I'm Not Poor: A Reflection on Class at Northwestern

[TMI Warning]

Before I came to Northwestern, not once in my life did I feel like my family didn’t have enough money.

To be sure, there have been times in my family’s history when we didn’t. Immigration–especially moving between countries and continents four times in seven years like we did–does deplete one’s financial reserves. For the first few years of my life, I shared a bedroom with my brother, who is nine years older than me. I didn’t have a bed until we rented out our first single-family house when I was nine years old. Up until then, I’d slept on a mattress.

Even now, I prefer sleeping close to the floor.

But things got rapidly better after that. We bought our first house. We bought cars. We bought kitchen appliances, leather sofas, an exercise machine, a piano. We bought a futon for my older brother to use when he comes to visit. We bought nice jewelry for my mom and for me. We bought laptops, iPhones, Kindles.

We bought things that we wanted rather than needed, because they made life more comfortable and more fun.

Even through all of this, though, we were thrifty. The afghan rugs on our floors have been it the family for years. We recycle clothes and hand them down, and readily accept hand-me-downs from others. My mom and I shop mostly at T.J. Maxx, that lifesaving discount store that sells everything from perfume to purses to pots and pans. To put me through college, my parents used their own retirement savings rather than taking out new loans. The assumption was that a Northwestern education will one day provide me with enough income to finance my own parents’ retirement, in return for their having financed my education.

~~~

Original Tall Hunter Boot--$125

In our suburb in Ohio, almost everyone is middle-class. Some of my friends had a bit more money and some had a bit less, but there were rarely huge differences. All of us went on family road trips for vacation rather than flying to other countries. None of us wore designer clothes, because even if we could afford it, there aren’t any Prada or Gucci stores in Beavercreek, Ohio. There isn’t even an H&M.

The most my girlfriends or I would ever pay for a pair of jeans was $30.

Then I came to Northwestern. My freshman year roommate unpacked and took out a laundry hamper that looked like an authentic rice bag that one might buy at an Asian market. I asked her about it, assuming she’d brought it from her native Korea.

“Oh, this? It’s only $30 at Urban Outfitters. You should get one!”

I wasn’t getting a $30 hamper for my dirty underwear. I used a $2 mesh one I’d bought at Target. Up until that day, I didn’t realize anybody would do otherwise.

During the fall of my freshman year, there was a tiny protest in which some students help up signs to bring awareness to the plight of lower-income students at Northwestern. “I didn’t get into any of my top 3 sororities,” one said. “I can’t afford a North Face,” said another.

North Face is a brand of outerwear that I’d never even heard of before I came to Northwestern. Its logo is more pervasive on our campus than Northwestern’s own. At North Face, a knee-length down coat–the sort you really need in Chicago–costs $300. My own down coat cost about $70 at T.J. Maxx.

So I couldn’t afford North Face, either.

Was I poor?

Money–and the spending of it–pervade campus culture so thoroughly that nobody notices it. Within weeks of arriving on campus, I was expected to shell out for $20 club t-shirts, $20 restaurant dinners, to say nothing of $200 textbooks. While many students, including me, have a part-time job, many do not. I met many students who had been offered a work-study allowance as part of their financial aid package but chose not to use it.

These days, I usually have two jobs at a time and use the earnings to help pay my rent, which is twice my monthly income. I can’t save very much.

Financial aid doesn’t help much. Every year my dad sends them a personal letter explaining that we have aging grandparents oversees, two small children whose childcare must be paid for, that my mom lost her job last year (she has since found a new one), that we’re still paying off a mortgage, that my family’s retirement savings are being depleted, what have you.

Sometimes they sigh and toss us an extra thousand bucks.

Last year I decided to become an RA (or CA, as they call it at Northwestern). It would be good for my resume, it would be something I’d enjoy doing, and it would help me pay for school.

Or so I thought.

Once I was accepted as a CA and received my new financial aid statement to reflect my free room and board, I noticed something odd–I no longer had a work-study allowance, and my scholarship had decreased substantially. My family would be paying the exact same amount they had been paying before.

I asked the financial aid office what had happened. “Well,” they said, “since you no longer have to pay room and board, we decreased your aid so that your expected family contribution stays the same, because that’s what you’re able to afford according to our calculations.”

“But we can’t really afford that,” I said.

“Well, that’s your expected contribution.”

They told me that they were forced to keep my expected contribution the same due to “federal law.”

I asked my new supervisors in University Residential Life for help. They told me that, as a CA, I was only allowed 10 hours of non-academic time commitments per week, so if I wanted to continue working part-time, that would have to come out of those hours. “We’re willing to work with you to help you find a non-work study job,” they said, since I no longer had a work-study allowance and most campus jobs were work-study only.

I talked to a student who’d been a CA for several years. “Well,” he said, “I guess it doesn’t really make much sense for students on financial aid to become CAs.”

I did it anyway because I didn’t want money to hold me back from a valuable experience. But I always remembered the lesson I’d learned: Northwestern wasn’t going to expend any extra effort for its “students on financial aid,” like me.

