Why Girls Are Really Losing Self-Esteem in College

By Kathryn Wingfield on November 7, 2013
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Over the past couple of months, research has surfaced reporting that girls are rapidly losing self-esteem in college. Female students who enter college as self-assured, ambitious individuals graduate with less confidence, feeling anxious, doubtful, and depressed, and no one can figure out exactly why. As a female college student myself who is experiencing this firsthand, I’ll tell you.

It’s because we’re being lied to.

I started my college career as ambitious as a person could be. I had been a success in high school, gotten a jump start on my internship experience, and would be entering school a year ahead in credits. I was headed to my dream school, and my goals of beginning a long career in journalism seemed closer than ever. I had been sold on my school’s state-of-the-art media college and after a lifetime of people telling me I could be anything I wanted to be, I could not wait to get in there and make things happen.  I was sure I could.

It didn’t take long for me to realize things weren’t quite right.

During my first finals week, my dorm halls hung bright posters exclaiming “Don’t worry if you fail your finals; just pray your future husband is passing his!”

In my first real journalism writing class, I was told by one of my favorite professors that I should use my “girl charms” to get information out of people. (He later told me I was the most likely to succeed student in the class.)

To this day I still find myself in frustrated near-tears when my ideas and thoughts are brushed aside and disregarded until a male student brings them up and they suddenly seem great. (I know there is a debate on whether or not this actually happens, but trust me, it actually happens.)

The list continues, but those are fitting examples.

These situations aren’t too bad on their own, but become a million times more disheartening when I consider that they’re taking place against the backdrop of my dream school, a place that prides itself on helping me succeed. It’s made me wonder what exactly is considered to be “success” for students of the female gender.

Of course this doesn’t mean that women are hopeless when it comes to college education and career ambition. We know we’re better than what our institutions often have to offer, and we make the most of what we have, because that’s what we’ve been raised to do: Be awesome.

So then why, on such a massive scale, are we leaving our places of education feeling hopeless and anxious? Because it’s our first encounter with the real world.

In high school, everyone is still figuring out who they are, so our view of big bad ‘society’ is warped and clouded. When we enter college, however, we find ourselves as adults among adults, and we’re disheartened by what we see. We realize during these formative years that ‘society’ is just a bunch of grown-up kids, and that even in the most sophisticated, elevated settings, we’re still subject to sexism, discrimination, and bigotry just because we’re girls.

College is when we realize that it’s never going to go away. At high-strung universities that claim to lead us to success, at the jobs we fought to earn, and among the people we meet out in the ‘real world,” we’re always going to be seen to some degree as lesser than, forgotten, or simply better-intended for some other setting. There is no happy ending-as we were promised- where we hit the ground running, degree in hand, into a sunset full of fairness and equal opportunities. We have to make that world for ourselves.

Here’s the bottom line to counter this cynical picture: I know that when I do earn my dream job- without the need to use my “girl charms” in the process- and I do make myself heard and I do let every other girl out there know that she can do the same despite the extra BS hurdles we have to jump every step of the way- that success will give me more self-confidence than I would have had if the journey had gone any other way.

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So yeah, we’re understandably losing self-esteem in college- but we’re going to get it back and we’re going to do the amazing things we set out to do when we began. We didn’t spend those four years learning how to feel bad ourselves and make sandwiches. We spent them learning how to succeed despite all odds.

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I'm a junior journalism major at the University of Oklahoma who spends too much time on the Internet.

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