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Year One: Tying self-worth to grades is a major issue for first-year students

By Anjali Choudhary, December 16 2020—

Self-worth: the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person. 

As an ever changing phenomenon, a strong sense of self-worth is vital to simply survive in this extraordinarily brutal modern world. Lived experiences work to continuously alter self-worth — building it up or chipping it away. In a university setting full of constant self-deprecating jokes, which are often a coping mechanism for setbacks in just about all aspects, self-worth is undeniably low. 

Thousands of bright, starry-eyed first-year undergraduate students, myself included, wrote our first quizzes, exams or midterms with hearts clutched in hands awaiting the results. Clearly, if we had been “smart enough” to gain acceptance into our programs, we should excel in these classes, right? Well, with D2L notifications saying “Midterm Grade Updated: 49%” those bright, starry eyes were quickly replaced with personal storm clouds, their strength growing as the semester went on. But of course, us Dinos are resilient, hard-working and refuse to accept defeat! That is, until the next exam result comes out only slightly better than the first — or maybe even worse. It is then that the line between “I failed my test” and “I am a failure” becomes extremely difficult to distinguish. 

The high-achieving atmosphere created for high school  students is almost entirely driven by the hopes of getting into university and building a foundation to undoubtedly succeed. Being first-year students, it initially feels as if the largest hurdle has been crossed. This is before realizing that your insanely difficult Math 30 assignments were nothing in comparison to the atrocities of university-level math. Not only had we falsely taken a sigh of relief, but had also become hugely accustomed to putting in a significant amount of effort and achieving our desired results. However, when that effort no longer pays off, it leads to constant feelings of low self-esteem and personal failure. Once this seed has been planted in a student’s mind, it spreads like poison, tainting all of their thoughts and unfortunately drastically decreasing their sense of self-worth.

With each failed expectation of academic success, it is near impossible to differentiate it from a personal failure of self. At the end of the day, we all want to prove to ourselves that we belong in this tough and rigorous environment and that those dreary, sleep-deprived instances of studying into ungodly hours of the night are all worth it to finally achieve a sense of accomplishment. While this is only the beginning of a very painfully long journey, it is in our nature as students to pin our worth onto this first initial semester. The lack of confidence for a specific quiz easily translates over to a lack of confidence in all other aspects of life, leaving students to feel hopeless and quickly start drowning. Rather than solely feeling anxious about your upcoming statistics test, you begin to question whether you’re good enough to even be attending university, or if you even deserve to go out with friends because you scored poorly on a sociology quiz. The reliance of self-worth on academic grades inevitably leads to a miserable, endless cycle.

These bouts of self-bullying, which are only aggravated further as students move along their university journey, are common, but they are detrimental to the  sanity of the student. Everyone has expectations for themselves, and when kept in check, these expectations are  healthy and encouraged, regardless of your position in life. However, when these expectations, such as achieving a 4.0 GPA, lead to a recurring need for external validation, health in all forms is damaged. Mental health for many students severely declines at the beginning of each new semester and, while much of the blame falls upon the rigour of courses, it is helpful to critically analyze your personal psyche. Students, especially those so new into their post-secondary careers, can feel lost without basing their worth against an unbelievably high academic standard, but each individual is so much more than the grades section of D2L. A failure academically does not translate over to personal incompetence. In fact, in many scenarios, this could not be further from the truth. 

Year One is a column about the first-year experience at the University of Calgary.  This column is part of our Voices section.

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