Overwhelmed: Tobi Breaks Down During Exam Week

Dear Elisabeth,

There will come a time in your life when the world finally hands you the opportunity for independence. It will hold it like a gem in its open hand and whisper in your ear all of its lures which have captured the minds of youth throughout history:

“With independence, you can make your own life decisions. You can pursue whatever course of action you deem fit and rightfully derive pride from the successes of your ventures. You won’t need to ask for permission to engage in your own passions. You won’t need supervision as you try new experiences. Independence will allow you to forge your own, unique identity, and it will be something that you will treasure always.”

Well, that is not independence.

Independence does give you some identity, but it also gives you strife. That perfect gem it offers comes at the price of increased responsibility for your actions, and that cost is not so easy to pay. Yes, you will be able to experience all of those wonderful benefits  promised to you when you first imagined independence. But, although you may ultimately make your own decisions, there will always be other factors in your life which can pressure you to subvert your passions for more practical enterprises. There will be your family, your career, the economic status and social structure of your society–and so many other things–that will narrow the list of available, feasible opportunities for you, and you will be the one to face the brunt of any criticisms or regrets that may come with your resulting decisions.

It may seem depressing or a bit cataclysmic to describe independence in that way, but I must stress that my wish is not to demonize independence. Simply because you must take responsibility for your actions does not mean that your actions will be any less rewarding or memorable. Similarly, facing external stresses does not need to dominate your decision-making or your life. The reason I am emphasizing this description is because I don’t want you to delve into adulthood with a fantasy that independence equates to free choice. Just because you make the decisions doesn’t mean that you will be able to escape the same pressures you may feel now as a kid.

I wrote this letter after reminiscing over my first week of examinations at Cornell University. Back then, I struggled to keep up with my responsibilities. There was so much that I wanted to do–meet with Spencer, participate in clubs, finish some writing–and so many things I needed to do–study, review, and write essays. I couldn’t go to parties or be irresponsible like how television and some books describe other college students. I couldn’t even engage in my own, simple hobbies. Writing a single page of my own story was virtually impossible because I was always too busy memorizing a thousand pages from someone’s else’s.

When I look back at all those hours I spent studying for exams, I remember clearly how stressed out I was. I tried to stay optimistic, holding Tobi by my side, but  I was obviously unprepared to tackle those examinations. The review packets were extraordinarily long  and I knew from conversations I had with other students that I was not comprehending the material at the same level as most of my class. For several moments, I looked at all the work I had to do and knew I could not possibly do it all in a healthy way.

Tobi Studies with Nani for Exams

So, why am I telling you about my first exams?

Because I want you to think about all the stress factors you have now as a kid. You have to succumb to the scrutiny and demands of your parents, your school officials, and your peers, while all the while maintaining some loyalty to yourself. You get angry at your parents, your teachers, and your friends because they won’t let you do the things you really want to do–the fun things, like sleeping in late or reading your favorite book or going out to the movie theater to see a new flick. You don’t like it when they put restrictions on you, with their curfues and grades and snarky comments, and so being older and going to college sounds wonderful because there rules no longer apply due to the distance and independence that separate you.

I similarly longed for college because I too wanted to escape some of the more stressful and impeding restrictions that came with being so young and dependent on others. However, during my first exams, I realized that those restrictions didn’t go away simply because I was doing my own laundry and making my own schedule. They simple changed forms.

Mom can’t tell you where and when you can go out with friends or what to eat for dinner, but it will be mom who you think of when you want to blow off studying for an exam. You will think of all that money and time she put into you so that you could go to school and advance our family in society, and you will feel indebted to her. You will imagine her disappointment in you when she gets back your failing grades and how she must hide your procrastination and poor judgment from our other family members. Most of all, you will long for that feeling of pride you could have gotten had you actually received good marks. You’ll imagine mom talking so happily to all of her friends and coworkers about your success–her own pride obvious in her beaming smile.

You will think about your school officials when you consider how your low GPA will affect your applicability for continuing your college education. You will think of those scholarships or programs which pay for your tuition and worry whether your academic performance will curtail your benefactors’ generosity. You will worry over the various programs and opportunities you really wanted to try but whose applications require a certain GPA under which you no longer qualify.

