Emotional diversity

Who is Williams? Just faces with frozen smiles? Many of us tend to think that the typical Williams student is a person who is always happy, successful and multi-talented. For some students, this means repressing their disappointments and sorrows and forcing themselves to “become Williams.” Yet, we can’t get an A in our emotions. Nor a C. Unlike our course grades, we cannot label our emotions as successes or as failures. Unless we cease suppressing our emotions to “be Williams,” we cannot create a genuinely cohesive community.

I recently spoke with one of my comparative literature professors, who compared her college experience with our own. She told me that, unlike here at the College, she never felt a need to get involved in a plethora of extracurricular activities and never “felt like a loser” while she solely focused on her academic work. She sees peer pressure here at our small and prestigious liberal arts college as often insurmountable, and not without reason. Just a few days ago, one of my classmates told me that she does not seem to fit in and is disappointed in herself because of her disinterest in extra-curricular activities. As a result, she thinks that she can never “be Williams,” as she does not find herself as inspirational as other “over-achieving students.” And she does not feel comfortable in sharing her loss of self-esteem with others, since “everyone else seems so happy.” While unknowledgeable about student life at other colleges, I realize that here at the College we too often veil our sorrows and disappointments.

Expressing failure or discontent does not seem to be part of the “Williams experience,” a tacit rule that students both follow and force upon others. Feeling forlorn and feeling like a Williams student seem mutually exclusive. Recently, I thought that I had somehow failed by even questioning the life-long project that all “successful” high school students strive to accomplish: to go to a good college and then to have an extremely lucrative job. Unlike the people on the “I Am Williams” posters, I momentarily felt sad, as if I were a malfunctioning product for not wanting what this culture already defines as “success.” I was afraid to share my feelings, since “everyone else seemed so happy.”

Yet, this might be a sheer illusion. A few days ago, I went to a viewing of a mind-opening documentary, A Reason to Live, at an event sponsored by Active Minds. Many of the interviewees, who had been through depression, emphasized that they seemed happy and inspirational to their friends. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they all agreed on one point: They did not feel comfortable sharing their feelings until life became so unbearable that they even thought of ending it. At that moment, I thought that maybe we, as students of the College, fear to admit that we sometimes feel weak in a culture of success.

How much control do we have over our lives if we try so hard to fit ourselves to an image? And how might we get to know each other if we do not share and express our sorrows, failures and disappointments? Some of my close classmates, who always seem so cheerful, told me a few days ago that they “look forward to getting drunk” to express the disappointments of their stressful and arduous college lives. Their words betray conscious awareness of personal failures and disappointments while they also demonstrate a fear of not fitting into a culture of success. Here, the blinding consequence of labeling emotions as successes or failures becomes clear: It hinders the creation of a genuinely cohesive community.

I appreciate the “I Am Williams” posters, whose main aim is to underline the College’s diversity. They emphasize that each student is unique and that there is no single path to “being Williams.” Yet many students might misread the posters’ message and condition themselves to always smile and appear happy – to feel culpable for feeling disappointed or sad. There is no single “Williams experience.” And there shouldn’t be. As a medley of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, the College takes laudable steps to reinforce its diverse culture. We can achieve real diversity, though, when Williams becomes a haven for different mentalities and attitudes towards life. No one can grade our emotions. Nor can anyone claim them to be failures. I am Williams too, even when I do not have a smile on my face.

Ceyhun Arslan ’11 is a biology and comparative literature major from Istanbul, Turkey.