A few days ago I was introduced to the ‘Stanford Duck Syndrome’. This was after I told my friend about something stressing me out and she responded that everyone is just as stressed but most conceal their struggles. Picture a duck, gracefully gliding on the surface of the water, but what you don’t see is its feet frantically paddling underneath the water. In the same vein, students at Stanford (where this term was originally coined but can be applied to many students at colleges everywhere) may seem to be calm and on top of things, but the truth is they are scurrying fervently to keep up.
This ‘duck syndrome’ is very real. Students carry this ‘fake it till you make it’ mentality and speaking up about personal struggles is often perceived as being weak. Appearing to work hard isn’t ‘cool’; being intelligent means that getting good grades comes almost naturally. No one wants people to know how much they studied for the last midterm only to come out with a ‘B’. A troubling aspect of this mentality is that the less willing one person is to speak up about a problem, the more reluctant his or her peers are to speak up. It becomes this group effect, where no one wants to be that one person who voices a particular difficulty for fear of seeming ‘incompetent’. Consequently, everyone desperately keeps up the appearance of gliding with ease through the tumultuous college waters.
Today, college campuses are full of ambitious students juggling heavy-load classes, extra-curriculars, internship applications, social events and who knows what else. One of the most stressful questions that you can ask is ‘what are you doing this summer?’ The point is, simply going to college to study for your exams is far from the normal or acceptable college experience today. Students at competitive colleges were the top in their high school. They were the big fish. Once they enter the college bubble, they look around and see smarter, more athletic and more socially engaged peers who seem to be on top of everything. The realization that college is a whole new pond with much bigger fish leads students to feel obliged to do as much as possible while still maintaining an effortless persona.
One major problem with this continuous trend is that it results in a culture that promotes a facade of the model student. In reality, nothing worth having comes without effort and difficulty. The truth is, most, if not all students are struggling or have struggled with stress, anxiety, insecurity and failure at some point in their college experience. Messing up, suffering through diabolical homework sets and being insecure about yourself are nothing to be ashamed of. We need to encourage open discussions on college campuses where students feel comfortable to talk about their struggles. Even if students choose not to speak up, they should still have the peace of mind that struggling isn’t a sign of inadequacy.
This may not come as a surprise, but it is so important to remember that everyone is going through something you don’t know about. Being vulnerable and honest about struggle are not commonplace qualities in prestigious colleges today but this shouldn’t be the reality. We shouldn’t strive to be effortlessly successful but rather foster the kind of campus where people can share their stories – the good and the bad. By speaking up, we can address the complexity of issues that are often ignored. Don’t paddle frantically just to stay ‘seemingly’ afloat. Someone else might look like they are getting by just fine, but you never know what’s going on beneath the surface.