there are people out there who are wealthier than I am, smarter than I am, more savvy than I am, in a sense of the word, just plain more because they went to college and got a degree. And that piece of paper came with a lot more: the fancy cars, the big houses, more opportunities, the big client meetings, the barely spending time with your families, the insurmountable pile of papers all over the big house, the little fights with the significant others that led to bigger fights and eventually divorce, the heavy drinking, the 9-5 grind, and all the other pressures that come from obtaining that piece of paper before, during, and after.
This is not to say that it all will end like this for all students (because that would be a grim prospective), but rather to enlighten students that after college, there’s still going to be pressures out there. Especially for a continuing student like myself who is 26, married, and has a kid; I just want to fucking graduate already and get a job. I am fully aware of the pressures I have now, that will manifest itself in other forms of my life such as getting a full time job to pay the bills (not to mention in addition to my student loan debt). Zinsser writes, “The pressure is almost as heavy on students who just want to graduate and get a job. Long gone are the days of the ‘gentleman’s C,’ when students journeyed through college with a certain relaxation (like my previous college), sampling a wide variety of courses…If I were an employer I would rather employ graduate students who have this rand and curiosity than those who narrowly pursued safe subjects and high grades. I know countless students whose inquiring minds exhilarate me. I like to hear the play of their ideas. I don’t know if they are getting A’s or Cs, and I don’t care. I also like them as people. The country needs them, and they will find satisfying jobs.”
I noted how he said “they will find satisfying jobs.” Not lucrative jobs, not high-achieving jobs, but satisfying. I began to feel more hopeful the way he also phrased that he doesn’t care whether a student has A’s or C’s; that he likes them as people; for who they are and not for a letter they represent. That’s how I would like to think of myself. Unfortunately for me, the pressures of college would like me to think otherwise. It is very easy for me to slip into that pressure-ridden mindset come exam time. But I try to keep in mind to do the best I can, one thing at a time, and drink lots of caffeine. When all is said and done, I’ll probably miss it.