~~~

Longchamp "Le Pliage" Tote Bag--$145

I soon learned to dread being asked what I was doing for the upcoming break. Save for one memorable spring break when I’d asked my parents for a roundtrip ticket to New York City as a birthday present, I always do essentially the same thing: I go home to Ohio to babysit my siblings, making some much-needed extra money while making sure that they feel like I’m still part of their lives.

I like going home and babysitting. I miss my home a lot most of the time, and even though I have few people to see there aside from my family, I still feel the need to return regularly.

What I don’t like, though, is being obliged to ask the question in return: “And you?”

And they, usually, have capital-P Plans for their breaks. They go to Florida, California, or Las Vegas. They go to Spain, England, China, Argentina.

I had never felt this wanting before. I had always assumed that traveling to other countries was something people did once they finished their education and got jobs. I felt content with my break plans until I had to hear about those of my classmates.

Aside from traveling abroad on breaks, Northwestern students also love to study abroad. I would’ve loved to do it too, but I chose not to due to various financial and personal concerns. Yet, I often encounter students exhorting self-righteously how “everyone” should experience study abroad because it “changes your life” and “gives you perspective.”

Well, maybe it does. But everyone can’t do study abroad, because everyone can’t afford it. (Don’t talk to me about “financial aid”–I’ve already seen how that works as I attempt to finance my Northwestern education). So the rest of us will just have to get by without that particular life-changing source of perspective.

~~~

Classic Tall Ugg Boot--$200

Although I felt envy and–at times, when confronted with $30 laundry hampers–disdain, what I never felt was shame. It never occurred to me to feel ashamed of something as unchangeable, as circumstantial as how much money I have. I still don’t understand why anybody would ever feel ashamed of a situation that they had no hand in creating.

But others taught me that my shamelessness was wrong. When asked to spend beyond my means, I had no problem telling people why I couldn’t. When asked where I bought an item of clothing, I never hesitated to say that it came from eBay or the local thrift store. But the reactions were inevitably quiet, embarrassed. They’d mumble, “Oh of course, sorry, you don’t have to come,” and walk away. When they found out where I’d gotten my clothes, their eyes would widen. “Oh!” they’d say. “I wouldn’t have even guessed.” As though stylish clothes can only come from Michigan Avenue.

Whenever I get this reaction, I try to analyze it. Are they embarrassed for me, because I don’t have the money? Or are they embarrassed for themselves, because they assumed that I did? Do they drop the conversation because they don’t want me to feel bad, or because they don’t really want to know why I can’t come with them?

There is a “Northwestern Uniform,” of course. Over the seasons, it includes the following: Longchamp bags, Ugg boots, North Face jackets, Hunter rainboots, anything from Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. Sorority and fraternity letters, naturally. I don’t like any of these things, so I wouldn’t buy them even if I could.

~~~

North Face Metropolis Parka--$289

Over time, I learned not to care. I reminded myself that before college I’d never wanted for anything. I realized that the right clothing and spring break plans were never going to help me fit in at Northwestern anyway, because it’s not the sort of place where I can fit in. There might not even be a place in the world where I can fit in because I’m so weird, but since the jury’s still out, I’m still looking.

I found that there are, of course, plenty of students just like me at Northwestern. But they’re hard to see because they aren’t the ones inviting friends to restaurants, joining the Greek system (which students like me could never afford), or walking around looking like a page from Vogue.

