My college struggles

(and how I stood back up)

By Alison Wagener

When I was in high school, I was a capable, high-achieving student. I was involved in every organization I could pack into my schedule, got straight As, and even found time to hang out with friends. I was an expert at juggling school, friends, and extracurriculars, and I did it with ease. I even graduated as valedictorian of my class.

Now I’m not telling you this to brag, but to offer some background knowledge for the huge, mind-boggling secret I’m about to tell you:

Students who do well in high school can struggle in college.

Let that soak in for a minute. For some of you, this probably comes as a no-brainer. But if you’re like me and breezed through high school and expected a similar experience in college (here’s some advice — don’t do that), this can be very difficult to accept. Here’s the happy story of how I learned to do so.

When I came to UW-Eau Claire as a freshman, I was ecstatic. My roommate was amazing, my classes were engaging, and I was loving every minute of it. My responsibilities in the homework and studying department were only slightly more difficult than what I had to do in high school, and I challenged myself to excel. I knew I could handle it, and I did.

Fast-forward to last fall, the first semester of my sophomore year. I had moved off campus, and I was excited to be a real adult with real responsibilities (this isn’t as easy as it sounds, but that’s another story). As I went into my first couple weeks of classes, things seemed generally awesome, but it soon became apparent to me that I was missing something, like a part of me had significantly changed since the previous autumn and I was just then noticing it. I couldn’t name what it was, so I tried my best to ignore it. Turns out, this wasn’t the best choice.

Over time, and for no known reason, I became less motivated to go to class, a feeling that only continued to worsen until I had no motivation to do anything. Every day, doing homework made me anxious. Ignoring my homework made me anxious. Thinking about how behind I was in my homework that I hadn’t done because I was too anxious made me anxious.

Now I know what you’re thinking — Hold up, I thought she said this was going to be a happy story. This is actually pretty depressing.

Yep. I know. Bear with me here.

Soon, the mother of all avalanches started. My homework started slipping, and being a day or two behind became being a week or two behind, and I couldn’t handle it. There was a point in the semester where I did absolutely nothing for two and a half weeks. I went to class, but I wasn’t really there. I fell into a slump, and I lost sight of why I was even in college in the first place.

I didn’t want to tell my professors what was going on. I was embarrassed at how quickly the overdue assignments were piling up, and I didn’t think they’d care to hear about why. So, I faked my way through discussions and ducked out after class every day, avoiding talking to them about the situation (some more advice — don’t do that either. It only makes things worse).

On top of all of that, I felt guilty, lazy, and ashamed, and I blamed myself. I constantly thought to myself, “I could’ve easily handled this in high school. Why can’t I now?” I was trapped in a vicious cycle of self-hate, anxiety, and not being able to achieve my goals, and it sucked. It sucked a lot.

Finally — and here’s where it starts to get better — I mustered up the courage to get help for what I’d finally been able to admit was anxiety and depression. I made an appointment at Counseling Services on campus and started going on a regular basis. Let me tell you, it was difficult and strange, but also one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Pushing myself to get that initial help started an incredibly long and difficult journey toward self-acceptance that I’m still traveling today. Since that first appointment, my counselor has helped me realize that what I’m going through is completely understandable, and many college students — especially in their sophomore year — have similar experiences. It was so affirming to have someone tell me that my problems were real and justifiable. My only regret is not going sooner.

After that first appointment, I went to the Dean of Students office to get support from the administration before I talked to my professors. I was worried that they wouldn’t let me make up what I missed, and I wanted to legitimize my issues. I met with a student assistance coordinator, and she gave me the tools and support I needed to talk to my professors.

The next week, I came clean with my professors and let them know what was going on. To my surprise, they were all incredibly accepting, understanding and accommodating. They let me make up the work I missed and gave me extensions on projects I was far behind on with almost no questions asked. I now know that I could’ve gone to them as soon as I started having problems, and I’m so very grateful for their kindness. Eventually, I was caught up in everything, something that seemed impossible just a few weeks prior.

Today, I’m still working through my struggles, but I no longer let them define me. I’ve learned to cope, and I’m seeing improvements every day. I set realistic goals for myself, break my larger assignments into smaller, more manageable chunks and take time daily for myself just to breathe and exist.

Now, in the spirit of positivity and optimism, I have to end this on a high note.

I’m writing this because I want to share my story with you, whether you’re a student in a similar situation as me, or even a concerned parent or friend. If you ever feel like what I’ve just described, know that there are amazing support systems available to you on campus to assist you in working through it. In my experience, UW-Eau Claire is full to the brim with people who genuinely care and would love to help you.

Yes, I did well in high school. Yes, I’ve struggled in college. But I’ve learned that even though it can be the hardest part, admitting you need help doesn’t make you any less of the wonderful human being you are.

Thank you for letting me share my story with you, and if you take anything away from it, make it this: find confidence in yourself, no matter how hard that seems.

If I’ve learned anything during my time here at UWEC, it’s that Blugolds are resilient, capable, and intelligent, and we always help each other stand back up.

Alison Wagener is a sophomore English education major at UW-Eau Claire. She works on campus as both a student writer at University Communications and as a writing assistant at the Center for Writing Excellence. She also serves as chapter leader of UW-Eau Claire’s chapter of Students for Education Reform. She aspires to teach English or work in education policy and reform after graduating (if she ever gets around to choosing a minor). In her spare time, she enjoys pursuing her other passions: cats, coffee, sustainability, knitting, and dismantling the patriarchy, among many others.

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