IT HAPPENED TO ME: Ivy League Grad School Was One of the Worst Experiences of My Life

I felt trapped in an expensive mistake with no escape.
Jessica Grey
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I felt trapped in an expensive mistake with no escape.

The first time I met my mother-in-law, she asked me about my graduate program: "So? Do you love it?" She, like many others, assumed that pursuing my chosen area of intensive study would be enjoyable and thrilling. I remember smiling politely and making pleasant conversation, but the truth was: I had never hated anything so much in my life. I was miserable.

A classmate explained the oppressive environment and the level of disrespect we were subjected to as "being broken down so they can hopefully build you back up." It's been a relief to know that others had a similar experience. But at the time, it felt like everyone must be coping better than I was.

After graduating, I found out the extent that we had all struggled. One classmate ended up having to enter a treatment program for an opiate addiction she had developed in response to the stress; another, for alcohol. Those who coped best used a combination of methods to manage stress, but the deciding factor always came down to smoking weed. Yes, the weed-smokers fared the best of all of us; I consider that to be pretty indicative of what the environment at Columbia was like.

Getting into graduate school was a big deal for me. I still remember the excitement of opening my acceptance letter. It felt like a dream that I half-expected to be taken away — just kidding, we accepted you based on a clerical error! The fact that I got into my top choice school was huge. It felt like my first official step toward my adult life, and I had never thought of myself as an Ivy League student. In spite of going to prep schools my entire life, I was always more of a "creative" student (I have major ADHD and never quite adjusted to the full-blown expectations of the nerd lifestyle). Still, I enjoyed learning and loved the freedom and social aspects of college.

Getting into Columbia felt like a dream that I half-expected to be taken away.

Getting into Columbia felt like a dream that I half-expected to be taken away.

Back during undergrad, I did sometimes feel sad at the end of a break, packing up and leaving my family behind, but there was no question I loved my time in college. By comparison? My entire last year of grad school, I would actually cry before my return flight from California to New York — every single time. How was this not a red flag to me? 

I was crushed by stress and putting way too much pressure on myself because I felt like my entire future was at stake. I had bought into the Ivy League myth. Here is the truth, though: Ivy League prestige isn't really a thing. It's a reputation for an elite school — and, yes, it was a great education. It has opened a lot of doors for me, I won't lie. But was it worth it? No way.

Granted, I had some major life events occur during the course of my time in grad school to make things unpleasant, including the near-loss of my best friend, the stroke and death of my grandmother, a heart-wrenching long-distance relationship, and, at the very end, a serious health risk that resulted in an emergency surgery. It was an intense two years. But then there was the academic pressure, the attitude among school staff, blatant abuses of power, and an environment designed to create insecurities, competition, and debilitating self-doubt. Before long, I felt trapped in an expensive mistake with no escape.

I can't speak for all graduate programs, but as for the one that I chose, there was a distinct expectation that you sacrifice any and all other parts of your life. Above all else, it was an education first institution. The administration knew that the prestigious degree was something you needed, and they made you work for it. Between emotional and physical exhaustion, and the frustration of dealing with a difficult administration and some of the tiring elements of living in a big city, I had never felt so drained in my life. In fact, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue following my graduation. But what I learned is, no amount of snobbiness or elitism could ever be worth your happiness or quality of life.

To lend some perspective, my boyfriend was in law school at the time, and he was enjoying himself. Sure, he was stressed out at times, but the environment was welcoming and supportive, even among law students. He was permitted a certain number of excused absences per class: four unexcused absences, to be exact. Beyond that, his grade would be impacted. But he was free to talk to the dean, who was there to be understanding and to help students navigate their work-to-life balance. For us, the number of excused absences was…one. A single excused absence per class. And boy were there consequences.

I'll give you an example (bear in mind, this class was an elective): As luck would have it, I was a bridesmaid in my friend's wedding. If you aren't familiar, "bridezilla" is a real thing (I had to cancel one trip to visit, and she didn't speak to me for months); there was no getting around it — I had to be there for her, even though it meant missing a day of class. This gave my professor the impression that I did not take the class "seriously." But I did take it seriously. I completed my work and went out of my way to participate. 