Although it’s hard sometimes, I refuse to feel “poor.” I refuse to feel like I’m lacking anything. I refuse to feel that way because I know for a fact that, compared to most Americans, I have everything a young woman could ask for. But sometimes, I hate Northwestern for hiding that truth from us. We don’t have real diversity on this campus. If we did, I would feel rich.

~~~

Urban Outfitters Recycled Rice Bag Hamper--$30

I didn’t write this to get sympathy for not being able to afford restaurant dinners and North Face jackets. I wouldn’t want sympathy for that because, first of all, I don’t feel bad about it myself, and second, because other people can afford much less.

I wrote it because those protesters during my freshman year should’ve known better. They should’ve known that, statistically, not being able to afford North Face is normal. Being able to afford it is not.

I wrote it because I don’t feel ashamed to tell people that I spend my breaks at home with my family, and I hope that nobody else feels ashamed for that, either.

I wrote it because we don’t talk about it, and we should.

Don't Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.

The Friend Zone is a Myth

This week’s Daily Northwestern column.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us are probably thinking the same thing : Dating is hard.

And it is, especially in college. People who look for serious relationships (as opposed to casual dating or hookups) face plenty of challenges, such as jam-packed schedules, breaks away from campus, study abroad semesters, plenty of temptation, and, of course, the constant specter of graduation.

Some might say that friendship is another one of those challenges. The concept of the “friend zone” isn’t a new one. On UrbanDictionary.com, where it was the “Word of the Day” back in October 2011, “friend zone” is defined as “What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to. Usually initiated by the woman saying, ‘You’re such a good friend.'”

Despite the gendered definition that UD provides, I’ve heard both girls and guys claim that their crush rejected their advances because they were “just such a good friend” or because they “didn’t want to ruin the friendship.”

I think the friend zone concept is mostly bunk. First of all, the fact that many relationships do start off with the couple being good friends shows that friendship itself isn’t exactly a cold shower.

Second, the friend zone seems like a convenient (if well-intended) excuse that people use when a friend whom they see as nothing more expresses romantic interest. After all, it’s never pleasant to have to tell a good friend that, for whatever reason, you just don’t see them as boyfriend/girlfriend material. And often people might not know the reason for that lack of connection: Maybe they just didn’t click with the person, or there wasn’t chemistry, or whatever you want to call it.

In such a situation, it makes sense that someone would say something like, “I just don’t see you as more than a friend.” And it makes sense that the person they’re rejecting would conclude that the friendship is the problem.

But it’s not. The problem is the person just doesn’t like them that way.

Of course, some people do choose not to date a friend they have feelings for because they don’t want to jeopardize the friendship. However, such people are probably simply valuing friendship over romance for the moment, and that’s their choice — it doesn’t mean becoming their friend was a bad idea.

Sometimes the friend zone explanation arises when a person puts a lot of energy into being a good friend to someone they’re interested in and gets frustrated when their emotions aren’t reciprocated. Since humans are wired to find patterns, the natural assumption is that the friendship caused their crush not to like them back.

However, as important as it is, being a good friend doesn’t entitle you to someone’s romantic attention. In fact, nothing entitles you to that.

It makes me sad when I see advice columns in women’s magazines exhorting them not to act like good friends to the men they like for fear of getting “friend zoned.” These columns generally advise women not to do anything overly friendly, such as worrying about a guy’s health or listening to him talk about his problems. Caring actions like these might prompt the dreaded “You’re such a good friend” comment.

However, unless you’re looking for the most casual of flings, friendship first makes a lot of sense — it allows you to get to know the person well before getting too invested, it helps them understand your boundaries, and it allows you to make sure that both of you are looking for the same thing from each other.

Especially at our age, people vary a lot in terms of the sorts of sexual and/or romantic relationships they’re looking for. Some just want to hook up, some want to date several people, some want an exclusive partner until distance forces them to separate, and others are looking for something serious and long-term. Getting to know a potential partner as a friend first is a great way to prevent hurting each other when you discover that your goals diverge.

Besides, if it never develops into anything more, having a new friend never hurts anyone.

This Valentine’s Day, ignore the cliched advice and go with your gut. People are either going to like you, or they’re not. But they’re more likely to like you if you treat them well.

Northwestern Will Survive Without the Keg (Or: Actions Have Consequences)

[Snark Warning]

The Northwestern community is abuzz this week with the news that the Keg, Evanston’s trashiest, craziest, collegiest bar, has had its liquor license revoked for continually allowing underage drinking. The loss of the license means that the Keg can no longer sell alcohol, meaning that its demise is probably imminent.

Naturally, Northwestern students (many of whom admit to never even having visited the Keg) are enraged. They see the license revocation not only as the end of a place they like to frequent (“like” being used only in the vaguest sense here), but as yet another tyrannical attempt by the city government to disrupt the Northwestern way of life.

I must admit that if my life revolved around drinking, I might see some sense in that view. But then again, I might not, given how many bars, frats, and off-campus apartments there are around me–and the latter two usually don’t even charge, let alone card.

In a perfect world, the Keg wouldn’t be closing. Why? Because the legal drinking age would be 18, just like the age of consent, enfranchisement, and conscription. In that perfect world, our culture would pay enough attention to mental health that people wouldn’t need alcohol to relax or socialize, meaning that binge drinking would be much less common.

But, clearly, we don’t live in that world yet, and for now, as in the future, we are obligated to follow the laws created by our elected government. The Keg’s ownership has proven over and over that it does not take the issue of underage drinking seriously, and it should not be permitted to flagrantly violate the law as it currently stands.

In one of the very few intelligent responses to this news that I have seen from NU students, my fellow columnist at the Daily Northwestern points out that closing the Keg will not stop underage drinking. That is correct. Nothing can stop underage drinking among college students aside from lowering the drinking age.

However, not revoking the Keg’s liquor license despite its violations of federal law send the message that we value profit and fun over law enforcement. Nowhere in the Constitution are we guaranteed the right to drink alcohol without any reasonable limits. What we are guaranteed, however, is a government with the power to make and enforce laws.

(My friend and fellow blogger Michael also writes about why revoking the Keg’s liquor license is not the evil tyrannical anti-capitalist move that some students seem to think it is.)

Furthermore, while closing the Keg will not prevent underage drinking, neither will ticketing speeders prevent speeding, or cleaning up litter prevent littering. yet both must be done for the sake of a fair and orderly society.

Many NU students, of course, don’t look at it this way and have no desire to. They react like a toddler reaching for her fifth piece of candy and having it taken away. In fact, they reacted by creating a fake Twitter account for Evanston mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. Read it and weep.

(The fake Twitter account is partially a nod to the fact that the Keg’s “unofficial” Twitter was, according to students, the reason for its untimely demise, as Tisdahl pointed out the references to underage drinking in the satirical tweets. However, students who pretend that the Keg is closing due to a fake Twitter account are creating a straw man. It’s closing because of constant, documented violations of the law.)

Anyway, one of the writers over at the blog Sherman Ave responds to the attacks on Tisdahl with much more punch than I could ever muster:

Also, if you are attacking Mayor Tisdahl you are an idiot. You may not think you are an idiot, but you are. I’m sorry, but anyone who scapegoats an elected official for enforcing the law deserves the title of idiot. And that’s that.

For what it’s worth, I applaud Tisdahl for doing something “uncool,” since that’s something that many Northwestern students are apparently incapable of.

I’ve also seen a lot of comments from other students bemoaning the fact that the Keg’s closing means that their social lives are, for all intents and purposes, dead. I don’t know how many of these are “ironic” as opposed to genuine, but I do know that “irony” is a defense frequently trotted out by people who have been caught saying something idiotic.

If any of those comments do have any truth to them, I have only this to say–if your entire social life consists of getting wasted in a grimy bar, that is really sad.

Finally, and perhaps most irritatingly, many students are reacting to the closure of the Keg as though some irrevocable, unique part of Northwestern culture is gone. An article to this effect was even published at North by Northwestern.

People. Seriously. Seedy bars where you can get piss-drunk are a dime a dozen. Go to any college town in the country and you’ll see that.

For people like me, who observe what most call “college life” only from the sidelines, the Keg’s imminent closure is both a cause of celebration and, well, of consternation. The former for obvious reasons, and the latter because it’s quite disappointing to see one’s fellow students ranting and raving over the closing of some dumb bar as though they’ve just gotten rejected from their favorite country club or something.

For now, though, I’ll leave you with this hilarious take on the Keg’s closure from Sherman Ave. Don’t watch if you’re easily offended.

Memo to Northwestern Students: You're Not Cool

This is the guide we wish we had before we came to our schools. It will tell you everything you need to know about social life, party scene, and even some academics (those of us who get in to these schools need to stay at them) if you are a normal girl that happens to be smart enough to get into a top university. It’s biased, it’s blunt, and many people will be offended…but those people shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is when you know beyond a doubt that whatever follows is going to be absolute drivel.

The preceding quote is from a new anonymous blog called “We are the We.” Like College ACB but without the community, “We” prides itself on being the one and only voice of campus social life. Tellingly, the blog only covers a few campuses for now, and mine is one of them. The tagline? “Top schools, normal girls.”

Let’s take a look at what We has to say about life at Northwestern:

Typically fluctuating between SigEp, Lodge, Pike and SAE, every freshman girl learns within the first couple days that your chances of joining a Top Tier sorority in the winter instantly increase by being seen and associated with by Top Tier boys, and are fucked if you mess around with some girl from a Top Tier’s ex.

