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How to Navigate Michigan’s Competitive Culture

I was always told that college would be the best place and time to find my identity and passions. While I want this to be true, the academic pressure at Michigan seems to discourage the type of exploration that is required for self-discovery. It’s not uncommon for Michigan students to frequently discuss future plans and progress towards goals. Topics including internships, extracurriculars, professional fraternities, interviews, research, and grades seem to consume our breakfast, lunch, and dinner conversations. By anyones standards, the academic culture at Michigan is competitive. We strive to be the leaders and best, but at what cost to our social and mental health?

In high school, I frequently found myself in competitive environments, especially in terms of college admissions. However, I was always able to escape from that negative culture at the end of the day when I went home or hung out with my friends. At Michigan, we don’t have an escape. Being unable to effectively find a release from the stress is damaging to students.

According to the College Mental Health Survey, 83% of UM students experience mild to severe difficulty staying motivated for classes, and anxiety is one of the top reason students visit CAPS at the university.  Outreach organizations such as CAPS in Action seek to address mental health on campus and reduce stigmas around mental health disorders. While this is undoubtedly important, there is a gap; the competitive culture needs to be further addressed in order to promote a healthy and supportive academic environment. 

As a sophomore, I have increasingly found myself in positions where I feel very insecure about my indecisiveness regarding my major and career plans. At the beginning of this school year I decided I no longer wanted to continue pursuing a degree in education. It’s nerve-wracking to decide to switch your major and begin sophomore as undeclared. I felt like I was falling behind my peers, and struggled to make up for lost time. Everyone around me had leadership positions in organizations that fit their major, they had interned over the summer, and they were taking the perfect classes to complete their majors. It felt like no matter what I did, I would always be behind.

Although it is still terrifying not knowing what my major is or what career path I want to pursue, I’m taking the time I need to figure out what’s best for me. In the long run, taking this time to discover what I’m truly passionate about will pay off. I wish the academic culture on this campus could be more supportive of students still trying figure out their life plans, but I’m not going to let that dissuade me from exploring a variety of majors and interests.

For those in a similar situation, here is my advice on how to navigate the academic pressure at Michigan: 

1. Avoid comparing yourself to your peers​

​It may seem intimidating if everyone around you seems completely put together, but I’ve come to learn that we all feel behind and a little unsure of ourselves. Despite what some people look like or say, everyone is still figuring their lives out. 

2. Don’t be afraid to switch your major

Although it was scary changing my major and starting anew, I’m so much happier knowing I can now pursue what I’m passionate about. I held onto my old major because I was afraid of falling behind, but I couldn’t be happier now that I have the opportunity to discover a major I love.

3. Lean on your friends for support

Because Michigan is so competitive, it can be intimidating to talk to your friends if you’re struggling in classes or switching up your major. I’ve learned, however, that non-judgemental friends are your best resource when talking about these problems. They can offer some of the best advice, and even relate to your struggle. You are never alone! 

Hannah is a sophomore at the University of Michigan hoping to major in organizational studies with an entrepreneurship minor.
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