Under/Graduate

By Julien-Pierre “Johnny” Campbell

I make my home in academia and love it dearly. I started with the PSU Honors College at seventeen and am now in my senior year, having turned 21 a week ago. I’m also completing my first term of my expedited graduate degree. 

While I love college, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of imposter syndrome. I’ve always been something of a dynamo when it came to school — starting grades too early, competing with people much older for academic awards, taking as many credits as possible. In my entire career at PSU, I’ve taken one term off, which was this last summer. While it looked great on academic resumes, it’s not great for my mental health. 

My nosedive into academia began as a trauma response. Both of my older siblings were completely off the rails, and I saw how it destroyed my parents. My home life was focused on their sobriety, their stints in rehab, their damage. I grew up terrified of drugs and alcohol. I thought if I made good grades, kept my nose clean, and did enough community service, it would benefit me two-fold: I wouldn’t be another problem child and I could get out of my turbulent home ASAP. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. I ended up with a physical disability and suffered severe mental illness, obviously causing worry. In addition, there was no way to afford on-campus housing. Because I was only seventeen, no one would rent to me. 

I moved out at eighteen and kept up with my studies. I’d changed my major to something that made me much happier. But it still wasn’t enough. An A-minus would cause a breakdown. I was working, performing in a year-round cabaret, out until god knows when every night, and barely sleeping.

Now, at 21, I’ve finally found something of a balance, but it came with a steep price. My self-worth is all tied up in academia. The senioritis is kicking in just as I’m beginning my second degree. Being so young compared to my graduate classmates is absolutely intimidating. 

And yet.

I refuse to drop out. I refuse to give into my imposter syndrome. I am here because I earned my place. The quality of my work speaks for itself. And I love academia —– my relationship with it is much healthier than it used to be. 

In the end, I am working every day to untangle my self-worth from my grades. I work to pull my identity away from “young student.” And I’m slowly succeeding one day at a time.

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