I don’t think anyone has ever called me stupid beside myself. I’ve always been very good at school and after I pursued an academic career, people just assumed I was smart and that’s that. However, I often make stupid decisions. It used to be just in my personal life, because I was always more than serious professionally speaking, always weighing the pros and the cons and making sure my decisions were sound.
Until two years ago, when I started my current program. The decision of joining the program was actually a good one, and I’m grateful I made it. But the stupid part was my attitude towards it for the first year.
I’ve told you before that it was difficult for me to leave Delaware, which was my first home in the US, and the place where I met most of my friends as well as my boyfriend. When I had to move 3.5 hours away from it all, I didn’t realize how hard it would be, because in the grand scheme of things, 3.5 hours is close to nothing. But the first time my boyfriend drove me to my school so I could visit apartments and get things straightened out, I was in shock. Ever since being accepted into the new program, I had been burying my head in the sand and pretending that everything was going to be ok. But for a while, it wasn’t.
About halfway there, I started bawling my eyes out. I had finally realized how far I was going to be from my boyfriend of a little over a year, and it dawned on me that it was probably going to be difficult to see each other very often. At the time, I didn’t have a car yet and had to rely on public transportation for over a semester.
I didn’t start on the right foot in my new department. I did the bare minimum when it came to attending orientation, and I did all I could to be back in Philadelphia with my boyfriend as early as possible. He came to visit me quite often, but it was almost like I had an aversion to my new town, and insisted on doing most of the visiting. I just needed to get out of there, and get back to my comfort zone.
The truth is, I was dead scared that we wouldn’t make it. We had ‘only’ been together for a little over a year, and I didn’t know if we were strong enough to handle the distance. I was reluctant to call this a ‘long-distance relationship’ and I still am, because 1) long-distance relationships are famous for not working out, and 2) we saw each other absolutely every weekend, whatever happened.
I focused so much on my relationship that I completely neglected my work. I had the teaching part under control, because this was completely within my comfort zone, but the classes I took were on the back burner. I barely participated, had a very blasé attitude, and avoided responsibilities. I also didn’t make a real effort to make friends. I mean, I was friendly to people, and no one thought I was particularly cold or distant, but I remained very closed up. It was like I refused to put down more roots. This was a very stupid attitude to have, especially in a PhD program. For the first time ever, I had very mediocre grades and my professors started expressing concerns about me. At the end of the schoolyear, in May, we all receive a ‘letter’ (more like an email) that lets us know how we have been doing all year long. Needless to say, mine wasn’t good. I didn’t expect it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to make me cry either.
What really blindsided me -even though it shouldn’t have- is that the letter mainly focused on my attitude. Yes, my grades were not stellar, but it didn’t seem to be their biggest concern. What alarmed them is that I seemed disengaged. They urged me to get more involved in the department and in my classes, ‘or else’ (not a direct quote, but it was the idea). Once again, I buried those thoughts in the sand all last summer, but in the back of my mind, I knew I would have to operate a change. This was confirmed when I met up with my advisor about a year ago. He made sure I knew that he supported me, but he was also very concerned about my future in the department.
This was a huge wake up call. For the first time in my life, my work wasn’t up to par and I was the ugly duckling of the bunch. I’m not saying I have always been *the best*, but I’ve always been a *good* student/employee/what-have-you.
From then on, I went the extra mile. I attended every department function, volunteered to substitute, volunteered to take on more responsibilities in the department, volunteered to pretty much everything I could think of. I stopped making excuses to miss stuff. I realized that it was taking a toll on me anyways. It is much easier to RSVP yes, than to come up with a made-up ‘thing’ that ‘just came up’, and wait anxiously for the ‘no problem’ email.
I participated constantly, even if it was to say something dumb. I made an effort. Halfway through the fall semester, my advisor stopped me on the street to tell me he had heard wonderful things about me from my professors. My relationship with him became more cordial, less tense. I started speaking up about my shitty year. By the end of the semester, everyone was so impressed by my complete turnaround that they offered me a really fun class to teach in the spring.
When I passed my exams in February, I cried. I was finally allowed to move on, and start the actual PhD program after earning 3 different Masters in 6 years. Maybe that’s what scared me, after all. Maybe that was part of my fear to get out of my comfort zone. I finally did my very first conference, after being invited to speak on one of my professors’ panel. I broke the ‘curse’ of the woman who was stuck in the same fear-ridden pattern.
I ran into one of my professors, who had me during my first, horrible year. She congratulated me on my exam, and on my improvement. I told her almost everything, how relieved I was to be doing better, how difficult it was for me to adapt, for some reason. She completely got it. She basically told me ‘you know, shit happens. The important thing is to know when to clean it up.’ And I completely agree. You can make mistakes, you can make stupid decisions, that’s all part of life. But what you really have to do is realize it before it’s too late. Don’t be stubborn, don’t let it drag for a whole year like I did. Look in the mirror and kick your own ass.
The best part is, my relationship didn’t suffer. As it turns out, it took more energy to have a bad attitude than it did to have a good one. I just did my best in every part of my life. I became proud of my accomplishments, proud to have overcome that shitty year, and also proud of my relationship.
So, kids, don’t be stupid. Don’t think you have to sacrifice one thing to have the other. You can have it all.
I still feel anxious a lot of the time. I am often crippled by anxiety. But something magical happened after opening up to my coworkers and classmates: I realized that EVERYONE is anxious. And when we start freaking out, we support each other. I also opened up to my boyfriend. Last year, I refused to talk to him about my problems at work, because I didn’t want him to feel guilty -I knew he would think that I wasn’t doing well because I was visiting him so much. Talking about those things reinforced us and made us closer.
Bottom line is: it’s not perfect, I am still very anxious about starting the semester. After a great summer of just teaching a little bit and hanging out with my guy, I feel a little stressed out over starting my routine again. But I know it is possible. It’s not gonna be easy, because academia never lets you get any rest, there’s always a new challenge. But you know, after kicking my own stupid ass, I feel like I can take on the world.