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Some College Students Suffer from Rory Gilmore Syndrome, But We Can Change That

“There’s a sensitive scene about halfway through the film that depicts images of a suicide,” my professor told our entire Intro to GLBT Studies course. “If you need to leave the room, please feel free to do so. You can have another student come and get you when the scene is over.” 

That was my first introduction to what has now come to be known by many as ‘trigger warnings’ in the college classroom. Sure enough, just as the documentary’s mentions of the suicide were beginning, one female student quietly stood up and left the room. She made no fuss about it, and she returned so quietly that I didn’t even notice her come back in.

My immediate reaction is to push back when society—especially older generations—criticizes and vilifies millennials and the generation below us, Generation Z. We aren’t lazy, entitled brats who believe we deserve accolades even when we fail. All we want is to succeed in a struggling economy and to make a difference.

I’m a rape survivor. I know what it feels like to have triggers, and to avoid graphic depictions of rape—especially any that may be similar to what I went through—when I know I’m not emotionally ready to take that on. Some days, that means that I flinch when classmates make jokes about date rape drugs; other days, I’m ready to take the world as an activist, and I openly engage in difficult conversations about consent.

My issue isn’t with students who want a simple warning for graphic or disturbing content in class. If network television and movies can give a simple warning issuing this, then so can most situations. My issue is with students who actually are coddled, and who take it too far.

It’s not too much to ask that a professor warn students when they’re about to read a short story with graphic violence in it, or to ask them not to make rape jokes in class. This happened in my classroom, when a literature professor joked about how women of color were frequently raped during the days of the slave trade. He actually used the word “party” in reference to these rapes. I can only imagine what the only black woman in class was feeling, especially if she’s ever been victim to an assault.

Still, The Atlantic’s article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” and the much more rant-like piece, “Generation Cry Baby,” which also recently went viral, do offer some valid points. 

When students are being raised to believe that all criticism is a personal attack, they’re not building a positive relationship with their own self-confidence. Too many students these days have what I like to call Rory Gilmore Syndrome. I’ve been a committed Gilmore Girls fan since it aired, and I adore Rory. But in Season 5, when journalist Mitchum Huntzberger tells her she can’t make it, she immediately drops out of Yale. She cannot deal with this one slice of criticism, so she completely gives up.

This isn’t just fiction. This is what many in my generation are being raised to believe: That all criticism is bullying, that we’re all victims, and that our parents will be there to fix our problems.

I was in college when I was raped at a campus party. My dad was my greatest source of emotional support during the most difficult time in my life. He guided me toward campus resources: The counseling center, the health center to check for disease and other issues, and the police department to report it.

About halfway through the semester, I called to tell him I wanted to transfer colleges. Although the incident hadn’t happened on my campus, I wanted to make a drastic change to my life situation. Among a crowd of over 25,000 students, I felt lost in a sea of faces, and I lacked direction. Much like Rory, I was lost. I would be sitting in classrooms daydreaming and staring out the window, wondering what I was doing, even though I’ve loved school and studying all my life. 

My dad thought it was a hasty decision and that I needed time to think, but he didn’t push me. I was nineteen years old, and he allowed me to make my own decision. 

It was the best parenting move he’s ever made.

In a move that solidifed her as the character I identify most with, Rory bounced back from what Mitchum said to her. In Season 6, she has a panic attack when she sees him, but she deals with it. She needs a minute to process what’s happened, but she comes back stronger than ever, scoring a staff writer position at a local newspaper, being chosen as editor-in-chief of The Yale Daily News, and graduating on time despite a semester of lost classes.

After I dealt with what happened to me, I transferred to a small liberal arts university where I had a tight-knit group of close friends. I’d already lost almost an entire semester of wasted time, too: classes that meant nothing, during a time when I barely focused. Like Rory, I gained self-confidence from my moment of failure and loss, and I chose to study Journalism and Communications and graduated as a Commonwealth Honors Scholar, with several publications in newspapers and magazines that I was very proud of.

How many times have I heard a classmate say something along the lines of, “I don’t know how. My mom does that for me.” How many adults do I know who can’t make phone calls because their parents never forced them to do so? How many of my peers have never scheduled a doctor’s appointment, have never taken their car for its six-month service, have never held any form of employment, not even an internship?

I’m not talking about those who aren’t able to do so. I have a learning disability, and several of my close friends live with various physical and mental disabilities as well. We all live with some form of limitation, whether it’s lack of access to resources, disabilities, chronic illness, or mental health issues. The difference that I see is when someone makes an effort to do what they can on their own, to the best of their ability. 

Students need autonomy. We need to learn to control our own lives. Our generation is empathetic, kind, inclusive and considerate. Unfortunately, life has its trying moments. Each of us has to face hard decisions, and while we definitely need a support system in place, we also need to gain the confidence that we can make those choices on our own. If we can’t do it as college students—deciding what to major in, deciding whether or not to join a sorority, choosing our class schedule —then how will we do it as adults? We need to foster the maturity and self-assurance that it takes to make hard decisions down the line about marriage, insurance, children, careers, health, taking care of our aging relatives, and end-of-life care.

This isn’t an argument against those of us who want to create a more inclusive campus community. I believe that students should be allowed to take a day off from class for mental health reasons as easily as they can for physical health. I believe that students should practice self-care, choosing to remove themselves from situations that may trigger an unwanted response—whether they’re upset by a recent loss, severe bullying, physical abuse or another issue altogether. 

In order to make those decisions to take care of ourselves and others, we need to master our own maturity. We need to be able to defend our choices when we’re asked why we’re doing something. While I was in the process of transferring, I repeated my story over and over again to family, friends, peers and professors. I repeated those lines so many times that I began to believe in my choice. We all need to learn to make decisions when we aren’t feeling certain, so that we can later make those same decisions with more confidence. 

If we can learn to make confident decisions, I’m even more certain that our generation can change the world. 

Alaina Leary is an award-winning editor and journalist. She is currently the communications manager of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and the senior editor of Equally Wed Magazine. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Healthline, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Boston Globe Magazine, and more. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife and their two cats.
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