Starting graduate school at Columbia University: The Experience of overcoming self-doubt in College

December 12, 2023 at 11:09 PM
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Starting graduate school at Columbia University: The Experience of overcoming self-doubt in College

Emma Langsford UA’23 and Jim Stellar

During my freshman year of high school I was diagnosed with ADHD, and as soon as I began medication, my academic performance completely changed. I went from barely passing my classes to out-performing many of my peers, and I remember feeling immense relief that the cause of my underperformance was due to a disability instead of my own stupidity. While my grades changed for the better, I still lacked a crucial component of success: motivation. I’m not sure what exactly changed for me during my sophomore year of college, maybe I realized that my future was in my own control, or maybe I finally started to believe in myself. Either way, by the start of my junior year I was earning A+’s in every class and I finally found my motivation.

Interesting, I always thought I had dyslexia. How has your opinion of yourself changed, from once feeling stupid, to being at Columbia now?

My personal experience with self-doubt and the challenges that accompany it has increased my ability to be resilient and empathetic. While I am incredibly grateful to be able to attend an Ivy League school, there is a certain sense of superiority ingrained in these institutions that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I’m wondering if this is something that you also experienced during your time at Harvard. In my virtual information session with Columbia before classes, it was made clear that the students admitted are the “best of the best”, and this was never the message I received at UAlbany. What isn’t taken into account when these statements are made is the privilege that comes with attending an Ivy League school. Very few people can afford the costly tuition, and many people don’t come from high schools that allow them to take advanced classes.

Now, to be fair, when I first received my acceptance letter I was arrogant, and probably not very fun to be around. It was one of the first times in my life that I had achieved something objectively notable, and it took me a couple weeks to come down from that high. To get back to your original question, my opinion of myself has changed drastically since coming to Columbia. Now, I believe that I am capable of achieving greatness, and I am much more confident in my abilities. I am still learning to navigate the balance between being self-assured, yet not arrogant, but through self-reflection, empathy, a willingness to embrace continuous learning and growth, and by recognizing the inherent worth in every individual, I think I’ll get there.

Excellent points, particularly about empathy.  In 1978, when I joined the faculty at Harvard University as an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the field of neuroscience, I heard the same “best-of-the-best” statements. Also, I noticed, particularly when I was away from Boston at our NJ family beach cottage, that when it came out that I was a professor at Harvard, people’s attitude toward my ability seemed to change suddenly for the better. I found it distancing but also inspiring in that I wanted to live up to that expectation while I also wanted to connect. I learned not to bring it up when I was at the beach. Do you have that reaction when people find out you are going to Columbia and how do you get to that “recognizing the inherent worth in every individual” in that conversation or do you just not bother there, but try to keep your balance in general?

“Distancing but also inspiring” is a great way to put it. It feels good to know that I am respected and valued by others, but I think it definitely puts a barrier in the way of human connection.  I used to feel like I had to emphasize my accomplishments in order for my voice to be valued and heard, but now, I find myself downplaying my accomplishments in order to remove the invisible barrier that occurs when people find out I go to Columbia.

Can you talk about how your emotional reactions (“heart reasons”) help you shape that particular interaction?

Apart from just being trained in active listening, I think there is an intangible element to creating a non-verbal connection in conversations with others. I think it stems from a true belief that all humans are inherently valuable, and a desire to learn from others. Being able to connect deeply with others may very well result in them not perceiving one as arrogant or distant, likely because when you establish a non-verbal connection with someone through body language and genuine interest, some of the social barriers that we all possess come down. When we feel truly understood and listened to, we are better able to understand and empathize with each other.

Nonverbal communication is a particularly good way to have emotional communication, perhaps better known as “heart to heart.”  This form of communication is often subliminal which fits with a lot of research both behaviorally and in terms of neuroscience (e.g. this blog series).  When it comes in the form of acceptance, particularly with someone who has overcome a struggle earlier like ADHD or disability, it can be particularly reassuring.  That theme runs through much of this writing and is a powerful form of experiential learning to which colleges and universities could pay better attention to support the retention and accomplishments of their students at all levels, even excellent universities at the graduate level. That may be the biggest lesson of this blog series.  Decisions, ambition, choice of career, relief from the impostor syndrome, all depend upon that little voice inside (the limbic system) making an evaluation of yourself and your career path for the head (neocortical systems) that do the planning and from which we speak to others and ourselves.  These are some of the general lessons we derive from this writing.

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