aWhen the holiday season kicks off in full swing, perhaps their ambitions surround some of the most daunting questions college students receive. Although we know that they come with good intentions most of the time, questions surrounding our academic travels and career paths like “How’s your degree going?” or “What’s your plan after college?” They tend to fill us with dread because our academic and professional progress is often non-linear. In the process of earning our degrees and starting our adult lives, many of us become overwhelmed by a phenomenon that is beginning to gain more recognition: goal anxiety.
According to researcher Larissa Rainey, goal anxiety refers to “the anxiety we feel when we don’t have a sense of purpose but we all realize it’s missing.” In this way, it is a term that applies to the common feelings of uncertainty that come with discovering personal and professional paths, but it is also broad enough to include the larger struggle of finding meaning in existence. Many students experience the familiar struggle with goal anxiety in this temporary and formative experience of higher education. When choosing majors and minors, exploring career paths and embarking on our career goals, we realize the finality of our actions in a way we never had before. These choices make more lasting effects on our lives, and they come with the gravity of our financial responsibilities as the cost of our education and the weight of supporting ourselves take on a new and dangerous stress.
In my opinion, target anxiety goes hand in hand with the idea of impostor syndrome. According to Healthline Media, impostor syndrome, “also called perceived fraud, involves feelings of self-doubt and personal inadequacy that persist despite education, experience, and accomplishments.” In this way, these phenomena represent an intrusive, delusional and inner self-doubt that people feel about their abilities despite their qualifications. In many cases, impostor syndrome causes people to mistakenly feel cheated regardless of their hard work and the accomplishments they deserve.
Through my introspection, I’ve found that my anxiety generates purposeful anxiety questions in my mind like “Why am I here?” When I think about my major or career ambitions. Impostor syndrome, on the other hand, comes in the form of thoughts like “Do I belong to UC Berkeley?” – which is often a much worse question. The University of California, Berkeley, has been the “access” school for me when applying to colleges. When I first visited the campus, I remember taking one look at the welcome brochure and it felt completely out of reach. I had competitive grades, work experience, and extracurricular activities in high school but still lined up well with school averages for incoming students. Therefore, admission was such a lofty goal for me that I got the application out of my mind after submitting it – until I received my acceptance letter.
Like many current undergraduates, I grew up in adulthood during a pandemic. After closing, my days slowly passed. My first classes at UC Berkeley were run through Zoom and I worked a minimum wage job as a flight attendant in my hometown to save some money. Even though I look back with nostalgia, it was hard to find a purpose during those many days when time seemed to stand still and the months blurry together. One of the hardest things to deal with during that time was the feeling that those days weren’t what I imagined them to be. All my life, I’ve found a great purpose in academic validation, so dropping out of school has been a huge challenge that made me wonder if I was where I was meant to be.
Eventually, I found a fresh start at UC Berkeley when I started studying in person again. When I found myself walking under the Sather Gate to chart my way around the campus, I was thrilled, piercing the past eighteen boring months toward a fresh start in academia. I soon discovered that attending a university like UC Berkeley brings tremendous opportunity but also, at times, intense intimidation.
Take one look at the site and you’ll find plenty of statistics: UC Berkeley is the number one university in the world, with 32 Nobel Prizes, four Pulitzer Prizes and more than 200 Olympic medals won so far. Set foot on campus, and feel the electric air of a university that prides itself on a reputation for student movements and social change. It can often be easy to feel like a fish out of water when immersed in here, especially when your presence costs you the opportunity and responsibility to challenge, carry on and forge such a great legacy. We may often internalize this sense of others and risk spreading unnecessary self-doubt when we feel overwhelmed by the level of excellence and discovery that surrounds us.
It can often be easy to feel like a fish out of water when immersed in here, especially when your presence costs you the opportunity and responsibility to challenge, carry on and forge such a great legacy.
I remember some of my first few days on campus, wandering around Sproul Plaza to peek at the club tables. After noticing a little, it dawned on me that many of them needed requests. I found this surprising, as I was going to college to gain experience. The paradox of needing experience to gain experience increased my anxiety and led to intrusive thoughts fueled by my self-doubt. How was I supposed to find my purpose and reach self-actualization if I could barely put my foot in the door? I’m not sure this uncertainty will really go away, but an academic advisor lecture in one of my classes gave us advice that changed my perspective. She said navigating UC Berkeley really comes down to how you advocate for your individual skills, big and small. When you do, you will find more opportunities, and this can lead you to topics, jobs, or professions that you find useful. It is important to remember that we come as blank slates, and we each deserve to be here.
She said navigating UC Berkeley really comes down to how you advocate for your individual skills, big and small. When you do, you will find more opportunities, and this can lead you to topics, jobs, or professions that you find useful.
This advice made me feel more prepared to pursue opportunities that I found interesting. I felt that my ambitions here were within reach because I no longer felt insecure about a lack of experience or feeling left behind compared to my peers. I joined The Daily Californian as a staff writer and began to feel more confident in my classes, which in turn improved my grades. I now have interests that I am keen to explore further, and they are becoming increasingly satisfying.
We may fear the intrusive questions of our friends, relatives, and acquaintances during the holidays because they express our inner fears and speak loudly about questions that reflect our fears. No matter what intrusive thoughts tell us otherwise, each of us fills an irreplaceable place that would otherwise be left empty. We come with the skills we need to be successful because we each have earned our place at the table. I think it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious about a target, but now I’m reconciling these anxious feelings with the constant feeding of my interests, goals, and skills. Maybe a goal isn’t necessarily something we achieve, but something we grow into with an intention and have a chance to discover. Perhaps the anxiety we feel about finding our goals is not easily reconcilable, but the belief that we will find our purposes with time can provide some solace.
Contact Katie Cota at [email protected].