~~~

The amount of hook up overlaps solely from freshman year could put state schools to shame, and by sophomore year most best friends have hooked up with generally the same exact people. Though girls complain about the lack of options, they have no problem picking the guy their roommate hooked up with the night before as their prey.

~~~

The longer you’re at Northwestern, the more you realize there are some students who truly don’t deserve to be walking within a 15 mile radius of the campus you worked your ass off the first 18 years of your life to attend. It’s no surprise that like most elite schools, it’s possible for some dumbasses to slip through the cracks, but now we actually have to, like, deal with them.

~~~

Shocking new revelation just in: girls in college love to drink. Though there are still a few high-and-mighty girls unwilling to get shitfaced with everyone else, the majority of females find a few nights a weeks to make an appearance at a frat, bar, or Greek event. You’ll learn in the first few days on campus that NU students have a relatively set schedule for going out, and you’re bound to get a “Keg tonight?” text on Mondays and Saturdays or a “Deucin’?” one on Thursdays from guys or friends.

Had enough? I sure have.

The Northwestern depicted in this blog is catty, superficial, judgmental, uninterested in any sort of learning, and, I’m proud to say, has nothing to do with the lives we actually live at this school. I’m sure there are people here that this describes to a T, but despite claiming to be “everything you need to know” about campus life, the blog falls hilariously short of describing us.

The assumptions and prejudices catalogued here are too many to list. First, the idea that people who are “unwilling to get shitfaced” are just too “high-and-mighty.” False. It might surprise some people to know that non-drinkers (or moderate drinkers, really) might actually have other things to do with their lives besides drink–imagine that! Maybe that’s beyond the scope of We writers’ collective imaginations, but I assure you that it is true.

