How to break your own heart
The pass/fail myth.
The cliché goes like this: Studying abroad will be the best time of your life. You’ll meet so many new people, and you don’t need to worry about your grades. Pass/fail!
But what happens when you go on exchange knowing that you have anxiety and a history of depression? What does ‘pass/fail’ mean to someone who is socially anxious, a perfectionist, and perceives their self-worth as synonymous with their academic performance?
I spent a semester at the University of Pennsylvania, the so-called ‘party Ivy’ of the Ivy League. I am all the things above. The ‘pass/fail’ mentality was something that I did not – and could not – share with the rest of my exchange cohort.
For most students on exchange, ‘pass/fail’ is liberating. Your marks don’t appear on your transcript and they don’t affect your overall average.
‘Pass/fail’ became a Get Out of Jail Free card
‘Pass/fail’ became a Get Out of Jail Free card, and we used it to justify sub-par work and to write assignments the day they were due. We would repeat it as we partied from Wednesday to Saturday night, stumbling from one frat party to another, knowing we had class the next morning or an exam worth 40% next week.
With ‘pass/fail’ blessing us, we could become completely different people in America. We told ourselves that we didn’t have to be the studious and high-achieving students we were back home, where we went about our ‘real lives’ with marks that mattered and a transcript that our future employers would assess.
‘Pass/fail’ became a form of social regulation. When I stressed about my assignments, my friends would tell me that my marks “didn’t matter,” as if I could simply switch off the anxiety that came with wanting, and needing, to achieve high marks.
At a college dinner, another exchange student told me that I wasn’t getting the most out of exchange – which really meant that I wasn’t going to enough frat parties because I spent those nights in the library. She assumed that her ideal exchange experience was universal, and that prioritising assignments over sweaty basements and a night flirting with American boys was a waste of my semester abroad.
Every time I declined an invitation to go out, drink, or ‘kick on’, someone would shout “pass/fail” right on cue. Everyone seemed to ask why I still cared about my marks, meeting deadlines, and writing well-researched essays when our results were inconsequential. ‘Pass/fail’ became a judgement and an implicit way of saying that I was doing exchange ‘wrong.’
The culture of ‘pass/fail’ was exhausting. At best, it made me angry. But at its worst, ‘pass/fail’ made me anxious, and not in the same way most twenty-something uni students experience it. It is the type of anxiety that I medicate – an anxiety that I’ve carried through high school into university.
Every time someone responded ‘pass/fail’ to my stress, to my decision to swap a night out with a night increasing my word count, every ‘pass/fail’ invalidated an illness that has, over the years, been isolating and self-destructive.
My identity is so deeply rooted in my intelligence and academic results that the idea of only ‘passing’ a subject makes me hyperventilate, it brings about panic attacks, and triggers sleepless teary nights. Despite being in a situation where I only needed to pass my subjects, what I struggled to communicate about my anxiety was that it doesn’t disappear just because the consequences change.
I have an unhealthy relationship with academia. My anxiety draws an association between my value as a person and the academic results I achieve. It seems illogical that I could suddenly become a student who only wanted to ‘pass’ while I was studying in America, when back home, I was someone who always lost weight during exam periods because I would be too anxious to eat, someone who spent twelve hours in the library in the month leading to finals, and would faint from the level of stress during Reading Days.
I understand the concept of ‘pass/fail,’ and I understood that my life at Penn could be completely detached from life in Melbourne. Friends who had been on exchange told me their semesters abroad didn’t feel like real life, and returning home felt like waking up from a strange hedonistic dream.
But ‘real life’ continues even if your subjects are pass/fail, and ‘real life’ was still happening to me while I was on exchange. I remained anxious. A friend committed suicide. I still had feelings for a boy I had left behind. My friends back home got into new relationships, broke up with long-term partners, and changed relationship statuses from ‘open’ to ‘exclusive.’ My parents were still fighting, another friend was suffering from anorexia, and I worried – constantly – that my life in Melbourne would move on without me.
Being on exchange made me realise that we need to divorce this idea of home – of ‘real life’ – from a physical, knowable place.
What I learnt on exchange is that ‘life’ back home doesn’t stop. It affects you despite being geographically detached from everything you call home. Being on exchange made me realise that we need to divorce this idea of home – of ‘real life’ – from a physical, knowable place. The need to support your friends through break-ups, depression and chronic illness travels with you. A new country will not mend the mental health problems you had back home. Your feelings don’t go away.
My friends on exchange still worried about their futures, applying for grad positions and preparing for Skype interviews during the day. The difference being that my friends would get plastered at frat parties or hop on a bus to New York the minute they finished their interviews. The location changed, but the stressors remained the same.
Exchange wasn’t the best time of my life, but the best moments during my time abroad were among some of the happiest. I remember trudging to and from college dorms at 2am in the morning, delivering doughnuts from the local convenience store that never seemed to close. Getting delirious from an ear infection and trying homemade remedies with one of my closest friends at Penn. Trying every kombucha flavour that the university had to offer.
Having our subjects marked as ‘pass/fail’ did not give me these moments. These moments were spent with people I came to love, who stopped telling me ‘pass/fail’ when I decided to spend the night in the library, and started to understand that I could never be that person who was happy to ‘just pass’ a subject.
I came to love my exchange because I accepted that I could not subscribe to a ‘pass/fail’ mentality. I stopped pressuring myself to have an exchange experience filled with drunk nights and drunk boys, when what I really needed was a good night with JStor and some intellectual banter.
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