Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dedicated to the Proud Yet Tragic Overachievers

Summa Cum Laude & Valedictorian:
Are They Worth It?
by Maria Pascucci
President & Founder of Campus Calm

Summa Cum Laude - Latin for "With Highest Honors"

We are the students who routinely skip out on nights with friends because we have too much homework and too many commitments. We are the loveable nerds who answer questions first in class because we're the only ones who bothered to complete last night's reading. We strive relentlessly for perfect grades and become irritated when we see an "A-" edged in red ink on the top of our papers instead of an "A."

We are the valedictorians of the world; the summa cum laude college graduates, the academic stars. Our teachers praise us, our parents can push us and our classmates LOVE to cheat off of us. We really, really believe that we can be anything, do anything in life if we just ace that test. We want to change the world. We want to "show them all."

We have a lot to prove ... mostly to ourselves.

I am here to tell you that even though accomplishment is great, and even though awards feel good and look even better hanging up on the wall, that the price we pay on our pursuit of perfection is high. I'm a summa cum laude college graduate who spent four years of my life in pursuit of perfection. The first paper I ever tackled for college was a personal experience essay for my freshmen English class. I earned an "A+" from a professor who considers an "A" top-notch work. He even showed off my essay to his other classes.

I devoured his praise and announced my first achievement to my manager at a past retail job. He congratulated me but warned that college was MUCH harder than high school and that consistently getting straight As and graduating summa cum laude would be impossible. I took this as a personal challenge. At the end of the semester, I flashed my first report card under his nose: 3.94 out of 4.0.

In the beginning my quest to graduate summa cum laude was fun, but each semester became more challenging. After a few semesters, writing stopped being fun as I could only equate it with pressure and deadlines. With each perfect grade I earned, my childhood joy in written expression vanished.

I wanted to dance. Throw a football. Watch a movie, or get in a car and see the world instead of vicariously traveling through stacks of assigned books. Occasionally, I tossed my pen aside and went out, but these instances were rare, and I usually felt guilty about my abandoned pile of work growing with each passing second.

I don't know why I put so much pressure on myself. My parents didn't push me. My professors tried to tell me to lighten up and go have some fun. I could only respond, "Stop dishing out so much work." I could only give it my all, or give nothing. I didn't know how to relax.

Everything collided my last semester of my senior year. I needed eighteen credit hours to graduate on time, so I overloaded my schedule. At the time, I had a cumulative grade point average of 3.9 and my sights were set on (finally) graduating summa cum laude. Forget being grateful for the fact that I was going to be the first woman in my family to graduate from a four-year college - again, all I could think about was summa cum laude, summa cum laude!

The last week of college was my breaking point. I had polished so many papers and read so many books that I never had the chance to study for exams. I crammed for every one the night before and blew through them all until the last-History of American Women. It was my favorite class, but I didn't even read the book that was to comprise a huge portion of the exam.

I crammed all night, drove to school in a daze, and slumped in the nearest seat in the exam room. I was nervous about this last exam because I was so close to graduating summa cum laude - and I had to have it. Others had their awards for being more well rounded students, but I would possess this title I had made myself sick over for four years. Otherwise, I thought, it would all be for nothing.

Once in the exam room, I heard classmates quizzing each other on their notes and I panicked. I whipped open my notebook and began trying to digest names, quotes, dates, and places until I realized that everything might as well have been written in ancient Greek. It was too late. As my professor began passing out exam books, a lump rose in my throat and my eyes pooled with tears. Too late, it's just too late.

I bolted from my chair, ran to the bathroom and locked myself in a stall. After four long years, I completely broke down. Choking tears poured down my face, soaking my shirt, my neck, my hair. My heartbeat pulsated, and I began gasping for air. I was terrified because I had never experienced a full-blown panic attack. I curled up on that white and blue checkered linoleum bathroom floor, and I didn't know if I would ever have the strength to get up.

Eventually, I managed to pull myself off that bathroom floor and rose to wash my face. I stood before the mirror and watched a pale, soulless young woman stare back, accusing me for the hollow look in her eyes. I whispered, "I'm so sorry I did this to you." I went back to class and finished that exam.

I was done. FINALLY done.

While other college seniors celebrated the upcoming graduation weekend, I drove home and locked myself in my bedroom. Without any homework, there was nothing left to do. I watched all my favorite movies and stared at the ceiling.

When I stood at graduation, the speaker announced, "Maria L. Pascucci - summa cum laude."

That diploma with its tiny inscription publicly acknowledging my perfection had the last laugh. I worked so hard for it and it destroyed me; now I didn't even want it. I wasn't perfect, and I let my own quest to graduate summa cum laude destroy my health, my confidence and emotional well-being.

I didn't pick up a book or write a word for nearly a year after graduation. After my graduation party, my parents reproached me for not sending out thank-you notes. I responded that I couldn't pick up a pen to write them.

When I began searching for a job in my field, I realized that my college diploma with the summa cum laude notation didn't impress employers much and my lack of experience killed me. I was furious. I felt like the world had let me down, when in reality, I had let myself down. I had worked myself to the breaking point, and now society was telling me it still wasn't good enough.

I thought that college had stripped my creativity forever, but a true writer can't stay away from her pen for long. Eventually, I wandered into libraries and checked out books I had come across in college but had never had the time to read. I began keeping a journal and recorded my triumphs and defeats. I landed a writing internship with an online teen magazine. I started to believe in my dreams.

It took me years after graduation to understand what perfectionism had done to my life. I remember a favorite professor's words: "Maria, you've got to calm down," she said. "You're going to burn out before your career even begins." She was right. I lived in the past for two years, pointing fingers at anything that had ever let me down. Then, I got sick of being angry and chose to move on.

Today, I'm an entrepreneur who writes from the heart for my own enjoyment and peace of mind. Perfectionism will always be a part of me, but never again will I allow it to usurp my life. I wish I could take that frantic college girl who suffocated her world in perfection and scream, "HAVE FUN." Another perfect grade isn't worth it. Make friends, do an internship in a field you enjoy, and experience the world outside the school's walls.

I can't go back and help that stressed-out student, but I can help others: Enjoy high school and college, excel at what you're good at, but don't always demand the absolute best. Put yourselves before your grades and look at the big picture. Graduating magna or summa cum laude is great but not if you lose yourself in the process. When you stand at graduation, I hope you can accept your diplomas with joy in your hearts and with pride for all your accomplishments, knowing that you've succeeded and are ready to embrace the future. Sanity in tact!

~Maria Pascucci, former academic perfectionist and stressaholic!


cloud said...

this post made me really think hard. thanks for sharing friendship

Maria Pascucci said...

I'm glad my article made you think hard. I wrote it so other students wouldn't have to suffer like I did.

Maria Pascucci
Founder & President

Thadie said...

@ cloud: anytime :-)

@ Maria Pascucci: Thanks for inspiring so many people, and thanks for visiting my blog :-) Greetings from the Philippines

Quentin X said...

I graduated cum laude at uni. I was a nobody in high school. The irony is I like my university years more than my high school.


Related Posts with Thumbnails