Beyond that, one has to pick through a cesspool of “men are x, women are y” tropes in order to understand what We is trying to say about Northwestern social life. Men are douchey players. Women are nasty sluts. Etc., etc.

I’ll give the writers props for recognizing, as they do in the quote with which I opened this post, that they’re going to offend people. But then they refuse to take responsibility for being so abhorrent by claiming that people who get offended “shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.” Why the hell not? Is it the secret diary of Northwestern’s “elite?” If so, they might want to make it a bit more private.

In a section titled “Who are ‘the we’?”, the writers say, “We know what we are talking about. Trust us. We are anonymous for a reason, but this reason is not because we are not legit.”

Don’t worry everyone, they’re legit! I shouldn’t have worried. Of course, they don’t elaborate on this mysterious reason for which they’re choosing to stay anonymous, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that nobody likes nasty, shallow people who post hateful bullshit on the internet. Were these writers to use their real names, their precious social lives would probably suffer.

I also took issue with the blog’s tagline: “Top schools, normal girls.” First of all, define “normal,” and explain why “normal” is preferable to whatever its antonym is. If by “normal” they mean “statistically mainstream,” they’re simply wrong. The majority of NU students do not belong to a Greek organization, for instance, and most of those who do, belong to what stuck-up cretins like We refer to as “lower-tier” houses. Meaning, as I understand from my friends in the Greek system, houses that are more concerned with having fun and making friends than with high school-esque notions of “popularity.”

Similarly, most Northwestern students drink in moderation or not at all, and relatively few have lots of casual sex. Those who do tend to hook up with friends or acquaintances rather than strangers at bars or frat parties. Does this make them less “cool?” Apparently. But nobody who lives the life they want is going to care.

And if by “normal” We means “desirable,” well, all I can say is that they need a serious attitude adjustment.

The last thing that pisses me off about this blog is the name. “The We.” This conjures up an image of a ruling class of socially skilled and designer jeans-clad heiresses who preside over the campus like royalty. “We” implies that these writers speak for all of us. Well, they don’t. Count me the fuck out of this “we,” because it has nothing to do with me or anybody I know at Northwestern.

It never fails to amuse me that some Northwestern students are so desperate to project their Mean Girls-ish vision of social life onto our school. People. You’re not cool. Stop trying to be cool. The harder you try, the more idiotic you look, and the more you forget what you actually came here for.

Nobody at this school is “normal” in any sense of the word. We are abnormal by definition. We’re some of the brightest students in the nation. Letting loose and forgetting that every once in a while is great, but creating a whole blog to showcase your superficiality to the entire world is just not.

College Freshmen Need a Class on Mental Health

This is the second installment of my weekly column for the Daily Northwestern. Check it out in its original here.

As college students, we’re intimately acquainted with stress. Everyone feels it, often on a daily basis. We juggle classes, jobs, extracurriculars and social lives, and the stress we feel means we’re pushing ourselves to succeed. However, for increasing numbers of students, the stress has become unbearable.

Here are some statistics for you.

According to a study of 200,000 students, only about half of college students say they have “above average” mental health, which is unusual since people tend to overestimate how above average they are. (Google “Lake Wobegon Effect” or “illusory superiority” if you’re curious.) In 1985, it was 64 percent.

According to an Associated Press and mtvU survey, one-third of college students say they use drugs or alcohol to relax. One-fifth say they feel stress all or most of the time.

Feelings of stress only increase as we progress through college. According to the mtvU survey, almost 30 percent of freshmen say they’ve felt so stressed that they didn’t know how to pull out of it. By sophomore year, almost 60 percent of students say so.

Ten percent of college students say they’ve considered suicide just in the past year. For Northwestern, that means 900 undergraduates.

What are we supposed to do with this information? Making college easier obviously isn’t an option. But I don’t think it’s okay for things to be the way they are.

I propose that freshmen be required to take a class about mental health and stress management. Perhaps it could count as a distribution credit for ethics and values or social and behavioral sciences. This class should cover the basics of dealing with stress, sleeping well and knowing when to get help. It should be taught by personable faculty members or by Searle or CAPS staff. It should provide time for discussing students’ difficulties as they experience them, sharing each other’s coping strategies and perhaps some meditation lessons. It could be — dare I say it? — fun.

Why should this class be required? Well, for starters, because most students can’t predict whether or not they’re going to experience debilitating levels of stress someday. And because, when given the choice, people like to pretend they’re perfect and don’t need any help with personal problems like stress management. And because Northwestern requires students to learn about math, art and writing, but not about something that could one day save their lives.

A class like this could have benefits that reach far beyond its syllabus. Since class sections would have to be small to facilitate the right environment, students would make friends and get to know a faculty member. Unlike most academic courses, a class like this would jumpstart discussions about deep, personal topics and forge closer friendships than any other class could. Forming connections with professors is one of the best ways to ensure a good college experience, and it’s often hard for freshmen since they have to take large classes. Sharing rather personal things with each other brings people together, and students would come to realize that, despite what it may look like, they’re not the only ones who feel overwhelmed sometimes.

