Last Friday evening, during twilight, a young girl walked past Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia and stopped to take a photo of the lights among the trees. She uploaded it to Instagram. Sometime in the next hour, the University of Pennsylvania student made her way to the top of a parking garage and jumped, falling to her death.
I first found out about Madison Holleran on Facebook when a friend mourned her in a tribute. And my heart tightened in sorrow, because young death always brings the reality closer, but also because Madison—well, Madison was beautiful. As I scrolled through the photos—each one depicting her smiling face, her laugh, her joy—I was haunted. This was the girl, it seems, who had it all—the beauty, the athletic ambitions and the Ivy League education. There was nothing to hint that she was hurting, nothing that suggested her life was less than perfect or that one night she would decide that death was the only way out.
But, most of all, I was haunted because I was reminded of a night at Duke in which I was huddled on the floor of my room, shaking, wondering too if there was no way out. I don’t presume to know Madison or the state of mind that caused the tragic events last Friday. But I do know about the building pressure of a thousand different expectations during finals week. I know about fear that comes with failing to achieve your own goals. I know the dark despair that comes from comparing myself to the sea of accomplished Duke students and finding myself wanting. I know about pretending, about filling my Facebook with moments of captured joy so no one will know my shortcomings—my shame, my sadness.
Here is a truth: Duke is hard.
It doesn’t matter who you are, there are a thousand different ways that college can challenge you. Perhaps it’s the struggle to maintain the GPA that got you here in the first place or the anxiety of a future still unwritten. Perhaps it is loneliness of a social scene that is, by nature, exclusive and can define people’s worth through their affiliations over accomplishments. Perhaps it’s the panic of extracurricular involvements that either seem inadequate or pile up alarmingly. Indeed, it might be overwhelming to balance all of the above and the fear that perhaps you don’t belong here at all, that you aren’t quite as good as everyone else. And of course, there is still laundry to be done.
I have felt crushed from all these aspects of college life, and I know many of my colleagues have too. In fact, much of my time at Duke, I feel like I’m clinging on for dear life, managing deadlines and decisions.
Yet, even as I’m writing this now, a half of me wants to prevent myself from confessing my weaknesses. This is the kind of mindset that perpetuates insecurities and the misguided belief in students that weakness is unacceptable. This is the kind of mindset that shuts these anxieties behind smiles so genuine, you never know the demons people may carry until it is too late.
For the record, I have had some great, irreplaceable experiences at Duke. It’s not like there aren’t services that support Duke students either. There are. (For example, student-founded www.peerforyou.com provides an outlet for students to communicate anonymous concerns.) But it all leads to another truth that needs to be outed more than it is: It is OK to struggle. It is OK to fail. It is OK to feel inadequate. It is OK, because it is human and there is nothing wrong with admitting human weakness.
We all struggle, because college life is not meant to be easy. There is no shame in feeling challenged. There is no shame in struggling together.
I never knew Madison Holleran, the girl with the long curling hair and sparkling eyes, who was a philosophy, politics and economics major and loved to run. I cannot comprehend the depth of her family’s loss. But I will grieve for her, and for every other young life that has succumbed to the despair of failure, believing that they were alone—that there was no other way. I grieve because it should not have happened, because there were infinite days of happiness and new experiences ahead, and because, ultimately, they were not alone.
Not at all.
Isabella Kwai is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Thursday. Send Bella a message on Twitter @tallbellarina.