Mary Beth Kemp
Finding Peace in Imperfection
Of all the spaces I have occupied in my life, a college campus has been one of the most chaotic and unpredictable. But it has also been one of the most deeply enriching and rewarding. During my past two years in college, I have been slowly but surely learning to listen to my own voice.
Entering college as an idealistic, wide-eyed eighteen-year-old, I had a somewhat romanticized vision of the next four years of my life. It was tempting for me to daydream about college and spin it into this fantastical world of academia and success and perfection. When I imagined college like this, I imagined myself to be successful and perfect and put-together as well.
I’m a planner by nature, and I like to go into everything with a set of expectations for myself. My plan for university life was pretty straightforward: major in English (check), join a sorority (check), be successful and perfect at everything (…no check).
It only took a few weeks until I started doubting myself and questioning my whole plan for college.
I always wanted to study English, but that suddenly didn’t feel good enough. Many external voices weighed on my mind – my friends, parents, classmates, professors, advisors, etc. And even though many of them were encouraging me to do what I thought was best…I didn’t know what that was.
Then one afternoon in September I went to see my advisor and in the course of an hour, I changed my major to journalism. I left her office and proceeded to cry in the campus Starbucks because I didn’t know what I wanted. Was I choosing to study journalism because I genuinely wanted to? Or was I just feeling the pressure of all the people around me talking about “job security” and “real majors vs fake majors?” People would ask what my major was, and, truthfully, I loathed having to say, “English.” It was always met with surprise, and usually the dreaded question, “What are you going to do with that?” Even though I was truly passionate about the subject, and I was excited about being a teacher one day, I felt like I wasn’t aspiring to enough. Everyone around me seemed to have more “serious” majors that would lead to more impressive careers.
I couldn’t shake this feeling that my dreams weren’t good enough, or big enough, by society’s standards. I had fallen into a headspace where I really only cared about impressing others. All of my decisions revolved around what would make me seem “valuable” to other people. I joined a sorority because I thought it would show people that I was worthy of getting into one. I changed my major to something that seemed more “marketable” after college. I was making all these decisions – without once checking in on what I wanted. I was so obsessed with keeping up appearances for others that I had completely lost touch with my own voice. I had no idea what I wanted anymore. I had no idea what was right for me.
In the middle of my self-doubt, a change was on the horizon which would shake up and shatter all of my expectations. In March of 2020, during the second semester of my freshman year, my college campus closed because of COVID-19, and I moved back home.
I decided that this time home would be for rest and introspection. I wasn’t thinking about rebuilding or reconstructing my college life. I wasn’t using this time to set new plans. Not yet. I was just kind of sitting in my room listening to a lot of Taylor Swift and allowing myself to realize, “I am not growing the way I want to be.”
I listened to folklore, Taylor Swift’s dreamy pandemic-born-album, more than anything else during this time. I think the themes of escapism and nostalgia allowed me to consider my college self and let go of some of her worries. One song in particular, “this is me trying,” made me realize that I was putting an unhealthy amount of pressure on myself. The lyric that felt like a punch to the gut was this:
“I was so ahead of the curve, but the curve became a sphere. Fell behind all my classmates, and I ended up here.”
While taking this step back, I also spent a lot of quiet time reading. Sometimes investing in someone else’s story allows me to see my own experiences reflected in the characters. Lately I’ve been obsessed with Sally Rooney novels, which are mainly about women in their twenties trying to navigate adulthood and growing up. Admittedly, I am Rooney’s target demographic. And while her novels don’t always offer the brightest messages of hope or optimism, they do offer a real, messy depiction of what it is like to struggle with self-image. When I realized I saw a lot of myself in Rooney’s self-loathing female protagonists, I had a bit of a wake-up call. I didn’t understand how much I was struggling.
I realized I had been pursuing perfection and then blaming myself when I didn’t reach this impossible standard. In an environment like a college campus, it’s easy to fall into this mindset. Campus life can feel fast paced and demanding. I felt the constant need to prove myself – as the perfect student, the perfect sorority girl, the perfect applicant for a job. But during quarantine, I finally took a step back and I realized that the way I had been going through college was extremely harmful. I wasn’t listening to my own voice; I wasn’t allowing myself room to make mistakes.
When I returned to campus, I started valuing my voice more. This wasn’t a perfect process. I didn’t wake up one day and decide not to care what people thought of me. I still struggled with my image, and I struggle with it every day. However, I allowed myself to reevaluate what I wanted.
I had changed my major to journalism for all the wrong reasons, but I decided to try it out for a semester or two, and in an unexpected twist, I ended up loving my journalism classes so much that I was extremely grateful for the change. In fact, I just got my dream college job as a reporter for the campus newspaper.
My dreams ended up changing - but on my own terms. I’m not pursuing journalism because I think it looks better on a resume; I am doing it because I love it. Another change I made was dropping my sorority. Making this decision, which many people advised me not to, was difficult. I had to rely on my own voice and trust that I was doing the best thing for myself.
At twenty years old, I’m constantly reminded that my college years are setting me up for the rest of my adult life. It can be terrifying to forge a new path, not knowing what the outcome will be. But that’s what I’m told adulthood is – making decisions without knowing if they’re going to work out or not. And finding a way to find peace in that uncertainty.
Although I still feel like an imposter in the realm of adulthood, and I don’t feel qualified to give anyone any sort of advice, I cannot understate the importance of finding my voice. When I finally started listening to my own voice, I changed my path. And I’m sure I will change it again and again. College is a journey, as is life, and I just have to let myself go through it as authentically and truthfully as I can.
I know I will never reach any sort of “perfect” version of myself. I am learning that all I can do is trust myself and find peace in my imperfection.
Mary Beth Kemp is majoring in Journalism and English at the University of Arkansas, and is a lover of chai lattes, strong female characters, and Taylor Swift.