Establishing Boundaries with Academia

Self-worth is more than academic validation.

Josie Santiago, DN Illustration
Josie Santiago, DN Illustration

Elaine Ulsh is a first-year computer science and physics major and writes “The Occasional Observer” for the Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.

I have heard the saying “C’s get degrees” long before I stepped into my college experience. 

I remember thinking, “Yeah right. Nobody actually does that.” But people really do! 

There are two sides of academia — those who try just enough to get credit for the course, and those who try their very hardest. I tend to fall into the second category.

I just don’t understand how you could be so relaxed with your education considering that it amounts to everything that your future can and possibly will be. 

Academic validation, while not outwardly apparent, is something that affects many students from elementary all the way to doctorate school. 

In a sense, academic validation is truly its namesake: getting self-satisfaction, or validation, from performing well in academics. 

Because I never really had trouble in school. Good grades were not really a question for me. The question was rather was I applying myself? I wasn’t for a long time. That is, until I realized how much I wanted to succeed in college.

I have been college bound since preschool. It wasn’t if I was going to college, but where? 

To be completely honest, when I was in my first two years of middle school, I did not try at all. I cruised by with mostly A’s for the easier classes, B’s in the others. 

However, eighth grade really turned it around for me. 

I was an advanced student and, therefore, placed in the higher level classes. I skipped sixth grade math and took a high school course my eighth-grade year. It was in this class that I realized all that I could be if I just applied myself.

So, I tried. And I had straight A’s.

Freshman year of high school had harder classes, so I tried a little harder. Straight A’s again.

It continued like this every one of my high school years, even tucking 10 AP classes and a dual-credit course under my belt. I still had straight A’s.

I felt unbeatable. 

But there’s a downside to that. 

Those tests that I didn’t do well on, and those essays that needed more work crushed my soul. I felt like a failure and believed it with every part of my being.

This was a big problem in my first AP class: AP World History. I don’t particularly like history or social studies in general, so I’m not sure why I wanted to take this class so badly. I failed many tests in that class.

My teacher understood that, as sophomores, we weren’t necessarily ready for the weight of an AP class, so he tried to help us as much as he could. But with every F that I received, I cried my eyes out. 

I stayed after class many times when he tried to convince me that an F was not the end of the world, and it didn’t mean that I wasn’t smart, but it sure felt like that was the case.

That year was the first time when I was introduced to the idea of grades not being linked to my identity. However, the task was not easy.

I craved academic validation. I still do, just not as much. I enjoyed being the girl who got straight A’s and was never behind in her assignments.

There was even a point that I tutored lowerclassmen or made plans for other students, so they could catch up on their missing assignments with reward systems and everything.

While romanticizing school to be my whole life seemed fun in theory, it’s actually not fun at all.

In fact, it’s the opposite of fun. It’s stressful. 

I got all A’s last semester. I credit this to the fact that first semester is usually easier than second semester in college, as well as to the classes I took, which were repeats of those I had taken in high school.

However, my classes now are much harder than last semester, and I have professors who grade, in my opinion, unfairly. But there’s nothing that I can do about either of those things.

 Honestly, I’m struggling with not currently having straight A’s. 

Yes, MATH 267 is difficult, and Advanced Programming has a notoriously rigid professor who has a ridiculously hard grading scale and hyper focuses on philosophy. But in my mind, I should be able to overcome both of those things.

I am trying so hard — sometimes that is all you can do. 

But I am having a hard time dealing with that fact due to my need for academic validation. 

And it affects so many young minds.

A study from Springer Research in Higher Education indicates many students who have a feeling of academic validation generally receive a higher GPA — which just feeds into the fixation of  academic validation as a whole.

I have witnessed firsthand how academic validation can cause students anxiety and unneeded stress. Many of my closest friends in high school felt the need for academic validation that I do. Those same friends often were so focused on getting the perfect grades that they didn’t have a life outside of the classroom.

I witnessed their panic attacks for simply getting a B on a test rather than an A. I have felt that same pain.

No one should have to feel like they aren’t worthy for not getting a 100 percent on a test.

Before coming to college, I felt the anxiousness surrounding school would disappear once I got here. But did it? No. Academic pressure is not just a K-12 thing.

In fact, I would argue that some of the stakes are higher. Now I pay to get a B on an exam, and it almost hurts more.

Standing back and looking at the situation from a bystander standpoint as I have often done for my friends, it seems ridiculous to fixate on getting above a 90 percent. 

After all, it’s such a small portion of your life. Why should we stress so much about the outcome? But with how competitive the job industry is, it’s difficult not to.

I believe dealing with the feeling of academic validation is an important part of the academic experience. What you do with that feeling can shape your future in many ways.

According to Pacific Teen Treatment, the effects of academic pressure can drastically hinder a person’s growth and development. It is important that the way we use academic validation is to better us in academia, not let it affect our personal lives and how we view ourselves.

I have struggled and seen others struggle with needing academic validation for too long. I’m tired of it. There needs to be a way for students to put up boundaries with academia.

It seems so alluring to feed your whole life into getting the perfect grades — to being “that girl.” But in reality, grades are just a number on a paper or a screen and don’t say anything about who we are as people.

It is important that we don’t get sucked into the vortex of validating ourselves through our grades or what others say — because we matter regardless.

I will be honest in saying that I am still going to try to get that perfect grade, to have that above 90 percent lifestyle. But I am not going to let the harsh comments from a professor or an 89 percent crush my spirit as it once would have. 

I am more than a grade. We all are.

Contact Elaine Ulsh with comments at