She docked my grade from an A to a C-minus in the class. OK, a C-minus was excessive, but, whatever, I could live with that. As long as my total GPA stayed above a 3.0, I wouldn't be kicked out of the program. When I found out that she had consulted with my group-mates to inquire about the work I was putting in, I felt violated. I was doing more than my fair share of our group work, so I felt that she had overstepped by informing them she was considering giving me no credit. It also seemed unfair that she had essentially asked them to turn me in for something I didn't do, not exactly establishing a sense of camaraderie among group members. I was a little irked — peeved, even. But it was just a grade.

The problem was, this set the precedent for how the administration viewed me moving forward. Like those high-profile class clowns in middle school and high school, there was a very real stigma that came along with being put "on the radar" of the administration. Once I was labeled, there was no way to silently and discreetly make my way through the program. It felt like being weeded out — at times being treated punitively based on the assumption that I was somehow to blame. You see, I was a bad egg — not like the others.

When my grandmother suffered a stroke, I knew I had to speak to the school. As the closest family member to where she lived, I was traveling to New Jersey as often as possible to see her, and my signature was required on paperwork at the hospital concerning her treatment. No one in the family seemed sure what to do, but someone needed to step up to the plate, so I, temporarily, did just that.

I made the mistake of requesting to have the location of my work site switched in order to ease my commute time, which took approximately an hour and 15 minutes each way. But the school's stance was that any time under 90 minutes was acceptable. What I thought was a simple request turned out to be an onslaught of bureaucratic procedures and administrative resentment. I was informed that it was my parents' job to care for my grandmother, and that I was undeserving of an accommodation. If I chose to, they told me, I could speak with the office of disability services to see if I was eligible for consideration; however, unanticipated family emergencies were not an appropriate qualifier.

Just for asking, they required that I get a doctor's note indicating I was well enough to complete the demands of the program. Rude! Also, somewhat dehumanizing! I remember being surprised when I was called into a meeting with the the advising department's head. She was nice enough, but the message was clear: If you can't handle it, you shouldn't be here.

I was unhappy, but I kept telling myself it was just a matter of time: There was an end date in sight! It wasn't supposed to be easy. But the intimidation tactics utilized by the school's administration were blatant — and effective. When my supervisor referred to me one day as "Breasts and Legs," questioning my intelligence and humiliating me in front of my coworkers, something inside me snapped. There was no way I would be able to return to a hostile work environment where my intelligence was questioned and I was shamed based on my appearance. Unsure of what to do, but positive that the work site was toxic for me, I considered my options.

With my tail between my legs, I had to return — yet again — to inform my school that I would not be able to work at that site. FYI, what the supervisor there did was illegal; I at least expected the school to understand that much. Knowing that in order to graduate we had to subject ourselves to whatever environment they told us to put me in a tough position. And I honestly would have forced myself to work there if I felt it was manageable, but as stressed out as I was, feeling disrespected on a daily basis would have been excruciating for me.

I understand now that it was the last shred of self-respect I had left, so on some level, I subconsciously knew I had to defend it. Feeling alienated and shamed at work is tough enough. At the best of times, it is difficult to deal with, but when you're already maxed out emotionally? If I didn't say something, I would end up: (a) failing because my supervisor hated me, (b) failing because I disrespected my supervisor, or (c) failing because I was AWOL. My unprofessional supervisor had the power to derail my education, and I was afraid that this lack of professionalism could put my degree progress at risk.

Well, the dean responded just as I expected. She informed me that I deserved to be thrown out of the program — and responded punitively. Rest assured, I made up for every hour that was missed as a result of my requesting a location switch. I worked on Saturdays to ensure that I met my required hours. I was, in every sense of the word, treated as the problem, and there was not even a hint of acknowledgement that the supervisor had been out of line.

I was not even allowed to defend myself, and the dean questioned me regarding my clothing — implying that the supervisor had a valid point and that I had deserved that treatment. I was actually reduced to tears in the meeting with the dean. It was stressful, but even more than that, with so many negative interactions under my belt, I was beginning to question myself. Was I causing this?! As a brand-new professional, I felt completely incompetent, ashamed of myself, and unworthy of the prestigious institution I was told I did not deserve to be at.

