The Happiest Student in America


These thoughts on collegiate expectations, mental health and cross cultural communication within families were intended for a 2016 release, but since that earlier incarnation of The Education Edition didn't happen, Zein took to editing and expanding upon her original thoughts in the interim, while I had the pleasure of observing Zein and her piece evolve over a year's time. Now, you have the pleasure of reading where she's ended up. 


What Were Not The Best Four Years of My Life

Zein Khleif

Nearly every time I tell someone where I went to college, I am met with the same response: “You’re so lucky! I hear everyone loves it there.” After all, in 2010, the year I applied to college,  the Princeton Review named my future university as having the happiest students in America. Whether or not I believe this measurement is possible to make is a subject for another time, but at 17 years old, my application came with the hope that the campus would be my own personal Disneyland. I was ready for the best four years of my life.


A few months into my freshman year, however, I started writing the word “smile” on my dorm room mirror to remind myself I was still capable of doing so. As I walked from class to class, all I could see were the other students strolling by me in massive, happy groups. They did not appear to want to be anywhere else but where they were; seemingly content with the university and all that came with it: academic rigor, an elite name, and thousands of students from around the world gathered in one place to trade ideas and change the future. I couldn’t help but wonder what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t enjoy or take advantage of my exceptional surroundings.  


I spent my four years of college feeling isolated, desperately wanting a welcome from one of those groups of laughing students. While I left school with individual friends I love, they each had their own social circle - people to share houses with, people to go out to dinner with, people to study with. And though I would sometimes tag along, it was always the same – inside jokes I never understood, references to events I hadn’t attended, a micro-college family I was not part of. I spent more time than I care to admit desperately trying to find a cohort of friends, a “home base,” like the one I’d established within my high school’s walls. Yet, I usually walked and ate alone, feeling nothing like the happiest student in America.


I attribute most of my collegiate unhappiness to the three months preceding my freshman year. In June of 2011, I was in a car accident that left me both emotionally and physically unprepared to head off to school that following September. While I was crossing the street a week after my high school graduation, a car traveling somewhere between 45 and 50 miles per hour went through a crosswalk and hit me. I broke my right leg in two places, my pelvis in three places, and fractured my L5, the lowest spinal vertebrae.


My family and my high school friends gathered at my bedside daily while I was in the hospital. My mother would leave her full-time job in the afternoons to bring me a home cooked lunch each day. My friends would graciously alternate bringing me dinner. My father, a doctor, made sure he was informed about my care 24/7 and ensured that I got everything I needed. My two younger sisters became my caretakers, helping me put on my clothes or handing me objects I couldn’t reach.


Every afternoon and evening, I had upwards of 10 or 12 friends in my rehabilitation room, sitting around my bed laughing – choosing to gather with me instead of going out in the city and taking advantage of their post-senior year summer. The rehabilitation wing’s front desk staff always knew that the constant stream of teenagers coming in and out of the building were for room 112. The nurses would come into my room at the end of visiting hours, stethoscopes blazing, aware that a dozen eighteen year olds would not leave readily or quietly.


On the 4th of July, my friends brought a cooler of barbecued foods to the hospital and pushed me and my wheelchair to the top of the building’s parking garage to see the fireworks across the city. It’s a salient memory more than six years later. My friends and family ensured I was rarely alone, something I am grateful for. I never had the chance to wallow. It made the recovery process, and the physical pain, manageable.


After I was discharged, my basement at home was routinely packed with schoolmates. When the time came that I could manage well enough on crutches, my friends would take turns driving to and from my suburban house, picking me up and dropping me off so that I could join them in whatever they were doing. My parents would let me go out, but my worried father always stayed up, perched on the top of the stairs, until he could see that I got back home in one piece. I had never felt so enveloped in love and consumed by appreciation. I will always be deeply thankful for the attention my friends and family made sure I felt that summer. But as our time to head off on our respective university adventures approached, my friends began appearing less and less, and I began to feel left behind.


Having repeatedly struggled with an often debilitating anxiety disorder, I know not all feelings are rational. But one thing I’ve also come to know is that a lack of rationale doesn’t make a feeling any less real. The distancing of friends triggered thoughts of burdensomeness that I did not know how to cope with. While my friends gave me more time and care that summer than most people receive in a lifetime, I was afraid of the upcoming changes that college would inflict on my most cherished relationships. My feelings were validated when the first boy I fell in love with decided to end our relationship as soon as I had physically recovered.


