Students Speak: How the Wrong College Major Caused Me to Spiral Into Depression
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Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and depression.
All throughout high school, I was guided toward engineering.
I went into advanced courses centered on STEM, working my way through calculus and physics. I had a knack for it, enough so that I didn't have to try too hard to do well.
Looking back on it, I can't say I enjoyed it, though. Thinking about the possibilities of engineering more through the lens of science fiction and the ideas my brain made up? Certainly that was interesting. But on a foundational level, I didn't enjoy STEM — I enjoyed the validation of being told I was good at it.
I graduated from high school, not at the top of my class but high enough that between my GPA and ACT scores, I got a bit of funding. It took two tries to get a high ACT score because I'd done merely OK on the Math section, while I received the maximum number of points on the Reading and Essay sections — just as I'd done better on every AP English test than I had on any AP STEM test.
I should've seen the signs, but everyone around me kept saying to go with engineering, and I went along with their suggestions. That's where the money was at. So I applied to universities with good engineering programs and ultimately decided the University of Michigan was the best fit for me. I'd say I was half-right.
My first semester at the College of Engineering began well enough. I was intimidated but excited to be somewhere so large and new, living away from my family for the first time. Classes started up, and I worked to take notes, do homework, and study while making some attempts to keep time for breaks, which I mostly spent reading.
But as the workload grew and grew in this new environment, I started to struggle. I didn't like the work at all and tried to brush it off as just not enjoying my general education courses.
"They're meant to weed people out — it'll get fun as you get into more advanced courses," people would say.
That would take two years. Two years where I failed to make new lasting friendships. Two years without support structures I'd grown used to. Two years where I couldn't skate past things I hated doing because I'd be able to do what I wanted eventually.
It didn't work. After the first year, I started having to switch concentrations because my grades weren't good enough to do what I'd intended to. I'd talk to advisors, and they'd look at my worsening grades as a fluke, as my just needing to get used to changes instead of a sign of something seriously wrong.
Bit by bit, I had to start dropping classes that I was starting to fail or be overwhelmed by, ashamed to truly ask for help, thinking there was something wrong with me. In my second year, I stopped attending class, only showing up for some tests or when attendance was mandatory. No one at the college reached out to ask why I was missing.
The only reason I made it two years before I broke was the writing classes I took. Not even creative writing, which I'm currently studying for my MFA. Just the classes focusing on writing resumes and cover letters.
Presentations and articles were reprieves from the grind of doing calculations. I cared more about my short introduction to creative writing for non-majors course than I did any of the four types of calculus I'd learned.
But I still couldn't admit something was wrong outside of the idea that I was a failure.
By the winter semester of my second year, I was at risk of flunking out of college. I was failing multiple classes, and my overall GPA was below the acceptable level. My sleep schedule had shifted to completely nocturnal: I'd wake up at 4:00 p.m. and go to bed at 8:00 a.m. I didn't go to class except when I had to. I hardly bothered with assignments. I questioned what I was doing with my life and my parents' money, trying to pay for my basic necessities while I racked up student loan debt.
“Bit by bit, I had to start dropping classes that I was starting to fail or be overwhelmed by, ashamed to truly ask for help, thinking there was something wrong with me.”
I started thinking about trying to do something else — perhaps writing or some other program away from engineering, away from the math and calculations I could no longer stand. The whole time I felt overwhelmed by the disgust I had for myself and was certain everyone else would have for me if I told anyone what was going on. I just wanted everything to stop.
I didn't realize I was severely depressed after almost two years of forcing myself through something I hated until I was walking over a small bridge on campus while on my way to talk to an advisor on campus.
Around U-M's Ann Arbor campus are small bridges that act as walkways for students to cross one of the larger, busier roads so they can easily go from several dorms to the center of campus where many classes are taught. A bus I frequently took stopped near one of those bridges.
It was mid-morning on a cloudy day near the start of spring, still cool from the last exhales of winter. I had on a black, would-be Northface jacket and jeans, listening to music while I walked. It could've been any other day.
Except, while I was walking to campus, when I crossed one of these bridges that are no more than 20 feet tall, I stopped. I watched the traffic passing by, going to work or some other place. A campus bus passed beneath me, massive and speeding slightly.
I put my foot up on the edge of the bridge to get a better look at the vehicles going by. I saw another bus coming and thought to myself, "No, the front's too flat — it might not hit me the right way. I should wait for a semi. If I can get hit by the engine, that should do it."
I froze. I realized what I had just thought as people were walking behind me going about their lives. I had truly contemplated suicide, and it scared the hell out of me. I realized that after all this time pushing myself to be what I'm not, I had severely damaged my mental well-being, and I needed to change something.
It took a while, but I did. I told my parents the truth: that I needed to do something different. We talked about what I actually liked: writing. While I had to finish out the semester, I started going through the process of transferring colleges within U-M so I could focus on the English program instead, figuring out what I needed to do to graduate.
It was scary, trying to switch so suddenly while on academic probation, at risk of dropping out. However, this change was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I threw myself into English, into analysis and writing, taking courses year-round to catch up. My grades went up, and I didn't fail. I was able to smile again.
Now, I'm in an MFA program continuing to pursue my craft, writing an article about myself.
So, what's the moral or lesson here? I think it's pretty simple, though easier said than done: Don't force yourself into a college program you hate. Life is short and difficult enough as is, without self-imposed suffering for years.
Is it scary to do something that isn't a "sure thing"? Absolutely — but forcing yourself to work through a program you hate and into a career you can't stand doesn't mean you'll be successful either. I'd say it's the opposite.
Also, to all the schools and universities that are trying to shoehorn people into programs, making students believe this is the best and only choice, pushing them into these harder, more painful lives: Please stop. Let us explore what we want to do and experience the supposed purpose of school.
Let us discover and grow our way so we can enjoy who we are.
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Meet the Author
I am pursuing an MFA in creative writing and poetics at the University of Washington Bothell. In 2019, I placed first in prose for Macomb Community College's ARTIFEX magazine with "Flashes From a Storm." I enjoy using science fiction and fantasy to explore themes of humanity, existence, subversion, and belonging. In my free time, I enjoy video games, Michigan sports, and relaxing with my partner and two cats.