Mostly, I knew that they did have all the power: I needed that diploma, and they were the ones who set the terms for me to obtain it. As my dad said, there were a number of hoops I would need to jump through. It just so happened that I was having a rough time with some of those hoops. The phrase "swallow your pride" had never felt so apt. It literally felt like having to suppress my very last shred of self-respect in order to get through the remaining months of school. It eventually all went numb, but last time I checked, anhedonia is not a healthy state. Looking back, I am fairly sure that I was acting primarily out of the fear of not graduating, when typically I avoid fear-based decisions and behaviors.

It's a good thing I stuck it out as long as I did. It turned out that the dean had actually been handling my case inappropriately, and it wasn't the first time she had done so. There were other school officials in my meeting with the dean, who were aware of what had taken place and who had observed her treatment of me. When I left the meeting crying, my school advisor acted on my behalf. Unbeknownst to me, the school administration took action and the dean was forced to step down. I was assured that the dean's stance was not actually indicative of the university's. Looking back, I recognize that I am the luckiest person in the world. I must have been the last in a long string of students who had been mistreated by the dean. And here I was, receiving external validation that my negative feelings were not, in fact, rooted in truth — and when does the system ever admit its fault? 

And that awful dean? She left abruptly and without explanation. Turns out she had a history of behaving inappropriately toward students. As a high-ranking official of the institution, it was unprofessional of her to have behaved in that way. Her status at the university and position of authority over me as a student made her harsh treatment of me an abuse of power on her part. So there. That shift was the small beacon of hope that I would, in fact, actually be able to make it through to the end of the program. 

I would like to say that things turned around and became a breeze, but the truth is, it was still grueling work. It would take some time before I even had the energy to even process the victory. I still felt utterly defeated, but the barriers to my ability to succeed went away. My field placement site was switched to a location that was an hour shorter commute, and while it was a very tough field placement, it was also the most rewarding part of my entire graduate education. And my supervisor there was a godsend. I was never singled out or criticized in a derogatory way. 

For a long time, I still looked back on all things Columbia with so much hate. It took me some time to recover following graduate school, and it scares me to remember the depressed state I had sunk to. Looking back, I realize now that choosing to go to graduate school itself had less to do with my excitement for the field, and much more to do with searching for some concrete sense of my future. The jarring realization that the rest of my life was a complete question mark after finishing college had been unsettling, and, frankly, I would have accepted any type of structure to help me feel grounded. But the setting of an Ivy League university, in one of the most exciting cities in the world, seemed like the perfect place to enjoy my 20s, not an emotionally debilitating experience.

I think it's shocking the level of prestige and respect we afford certain institutions, with only limited knowledge of their actual practices. It's worrisome to me to think that this could very well be commonplace — with abuses of power in the least expected places — and that we all just suffer in silence and turn a blind eye.

There are few things in life that warrant the level of seriousness that this particular institution demanded of its students, but of the many valuable lessons I learned during grad school, the most important one was to never lose the ability to look back and laugh. Laugh at the good, at the bad, at the INJUSTICE, but mostly, at ourselves. And of course, the high-and-mighty dean who thought she was entitled to bully and antagonize the very students whose learning she was supposed to be facilitating. Who's laughing now?!

When you're taken into an environment that is so caught up in elitism and pretense, it's easy to lose sight of your values and the importance of your own quality of life. You should never have to sacrifice your own well-being for a goal that comes at the price of your happiness or needs.

In vernacular terms, the definition of codependence would be something like, "I hurt me to help you." Looking back, I was totally in a codependent relationship with Columbia. Having lived through that experience and worked with clients since, I am here to tell you that it is never worth learning that mistake the hard way! Find the environments and people that empower you and hold onto them. Sometimes our inner critic likes to latch onto those places and people who make us feel small or belittled, or disempowered, but if you ever need someone to tell you to be kind and compassionate to yourself? Let this article be just that.