You will think of your friends, who will wonder why you couldn’t get your act together and pass what they considered to be such an easy class. You will wonder how your procrastination will affect your future opportunities for success and worry about how you may compare to your rivals back home or at college once all is said and done.

Those pressures that you tried to avoid by running away to college don’t disappear  They manifest themselves in subconscious worry and, once rooted, they are very hard to remove. Again, these descriptions may be a bit exaggerated  but these concerns will come to you at some time or another, even if they don’t come all at once or are less despairing than I described. It was these issues which pressured me to give all of my energy into an endeavor I could not win. Tobi and I gave up everything we cared about doing–the writing, the socializing, the romancing–and even things we were never supposed to give up. We didn’t eat properly during that week. For three days in a row I did not sleep, and the remaining days were managed with only minimal hours of rest taken at sporadic times. I became sick and looked like a wreck, and Tobi made a habit of falling asleep amidst his textbook at the library.

“Five more minutes…”

But, most importantly, we were held responsible for those decisions. No one sympathized with us because we gave up all that time and energy into studying. Our peers either approved of what we were doing or were busy engaging in the same behavior themselves. Our loved ones criticized us for not taking better care of our health, and some even chastised us for having procrastinated earlier on in the semester and bringing this misery upon ourselves. No one said that it was our situation that was unfair; no one complained that it was my parents’ rules or my school’s dreadfulness that made my life so wretched. Such complaining was reserved for high school, when most of your life really wasn’t a product of your own decisions. But now, with my new-found independence, I was the one who put myself in that position. I was the one to blame for being so stressed out.

When you go to college, Elisabeth, you need to realize that it is not an escape from the pressures in your life. You cannot run away from issues such as struggling with your education, arguing with your parents, or fighting with your friends by going to a far-away land. College is not a protective bubble that will shield you from emotional issues. The best thing you can do is handle these problems now as a youth so that you are emotionally prepared  when they come into conflict with greater things you won’t want to compromise on–things like your health, your happiness, and your passions. If you can’t find a way now to engage in a healthy conversation with mom about how her expectations and rules negatively impact your life (for example, by limiting the number of times you can go out or what activities you participate in at school), then how do you expect to have that same conversation later on in life when mom’s expectations for you run contrary to something much more important (like what kind of career you will have or how far away from home you will live post-graduation)? It’s irrational to think that with independence there will come this form of understanding between you and these outside figures–that suddenly your own desires will be paramount to theirs. You need to learn how to make your personal interests known, how to identify what compromises you are or are not willing to make, and how to balance the expectations and desires of others against what you want to do. This way of thinking is not a pass for you to do reckless things; sometimes, respecting the limitations of others are more important than your own wants (such as when mom wants you to do well in school but you just want to get drunk and party instead) because those limitations are actually in your best interest. You are young, so acknowledge the experience of others and take them into consideration. However, you also should also push back against stress and keep your priorities straight when those pressures try push you into do things that are not in your best interest.


My first exam week revealed to me that I was not emotionally prepared for independence. I wasn’t capable of making the right decisions for myself in stressful situations, and as a result I damaged my own health and mental well-being. I’m not saying that I should have blown off those exams, but I probably shouldn’t have walked into my studying sessions with so much stress on my mind and so many unrealistic expectations for myself. If I am unprepared now for these simple college life responsibilities, I shouldn’t be so earnest to jump into adult life or expect to reap different results.

In a similar way, I hope that you don’t jump into future stages in your life expecting independence to come without strings. Responsibility is tied to more autonomy, and that autonomy doesn’t always come in the traditional forms of bills or increased workloads. It also comes in tests of emotional stamina and in confronting personal conflicts from your past that may be uncomfortable for you. So when you embrace independence, realize that its benefits of identity and personal development requires the hard work of actively shaping your own identity and of developing your own personal skills. With that in mind, don’t jump into adulthood fool-heartily. Come mentally prepared and see it as an opportunity to change your life instead of running away from it.

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