As we love to remind each other and ourselves, we’re all adults here. Our culture doesn’t emphasize mental health; it emphasizes productivity and perfection, so stress management isn’t something we learn unless we make the effort. As we start college, we’re at one of the most vulnerable points of our lives — freshmen have to adjust to an increased workload, a new physical environment, different social norms, greater financial stress and homesickness. We’re used to thinking of stress as something unavoidable, a necessary evil that we have to live with to do well in college. A class like this may not cure us of stress entirely, but it could make our years at NU happier, healthier and more productive.

Obscenity and College Admissions: Don't Judge People by Their F-Bombs

I read an article on GOOD that provided statistics about how much college admissions officers stalk check applicants’ Facebooks. Apparently 24% of officers do it, and that number is on the rise.

Now, this is really nothing new. However, what did strike me about the article was this:

Twelve percent of admissions counselors told Kaplan that what they found on social networks hurt an applicant’s admissions prospects—particularly when it involved vulgarity, evidence of alcohol consumption or essay plagiarism, or proof of illegal activity.

 

See anything troubling there?

I do. Several of the things on that list involve activities that are illegal and/or violate most schools’ codes of conduct–underage drinking, plagiarism, and “illegal activity” in general. One, however, does not, and that is vulgarity.

It makes me a little queasy whenever some sort of higher authority attempts to determine what is “moral” and what isn’t. With regards to vulgarity, common courtesy generally prevails–don’t use inappropriate language with employers, interviewers, teachers and professors, other respected elders, and children. If you’re unhappy with someone in a public setting, don’t scream obscenities at them. Etcetera.

But is a person who uses vulgar language with his/her friends a bad person? Should they be denied college admission? Would they be a poor addition to their campus community?

I can see why a college admissions officer would not want to admit an applicant who clearly parties a lot, engages in plagiarism, or otherwise breaks the law. But can you really just assume that someone who uses obscenities is a bad person?

I don’t have any research on this, so I can only really use myself as a case study. I curse. A lot. I always have. I tell dirty jokes, I call politicians dicks, and I say “fuck” a lot.

I have also contributed to my university more than many, if not most, of its other students. I’ve led two student groups, started and led an initiative to bring a peer listening service to campus, served as an RA for a year, participated in a sexual health peer education group, assisted two research projects, written for campus publications, volunteered with campus groups, donated to fundraisers, and generally helped make this campus a better place. I have never received any sort of disciplinary action while I have been at Northwestern, nor have I broken any university policies, aside from keeping an electric kettle in my dorm room so I can drink tea. I have never bullied, harassed, or assaulted another student, and that’s more than I can say for some of my peers. I think that if they had to do it over, Northwestern’s admissions officers would absolutely accept me again.

But what if they’d seen the f-bombs on my Facebook profile?

Really, I think stalking applicants’ Facebooks and other profiles is a practice of dubious ethicality, anyway. Of course, everyone’s all like, “But you made it public! But it’s right there! If you didn’t want every single person in the world to know you shouldn’t have uploaded it!”

Perhaps. But there are certain boundaries that I think we should respect when it comes to others. Just because something is public doesn’t mean it’s intended for public viewing. For instance, if I’m walking on campus and I overhear a couple having a vicious argument, obviously, they could’ve been more discreet. But does that make it right for me to stand there and eavesdrop?

If I walk past a house with the lights on and the blinds up and see, say, a couple having sex, should they have been more careful? Probably. But does that mean I should stand there and stare at them doing it? No. That’s creepy as hell.

So suffice it to say that I oppose creeping on people’s lives electronically, too. And I should point out that aside from the vulgarity issue, which I’ve only recently found out about anyway, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t drink or party, so there are no Facebook photos of me drinking and partying. I don’t do anything illegal. I don’t brag about my sexual conquests. There’s nothing on my profile that I’d be ashamed of anyone else seeing.

But I do at times use obscenities when I feel the desire to express myself that way. And it doesn’t make me any less of a suitable candidate for a spot at a university, a job, or anything else.

Now, I’m also not stupid, so knowing what I now know, I’m definitely going to put my Facebook on super-duper private or just temporarily change the name on it when I’m applying for stuff. I’ve checked how my profile looks to someone who’s not friends with me and it doesn’t show any of my foul language.

But on the other hand, I also don’t want to work for an employer who’s moronic enough to overlook my strong resume and assume that I won’t know how to behave in the office–especially after interviewing me. My decorum and sense of morality are quite intact, thank you very much. But they’re not something you can judge by glancing over an online profile.

You Don't Need Alcohol

[This is my first column for the Daily Northwestern, NU’s student newspaper. I can’t find the link on their website so I’m not linking to it, but here’s the full piece.]

You don’t need alcohol.

Wait, hear me out. You really don’t need it.

