When we fail: student leaders talk about their imperfections

Vanderbilt student leaders talked to us about obstacles, failures and tough times, and we want you to do the same

This year, Vanderbilt regained its status as the happiest school in the country, according to the Princeton Review. Boasting to friends, family and prospective students about this title only seems natural – it conjures up memories of our most joyful and rewarding moments at Vanderbilt.

However, every student on this campus knows that college isn’t all fun. Almost all of us have faced – or will face – significant challenges during our four years here. We often don’t talk about these obstacles and imperfections; instead, we present personas entirely defined by our successes. While this approach is completely understandable, considering most of us are here to become more knowledgeable, successful and impressive, it leads to a campus culture in which students struggling with both academic and personal difficulties feel that they are alone, when quite the opposite is the case.

We remind ourselves that our peers who appear to have everything together aren’t as perfect as they seem, but it’s hard to truly get that through our heads when we never see them falter. We choose the issues that are okay to vocalize, while others constantly get pushed under the rug. And while the “acceptable” list is expanding due to the hard work of advocates across campus, there are still plenty of battles we each fight alone.

Talking about imperfection isn’t easy. Openly discussing the things that only a few people may know about us, or that maybe no one knows, is daunting for many reasons. Potential employers or graduate schools might find out. Our peers may look at us differently. We may appear vulnerable or weak. But sharing our stories of downfall, collapse, breakdown, misstep, frustration and loss is the only way to truly destigmatize imperfection. Once one person opens up about their invisible obstacles, it opens the door for the rest of us to do so. But someone has to be the first.

The Hustler asked student leaders around Vanderbilt to tell us their stories. Each student first describes the successes that tend to define them on campus. Then, they share the struggles that they’ve dealt with in their time here.

Below, you will find stories of mental and physical illness, insecurity, academic and extracurricular struggle, guilt and emotional turmoil. You will read about the student body president’s battle with her health, the panhellenic president’s loss of a mentor, an LGBTQI advocate’s suicidal ideation, and an engineer’s denial of her struggles with mental health. But the best part of all is that you will also read about the incredible accomplishments that these individuals have achieved and the passions they have gone on to pursue despite these setbacks.   

But the story doesn’t end here. There’s something special about each and every student on this campus that got them to this university, and chances are, there’s at least one thing that’s gotten in the way. The Imperfection Project, an initiative through the Center for Student Wellbeing, is dedicated to the goal of teaching Vanderbilt students to voice their insecurities and flaws.

“If no one’s talking about what they’ve done and things they’ve gone through, if no one accepts the fact that things are going to get tough and it’s okay for you not to know what to do, when you get out in the real world you’re really not going to know how to navigate that,” said Janiene Peoples, a student wellbeing coordinator who works with the project. “So all the more reason for students to be open and share their stories.”

We want to give you an opportunity to follow the example of the students in this article. Here you’ll find a link to tell us your story. If you’re ready to help change Vanderbilt’s culture of perfectionism, submit your own account and we may publish it soon.

Jami Cox

What you probably know about me is that I am the Student Body President. You probably know that I have interned in Washington D.C. twice, working at the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Census Bureau. You probably know that I am majoring in Public Policy, active in my sorority, and have served as an RA and a VUCeptor.

What you probably don’t know about me is that I have been battling Crohn’s Disease most of my life. You probably don’t know that I almost took a leave of absence the second semester of my sophomore year due to the fact that I was in desperate need of surgery. You probably don’t know that in the same semester of joining my sorority and running for BSA president, I was recovering from a major invasive procedure which took a toll on me mentally, physically and emotionally. You probably don’t know about my academic struggles, battles with self doubt and personal insecurities.

Jacob Pierce 

What you probably know about me is that I’m the President of the Multicultural Leadership Council. You probably know that I’m an RA on Commons and involved in VUcept as well. You probably know that I am a Public Policy Studies major and a Political Science minor. You probably know that I am a bit of a political junkie. You probably know that I worked at Jeni’s Ice cream the summer after my first year.

