Okay. Just breathe, San. These are your people. You’re all in the same boat. Just hide your manicure in your jacket pocket so they don’t think you care too much about superficial crap.
This was the excruciating commentary playing in my head as I ascended the steps to my first annual barbecue with the physics department. After three weeks of sitting alongside the same people in a torturously claustrophobic room, staring at equations with a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face, I had still only spoken to one of my peers, whom I’d known for years through high school.
They’re all so much smarter than me, asking questions weeks ahead of the reading, with next week’s homework — littered with perfectly aligned LaTeX equations — printed out and in hand. Why on earth did you wear a leather jacket?
This is why I enlisted my friend Gabi to escort me to this daunting affair and act as a buffer. I couldn’t face the other physics majors on my own. I had convinced myself that every one of them thought I was mind-numbingly vapid.
My fears reared their head as I left her side for a split second to grab a drink. “Are you lost?” asked the middle-aged man in front of me. I didn’t think much of the question at first, so I replied, “I don’t think so.”
“Well, this is the physics barbecue.” Realizing what he was insinuating, my subconscious sliced the number of decibels I spoke with in half, “I know, I’m a physics major.”
Seemingly stunned, the man mumbled something incoherent, and I carried my half-poured drink back to Gabi and attempted to socialize with my classmates. After a couple more minutes of polite chatter, I nudged her to leave.
It has been a year since that moment, and, although I attended this year’s barbecue with a much brighter attitude and some great new friends, not much has changed. What really hasn’t is how completely out of place and extremely self-conscious I feel among my peers.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m great friends with most of them. But every morning I face the same I can’t wear that, or else what will they think? dilemma. God forbid my classmates see anything sparkly on my face; they might think it’s the sunlight reflecting off of the air molecules in my head.
I realize that this is mostly in my head, but that doesn’t make it any less real. And although from the outside they all seem to have perfect GPAs and be miles ahead on coursework, everyone feels inferior in some way. The truth is that I’m wildly intimidated by a group of people that I know feel lost in some way, too.
We’re all in college; how could we not feel lost? Far be it for me to speak on anyone else’s behalf, but nobody’s life is perfect. Personally I think we all need to reenact “Stick to the Status Quo” from the first High School Musical and encourage the quirky mismatching of hobbies.
My favorite people are the ones who spend as much time playing football as they do solving thousand-piece puzzles, or constructing detailed lives for their Sims before acquiring an almost worrying number of bruises at rugby practice.
I’ve spent over a year terrified of what people are going to think of my outfits or highlighter, and that worry has translated to self-doubt in my academic and professional life. It has taken far too long for me to learn to embrace the fact that, if my hair dye isn’t going to seep into my head and kill all my brain cells, I shouldn’t care if people think it does.
I didn’t flip a switch to make it stop bothering me, and there are times when it still does. Having said that, I’ve tried not to let it stop me from being myself.
So, if you see me walking into an upper-level physics course in bright, fuchsia lipstick and hair that looks like it just came from the beach, know that, no, I’m not lost.