Before I came to college, I obviously expected that there’d be a lot of drinking and partying going on here. What I didn’t know is why. I grew up in a large, loud Russian family, where alcohol flows freely at dinner parties and camping trips, but never takes center stage. My parents seem mosty the same to me whether they’ve had five drinks each or not a single drop, and they seemed to have just as much fun without alcohol or with it.

I was puzzled, then, when I came to college and found that alcohol was often–not always, but often–the main event. As far as I knew, most people readily admit that they don’t like the taste of alcohol, at least not of the sort usually served at college parties. Dealing with the unpleasant consequences of drinking too much is a drag. Meaningful connections aren’t usually made while one is drunk. So why?

The answer both suprised and disappointed me: people think they need it.

I started hearing the same story from almost everyone I asked. “I don’t really feel comfortable with people unless I’ve been drinking.” “I can’t talk to girls without a few drinks.” “I could never hook up with someone if we’re not both drunk.”

One friend even confided to me that he literally can’t have sex if he’s not drunk. “Why not?” I asked. “I’m more of a traditional person,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that with someone I don’t really know if I’m sober.”

Could it really be that the brilliant, accomplished people I go to school with can’t make friends or hook up without alcohol?

The answer, I think, is no. I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. Sure, it can be fun to get drunk. But should it ever be something we “need” to function socially?

I think I can attest to the fact that it’s not necessary. I used to be painfully shy and incapable of having a conversation with anyone my age. Since coming to college, I’ve truly branched out and made many friends. Yet I’ve never been drunk and can count the number of parties I’ve been to on the fingers of one hand. People, if the girl who used to bring encyclopedias to read at birthday parties can do it, anyone can.

I also don’t think we should be using alcohol to help us ignore our own values. If you’re just not the sort of person who wants to sleep with people you don’t know, that’s totally fine. I’m not either. If you think it’s perfectly okay but feel too insecure to do it without alcohol, that’s something you can work on.

That applies to making friends, too. This school is full of really cool, really interesting people. You’re going to find people who think you’re awesome. It’s just a matter of convincing yourself of that. So practice in front of the mirror, get friends to introduce you, do whatever you have to do. Having the confidence to approach people and connect with them is a wonderful thing, and it’ll be with you always–long after the party’s over and the alcohol’s all gone.

Storytelling

(Or: Massive Annual New Year’s Eve Note, Vol. 5)

[TMI Warning]

Many psychologists believe that it’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about what happens.

Some people unfortunately interpret this to mean that we ought to “look on the bright side of life” and “find the silver lining” and all that crap.

I don’t really see things that way. Never have. Life sucks a lot of the time, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either stupid, in denial, or trying to sell you something.

But I have learned, over the past year, how powerful personal storytelling can be. This was the year I took a lot of pain and turned it into a force of energy.

~~~

A year ago, I thought I was done with this whole depression thing forever. That didn’t turn out to be the case. It came back almost as soon as the new year started, worse than ever before, seemingly undefeatable.

This has been a painful year. People hurt me this year. They lied, broke my heart, used me, and took my friendship for granted.

I was alone a lot, more alone than ever before. In fact, I spent most of the summer alone in New York. It was a fantastic experience, but a lonely one nonetheless.

It was hard, a lot of the time, not to think about all the ways depression limits me. If I didn’t have it, everything about my life would be different. I’d be outgoing, I’d go to parties, I could stay up late and take harder classes. I wouldn’t be so tired all the time, I wouldn’t have such a hard time talking to people, and, of course, I wouldn’t be so sad.

But sometime over the course of this year, I stopped thinking about all the things I couldn’t do because of depression, and started thinking instead about all the things I could.

For instance, I would never have started NU Listens, my peer-listening organization, if I hadn’t been depressed. I wouldn’t have the skills that allow me to help people. I wouldn’t write so much, or so well. I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate my family and the other people I have in my life. I probably wouldn’t know what my calling is.

Some people, knowing that, would assume that I’m “thankful” for the experience of being depressed, or that I consider it “part of God’s plan” for me, or that it was “all for the best.”

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but no. I don’t think any God would put a person through this, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God. I’m not thankful and I don’t think it was for the best. I want my adolescence back. I want the first two years of college back.

In our culture, preoccupied as it is with constantly finding the silver lining to everything from rejection to failure to broken hearts, I think it’s bold of me to say that I’m not thankful for what happened. I know I’m expected to offer up some grand lesson to be learned from all this, but I’m sorry to say that there just isn’t one. Sometimes shit happens. It definitely happened to me.

Knowing that, I’ve given up trying to find some sort of grand meaning in my experiences with depression. I sure as hell don’t accept the Judeo-Christian notion that I somehow deserved it, and although it has had some positive consequences, I’d say it did more harm than good. By far.

So how to go on? Well, that’s a complicated question for someone who prefers to see things in complicated ways. The story I’ve decided to tell about my own life isn’t necessarily happy, but it’s empowering for me. It’s about working within my limitations to achieve great things.

After all, the truth is that I’m probably not going to ever fully recover. I live at the mercy of something I can’t fully control, and my entire being–from feelings and moods to thoughts, beliefs, and actions–is tempered by it. Some days it leaves me alone, and some days it barely lets me get out of bed.

It means I have to be on my best behavior all the time. Nine hours of sleep, fruits and veggies, not too much carbs or meat, brisk walking every day, at least. Schoolwork has to be done before 9 PM or so, or else I can’t concentrate on it. I get overwhelmed by information easily, hence all the organization–categorized to-do lists and a calendar, a notebook that I carry everywhere, everything in filing folders in a box under my desk. In class I have to write by hand because it keeps me more alert. Otherwise, I start dozing off after sitting still for five minutes, no matter how much sleep I’ve been getting, because that’s how my body is.

I have to always stay busy, because as soon as I have a moment to myself, my mind starts conjuring up nasty thoughts. You’re such a bitch. Go kill yourself. The reason I take five/six classes, work two jobs, and run two student groups isn’t for my resume. It’s for my health.