What you probably don’t know about me is that I struggled a lot during my freshman year. You probably don’t know that I used to avoid eating meals because I was afraid people would judge me for eating by myself. You probably don’t know that I constantly fret about not having an internship or job offer lined up for the summer. You probably don’t know that I worry that I’ve sacrificed more than I should for my involvements here on campus. You probably don’t know that I still have no idea how to write a cover letter or have any idea how to use LinkedIn. You probably don’t know that I constantly grapple with my involvements on campus and worry that I am contributing to the campus culture I deplore so much.

Ryan Hanson

What you probably know about me is that I am the Panhellenic President. If you knew that then you probably know that I am Greek. You probably know that I’m from Wisconsin. If you knew that then you probably know that I’m a Packers, Badgers, and Brewers fan. You probably know that I work in a research lab. You probably know that I’m premed and, if you knew that, you probably know that I got accepted to my first medical school a couple of weeks ago.

What you probably don’t know about me is that quality time is my top love language and that I get worried that you’re upset with me if I don’t see you for a while, even though I know I shouldn’t. You probably don’t know that I cry when I’m mad. You probably don’t know that my closest mentor got a job at another university and that I don’t know who to talk to anymore. You probably don’t know that two of my grandparents are currently being treated for different types of cancer and that it’s conflicting for me to not be home right now. You probably don’t know that there are times where I feel left out, even by my own friends. You probably don’t know that I failed a physics test last year and still struggle to not let my grades define me. You probably don’t know that I was scared about asking my professors for recommendation letters. You probably don’t know that I’m terrified of leaving Vanderbilt to move on to med school next year.

Mac Ploetz

What you probably know about me is that I am incredibly involved on campus. You probably know that I am in my second year as president of Lambda and my third year on the executive board. You probably know me as a Vandy Sex Ed peer educator. You probably know that I’m a Women’s and Gender Studies major, and I am completing 52 credit hours in 12 months to graduate in May 2018. You probably know I have a beautiful partner and cute kitty.

What you probably don’t know about me is that in my first two years at Vanderbilt, I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital three separate times. You probably don’t know that, for a while, I found myself unable to do my homework, go to class, hang out with friends, shower, or even brush my teeth. You probably don’t know that I have been struggling with chronic suicidal ideation for as long as I can remember. You probably don’t know that I failed most of my classes my sophomore year. You probably don’t know I was sexually assaulted in that year, too. You probably don’t know that I struggle with being proud of my identity sometimes because it seems to have led to so much turmoil. You probably don’t know that I have attempted suicide in the past.

Joshua Ulino

What you probably know about me is that I am the president of the Interfraternity Council. You probably know that I am a member of Delta Tau Delta, and that I am going to work at Bain after I graduate.

What you probably don’t know about me is the number of times I cried to my friends freshman year after a complicated end to my high school relationship. You probably don’t know that I was sent to student accountability the first semester of my sophomore year and spent the entire semester on deferred probation. You probably don’t know that my grandfather passed away last year after I watched him suffer from Alzheimer’s for a number of years.

Austin Konkle

What you probably know about me is that I absolutely love Vanderbilt. As a VUceptor, Tour Guide, VSG Senator and member of the VUcept Executive Board, I want to take advantage of every opportunity to give back to our incredible university. You probably know that I’m a proud member of Pi Kappa Alpha, the most diverse and socioeconomically inclusive IFC organization on Vanderbilt’s campus. You may know that I’m passionate about service and that I traveled to New Hampshire on ASB and taught English in Morocco this past summer with OACS. If you’ve attended a cultural showcase, you may have seen me in the ANYF Hip Hop or Diwali Fusion Gold routines. You may know that I’m a Christian and that my Bible is about as worn and tattered as any you’ve ever seen. You may know that I sincerely have a heart for people and want to bring out the best in everyone that I interact with every day. Finally, if you don’t know me as Austin, you may know me as “Duct Tape Guy,” “Vandy’s most fashionable freshman” (who really just unashamedly wears flip flops everyday), “Zeta’s Second Biggest Man on Campus.”

