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Jackson: What I learned about failure during my freshman year at NU

Cassidy Jackson, Columnist

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Last week, I wrote a column about how I learned to take ownership and be unafraid in my friendships during my freshman year. But I learned things in the classroom too, like the fact that academics shouldn’t define me.

Similar to the vast majority of Northwestern students, I excelled in high school academically, but as my feet hit this campus, I quickly began to think high school had been, in fact, my academic peak. Coming into this year, my academic success was a defining feature of my identity. Yet, almost instantly, it was snatched from me.

Time-wise, college seemed easier. With fewer hours spent locked in classrooms and only four classes per quarter, I couldn’t rationalize how everyone didn’t have 4.0 GPAs. Yet I didn’t factor into my thinking the hellish quarter system. I didn’t consider the fact that my key academic motivator — getting into college — was out of the equation. And I didn’t think about the rigor that is Northwestern academics.

So, I entered NU naive as ever and basically asking for a slap in the face — and oh did I get it. Against the warnings of my peer adviser, I willingly signed myself up for two reading-heavy courses. I walked in all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and left drowning in book pages and academic papers. Unable to relinquish my hold on perfectionism, I found myself floundering among the pages. I switched courses a week into the year.

I didn’t need to spend so much time closely reading 60-70 pages a night. But in my head, cutting corners wasn’t an option. In high school, it was more than possible to do all the readings, homework, worksheets and so on without breaking a sweat. I quickly realized the same isn’t true for college. Anything even slightly considered unessential to success in a course is tossed to the wayside to make room for the essential assignments, immense amount of extracurriculars and a minuscule amount of social life. But a piece of my perfectionism was chipped away — though not fully — when I ran for the hills.   

If Fall Quarter was an academic slap in the face, Winter Quarter was a knockout. I was dying in my economics class, suffocating in my earth science class and completely dreading my journalism class. My extracurriculars were dragging me further and further into a dark pit.

Prior to Winter Quarter, I strongly believed I was smart enough to juggle anything and everything, as if I were a walking Wonder Woman. But my classes proved me wrong. I wound up barely contributing to my extracurriculars, crying out of frustration after getting back my assignments and having a practically nonexistent social life. At the end of the quarter, I looked at myself and wasn’t happy. Even if I would have gotten a 4.0 that quarter (which I definitely did not), I knew I wouldn’t have been happy. In an effort to succeed, I became someone I didn’t even recognize: socializing became tedious, extracurriculars became chores and I lost much of the bubbly, happy personality that made me … me. I was a walking zombie that only said and thought about academics, academics and more academics.

Naturally, being the perfectionist I was trained and shaped to be, I walked away from that quarter frustrated and disheartened by what appeared to be my blatant inadequacy.  

But then I took a step back and accessed my situation: I go to NU — what did I expect? None of this was meant to be easy, and the minute I realized that fact, I took ownership of my education instead of letting my academic success own me.

Cassidy Jackson is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.