~~~

So those are my limitations. Sometimes they seem pretty extreme. Sometimes they seem like a blessing compared to what some people are given.

Regardless, I’m not going to define myself through them anymore.

Instead, I’m going to define myself through the unique gifts that I have, and that I’ve become aware of because of my experience with depression.

When I’m helping someone, my self disappears–and with it, so do all of my fears, insecurities, and dysfunctions. I feel like I’m entering the other person’s being. It’s almost a spiritual experience.

Of course, my ideas about others aren’t always correct, but I start down a path of understanding. I start to see why the love the people they love, why the fear the things they fear, why they do things I would never do, why they believe things that I don’t believe.

I’m not looking for any accolades or sense of moral superiority when I say that my calling is to help people feel better. In a way, I’m just as selfish as anyone else. Some people are happy when they make money, or when they do experiments, or when they play sports; I’m happy when I make others happy.

It’s pretty much that simple.

~~~

It’s been a year since I “came out” as having a mental disorder. Since then, my relationships have only grown stronger and my sense of being valued and respected has only increased. Sometimes people do imply–usually via anonymous comments on my blog, as they know better than to say it to my face–that I’m making people “uncomfortable.” My response to this is always the same: they’ll get over their discomfort. I won’t get over my depression.

The truth is that–and I’m terribly sorry about this–I really don’t give a fuck about your comfort. I just don’t. It’s not my job to make anyone comfortable. I don’t really care about fitting in or being cool or normal. I must be missing that gene, or whatever.

If I sound completely different right now than I did just a few paragraphs before, I wouldn’t blame you for being confused. My life’s work will be to help people find happiness, but never at the expense of my own ability to live and express myself as I see fit. My understanding of psychology is that if you’re so concerned with how I live that you’re made “uncomfortable” by my depression, it’s you who needs to change, not me.

I don’t think most people realize the extent of my lack of fuck-giving because, unlike many other young malcontents, I don’t wear it on my body. My clothes are normal. I talk like a more-or-less average educated person. I don’t have any tattoos or extra piercings and don’t plan on getting any, and my hair is dyed, but only slightly. It’s styled in a mostly average way. I don’t choose to “rebel” by doing lots of drugs or people, and I don’t smoke, drink, or listen to unusual music.

But internally, I feel like an alien in this world. There’s a thick glass wall between me and everyone else. There’s a terrible creature that has its tentacles wrapped around my brain, and every time it squeezes, I want to rip my head off.

That’s what depression is.

~~~

That’s not to say this year has been all bad. It certainly hasn’t. I made many friends this year–not just any friends, but best friends. I started working on two different research projects at school. I found a way to connect with the Jewish community at Northwestern. I made Dean’s List this past quarter, started my own peer listening group, got accepted as a columnist for the Daily Northwestern next quarter, drastically increased my blog’s readership, tried therapy for the first time, successfully navigated my first quarter in my own apartment, went on quite a few dates, learned how to make my own jewelry, was accepted to a quarter-long Jewish education program, and befriended a few professors.

I went to New York three times, growing more and more certain with each time that this is where I want to live someday. I watched my older brother get married and found out that I’ll be an aunt in a couple of weeks. I met distant family members I hadn’t even known about before. I decided to wean myself off antidepressants when the new year starts.

Depression keeps me from being truly happy, but I refuse to let it rewrite the story of my life any longer. What I’ve been able to do despite of (and perhaps because of) my limitations makes me glad to be alive. I hope to recover someday, but even if I don’t, my life is going to be worthwhile.

~~~

A few days ago. I’m walking near Union Square in Manhattan. The sun has nearly set and the wind is chilling. I hear a man begging for money.

“Can you spare some change?” he’s saying, over and over. The passerby walk past him and he says, “That’s okay. Maybe next year.”

I put a dollar bill in his cup and he says, “God bless you, miss. I really mean that.”

He says happy New Year, and I say happy New Year too.

And then I continue on my way.

Maybe next year.