What you probably don’t know about me is that I have a number of chronic health conditions. I take no fewer than 5 or 6 prescription medications per day to keep my body stable, and sometimes my stomach pain is so severe that just getting out of bed in the morning is a nearly insurmountable task. You probably don’t know that I scored nearly 100 percent introverted on every personality test I’d ever taken before coming to college and that, over two years later, I still have to work every day to combat social anxiety and fears of abandonment. You may not know that I only attend Vanderbilt thanks to a handsome sum of financial aid and that, even with the greatly reduced price of attendance, I’m exceptionally nervous about having to take out loans for the first time next semester. You probably don’t know that my fall semester of sophomore year was the hardest four months of my life for my mental and emotional well-being and that I was one signature away from taking a leave of absence or transferring schools entirely. You probably don’t know that I wonder almost daily how I can effectively use my privilege as a white male to help speak up for those around me who don’t have such a societally-bestowed pedestal, and yet I still find myself failing to rise to the occasion far too often. Finally, you may not know that I’ve spent hundreds if not thousands of painful, tear-filled hours trying to reconcile my sexuality with my faith, and, while I’m in a far brighter place than I once was, it still remains a point of internal anxiety that I rarely discuss with even my closest friends.

Jordyn Purvins

What you probably know about me is that I’m the President of Theta Tau. You probably know that I’m an electrical engineering student with an art minor. You probably know how much I love to run and play volleyball. You probably know that I’m in a very happy relationship with my boyfriend, Nate. You probably know that I take my commitments very seriously and that I dropped all of my other involvements last fall so that I could concentrate all of my efforts on Theta Tau.  

What you probably don’t know about me is that my GPA is pretty low. You probably don’t know that I have never felt like I belong at Vanderbilt and that coming to this school is the worst thing I have ever done for my self-esteem. You probably don’t know that I almost always get very physically sick before, during, or after an exam. You probably don’t know that I’ve been in denial of my mental health issues for years and that I’ve never felt comfortable seeking help from those I consider close to me. You probably don’t know that there were periods during my freshman and sophomore years when I wanted to give up on it all.

Sarah Friedman

What you probably know about me is that I’m the Editor in Chief of the Vanderbilt Hustler. You probably know that I have two majors (math and economics) and two minors (Spanish and financial economics), and have also maintained a high GPA throughout my time at Vanderbilt. You probably know that I had an investment banking internship at Wells Fargo during my sophomore summer, and have another one lined up at Barclays for next summer. You probably know that I’m in a sorority. You probably know that I’m in a happy relationship with my girlfriend, Cait, and that we’re fortunate in that we get to see each other often even though she lives far away.

What you probably don’t know about me is that in the middle of my sophomore year, I finally confronted the battle I’ve been fighting for years with depression. You probably don’t know that I have given up more than I would like to admit for my grades, and that I’ve sacrificed a lot of my social life for my position on the Hustler. You probably don’t know that even when I am spending time with friends at parties or tailgates, I’m worrying about whether they’re judging me for not drinking alcohol or not being easily excited, happy and relaxed. You probably don’t know that I cried nearly every day during the job application process last year and called my mom telling her that I wanted to quit, that I needed to come home, that nothing felt worth it, and that I didn’t feel worth it either. You probably don’t know that I spent at least a portion of every week at my internship crying in the bathroom or having panic attacks. You probably don’t know that I almost didn’t make it through the summer at Wells. You probably don’t know that I’m constantly struggling internally with what it means to be a member of a sorority and that I constantly feel guilty about contributing to a system that provides additional privilege to those who are already privileged. You probably don’t know that I spent the first 18 years of my life convincing myself that I’m straight, and feeling ashamed because I knew that I wasn’t.

Don’t forget to submit your own story here.

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Claire Barnett, Multimedia Director

Claire Barnett (’19) is the Multimedia Director of the Vanderbilt Hustler. As the director of all photo and video content, she is rarely seen without a camera in hand. Claire is a former White House Photo Office Intern majoring in Human and Organizational Development with a minor in Italian Studies. She loves her family, her faith, and chocolate-chip cookie dough.

1 COMMENT

  1. Tearing up because I love this so much. Thank you for being brave and vulnerable and sharing your stories, to say to others, me too. I think it is courageous to be vulnerable. ““Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ~ the wonderful Brenè Brown <3

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