I developed the belief that my constant pain and my new body meant I was damaged. I felt like a community service project, a way for people to feel good about themselves for sticking around just long enough before moving on to better things. I hated myself for robbing my friends and loved ones of their time; I was ashamed for feeling so emotionally dependent on others.


My friends left home anxious to make new friends and experience new places, while I left home with new scars on my legs, new pains in my hips, and nerves in my back that flared up whenever I stood or sat for too long. The swelling in my knee became something I resented about walking to and from lecture halls. The time it took for me to trudge up the stairs to my second floor Spanish class – taking each step the way a small child would, meeting both feet on the same step before continuing – left me embarrassed as hoards of other classmates would have to hurriedly walk around me.  


I tried to communicate my unhappiness to my parents. I attempted to tell them I did not feel like I belonged amongst the well-adjusted students that surrounded me on campus, but they attributed the unease I began to feel in school to standard freshman anxiety. As far as my parents could tell, my body had healed quickly and there was no reason for me to take time off.


I was not ready to begin my new life. It was incredibly difficult going from constantly having groups of long-loved people around me at all times, to suddenly being alone on a new campus with thousands of strangers I was not interested in meeting yet. I was not prepared to leave the emotional security and routine I had come to rely on at home while I adjusted to a new body I hated.


A few months into my first semester, I went into my dorm room and angrily hit my thighs with closed fists over and over until my legs bruised. I recall sitting alone in the communal dorm kitchen, sobbing for reasons I couldn’t concretely identify. I was so miserable that I couldn’t even muster up the energy to walk back to my room and cry in private. Not knowing what else I could do, I took out my phone and called the school’s Psychological Services office for an emergency appointment. They told me they didn’t have any openings for another two weeks, and that if it was truly an emergency I should call 911. I hung up. I didn’t call the office again after that.


I was disgusted by my inability to be the upbeat, extroverted girl I was in high school. I socialized only minimally, mostly with students in my hallway or in my a cappella group – the one activity I could bring myself to partake in. My stomach lurched any time a student on campus sped past me on a bicycle or ran by me on a jog as my post-accident mind was now  programmed to be uncontrollably sensitive to any and all fast moving objects. I was so angry at my body that I stopped taking care of it. I ate poorly and gained weight. Not being able to move around the way I used to, I resented physical exercise.


“It’s your first year, an adjustment period. You’ll get used to it. Everybody feels the same way,” were the answers I got from my mother and father during my first semester. Mid-way through my freshman year, when I called my mom to tell her I wanted to transfer, I was met with a sigh: “It’s not the school, it’s you. It’s not going to be different anywhere else. Plus, do you really want to go through the application process again? Don’t worry, it’ll get better.” It’s not the school, it’s you. It’ll get better.


I developed an eating disorder during my second year, thinking if I looked better and could control some aspect of my life then maybe I would feel better. Not so shockingly, it didn’t work. I had never felt so out of control. I was mentally and physically exhausted, and continued to cry constantly - tears fueled by self-loathing.


I can count the number of times I went out to any sort of party on two hands, and with each finger I raise, I remember the feelings of discomfort and inadequacy. Fellow students would dance in groups, or play beer pong, and I would stand awkwardly trying to make conversation with a cup of alcohol in my hand that I never drank. My stomach, infused with a mix of painkillers and anti-anxiety medications, was too sensitive for the effects of alcohol.


My mother would comfort me my sophomore year when I still shook with dread while re-packing for school after every holiday. It pained her to see me sad, and when I would ask her to let me stay home, she comforted me through reassurances that  I was almost halfway done with college. I would be taking a semester abroad, and then I would only have a year and a half left. “You’re so close,” was her answer to it all. Just three more years, just two more years, just one more year.


Though it was a relief to know my time on campus was coming to a close with each passing day, it wasn’t the assurance I had been looking for. I needed to hear that it is okay not to be happy. I needed to know that it’s acceptable to take some time to work on re-evaluating what makes me happy. College shouldn’t have been a four-year-long, calendar countdown to graduation.


My parents both grew up in the Middle East during war time. My father as a Palestinian refugee in Syria, my mother a Palestinian living in the middle of the militarily occupied West Bank. They were each able to create a new reality for themselves through education, and so education is the most highly valued commodity in my family. My mother, a Fulbright scholar with two masters and a PhD, and my father, an MD, defied all odds to becomes an economist and an oncologist, respectively. To have the life they have now. The world was against them, and they created an existence full of travel, art, love, and (of course) the very best education for my sisters and myself.


This, I believe, is where our disconnect lies. My parents’ strength and defiance of their grueling circumstances resulted in the luck and frame of reference that I grew up with. But with a new life in America comes the new culture of America. A culture that goes about education in a way the Middle East never has.


Before my car accident, I had asked for my parents’ permission to take a gap year. I wanted to move to New York City and attempt to pursue a career in musical theatre. My request was immediately denied by my father: “You go to school, get a degree, and then you can do whatever it is that you want to do.” That same summer, after my accident, I repeated my request, but this time I wanted to stay home and fully recover, to spend more time with my family and to try to feel “normal” again. This was also refused, my mother telling me I would feel left behind if I stayed at home. And what would I do for a year? Surely college was a better option. But as I learned in college, it’s possible to feel left behind no matter where you are or who you are surrounded by.


Taking a gap year or semesters off from school seems almost commonplace amongst my peers, but it is a foreign concept in my family. In the Arab world, education is meant to propel a person forward into a career. Education is the only entrance into “success,” i.e., a good job with a good income that helps prepare for a bright future filled with even more hard work, children, and financial security. So while my parents bought me a flight home from college whenever I needed a weekend away from campus, it was always a round trip ticket.


And in the same way that education marks cultural differences between Arabs and Americans, so does mental illness. Mental illness is not something generally acknowledged or understood outside of mostly white, affluent communities. And how could it be? There are so many other things to worry about when living without those privileges.


My parents grew up running from the ravages of war, from bombs and gunfire and oppression. They spent each day of their lives fighting to create futures with promise, something their parents never had. My parents had no time to sit and analyze how they were feeling. There was no such luxury as psychiatry or therapy. When I react to something with tears, whether stress from chronic pain or personal tragedy, my parents see me as fragile. I am told to suck it up and tough it out because that’s just life.


While my parents have helped me manage my anxiety through professional mental health resources, when I was little my mother would tell me not to let my friends know I suffered from it. It was a secret to be kept in our family. While my parents have become much more open about anxiety as they have learned about it over the years, depression is a beast that has proven a scarier and more difficult concept to understand and accept. Up until October of 2017, my parents continued to maintain that I never needed time off from school, and that I have never suffered from depression.


Even when it felt like the world was crumbling around me, most other people could not tell. I always turned my assignments in on time and showed up for my classes. My transcripts reflected grades that were good enough to suggest that nothing was wrong with me. High-functioning mental illnesses are frequently overlooked and misunderstood because they do not adhere to stereotype. In retrospect, I believe this is partly why my requests for time off were not taken seriously.


My parents have been my biggest supporters in life. They are my fierce advocates and also my best friends. I am proud of them for the lives they have built, for the life they have given me, but with this pride also comes frustration. I hold resentment towards our misaligned value systems, and anger for not having been allowed the agency to decide what was best for my own mental well-being and education. As I get older, I have started to recognize these feelings are not entirely directed at my parents, but rather at a culture that has not been provided the chance to progress.


I was reminded of this over this past summer, when I traveled back to Palestine. Seeing the military checkpoints and re-experiencing the tension and instability of wartime caused me to remember that no matter what my parents say, and no matter how open-minded I know they are, they are still the product of their circumstances. Just as I am of mine. In the same way that I have had the time to learn about anxiety and depression, my parents never did. I can’t fault them for that.


Often replaying my college experience in my head, I am left with a feeling of having missed out on something that could have been wonderful. Temporarily leaving school wouldn’t have “cured” me, but I do believe it would have given me the tools and space I needed to address my limitations. I encourage others having similar struggles to consider in what space their healing will take its best course. I also want to take a moment to emphasize that it is not the responsibility of the depressed to prove they are suffering. Rather, I believe it is the duty of loved ones to listen and take the words of the affected at face value.


Though this piece has taken on many tones over the year I have been working on it, one thing I’ve consistently had trouble with is the ending. I don’t know how to tie it up in a quintessentially perfect bow. My battles with my body and my culture and my mind have yet to come to a close. They likely never will. I’ll need future surgeries and will always experience chronic pain. I probably won’t ever reach a point with my parents where we agree on how to address and react to life’s obstacles. I will continue needing mental health support to get better at accepting, instead of trying to fix, the things I cannot control. Perhaps that’s been the secret all along, acceptance.