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Toxic stress culture

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FEBRUARY 27, 2019

“He hasn’t showered for days!” my friend exclaimed. She was telling me about a computer science student she had seen when she had visited her sister at UC Berkeley. He sat on her sister’s apartment floor, eating leftover pizza. He had been there for days, working on the same problem set. He hadn’t left the house since he began. I looked back at her after she finished telling me this, only to discover a glint in her eyes. I was stunned. “Why are you smiling?” I asked, incredulous. “Because that’s just what Berkeley is,” she responded.

I never understood the stress of attending UC Berkeley — the notoriety of pain and suffering the campus supposedly heralded among students — until my first semester. The classes were difficult, harder than anything I had ever done before. After my very first technical project, filled with multiple trips to office hours and staring endlessly at my code, I called my mom crying that I wasn’t good enough for UC Berkeley. “I’m not smart enough for this,” I whispered, sobbing into the speakerphone. I thought this feeling would go away, but it followed me throughout my first semester, weighing on my chest after each impossibly long project or assignment. The difficulty of the school, combined with the sense of inferiority I felt as a woman of color in STEM, made me question whether I deserved a place within the computer science major at UC Berkeley.

In addition to the difficulty of navigating the bureaucracy of a large, academically rigorous school, I felt alone, away from family and friends. I wasn’t able to blend in as a woman of color in a sea of predominantly white and Asian male hackers. I remember shoving through a slew of guys with my textbooks as I stood in the hallway outside my electrical engineering discussion, waiting to ask my GSI questions about concepts I was confused about. As I stood, watching the minute hand curve itself around on my watch, I realized I was the only girl who waited after each discussion to ask the GSI questions.

As I spent more time at UC Berkeley, I started to adopt behaviors and mannerisms that I would’ve previously thought unhealthy. I studied for my first Computer Science 61B midterm for a week straight, ignoring my high school friends’ WhatsApp calls and trying to pretend I didn’t want to join my friends for dinner when they texted “6:30 dinner @Foothill?” As soon as I finished the midterm, I gave myself an hour to celebrate by going to Yogurt Park. Yet as I watched the server pour the toppings onto my cone, I came to recognize the naivety in my feeling that a cup of melted chocolate would somehow make me happy — as if it was a substitute for truly taking care of myself. I bused myself back to the dorm, planting myself in our common lounge as I worked under the bareness of my Ikea lamp.

Flipping through the pages of my problem set as the colors of the sky darkened, I felt disgusted with myself. This wasn’t me. I was subconsciously trying to emulate the toxic behaviors of the men in STEM around me to achieve success. After hearing a guy in the dining hall talk about forgetting to eat while doing his chemistry homework, I let myself skip breakfast multiple times, convincing myself that I didn’t need it. I spent Friday nights painstakingly going over my electrical engineering homework, forcing myself to stay in Main Stacks until odd hours of the night to feel like I was a “real” UC Berkeley programmer. In some twisted way, I thought I needed to become like that guy sitting on the floor for days, only eating pizza and drinking soylent as he unfailingly persisted on his academic work.

I was trying desperately to fit into the narrow mold of success, epitomized by the male programmers who forgot to eat and shower for days as they dedicatedly worked on their code. And it didn’t work.

While studying during dead week, I bought to-go meals from Golden Bear Cafe so I could study, as I ate so much that I ran out of flex dollars. I would purposefully worsen my sleep schedule as a means of validating how hard I was working. In the end, however, I still performed worse than I had expected. On top of that, putting my mental health last made me feel like a shell of a person. I went from class to the library to the dining hall for 30 minutes and then back to the library, returning home after all my friends had fallen asleep. Scrolling through my Instagram as I lay in bed that night, looking at other college students have fun and make memories, I felt an untouched kind of sadness.

Because I wanted that. I wanted to go on a hike with my friends, but instead, I felt like I needed to start a project because people were already spamming Piazza with questions. I wanted to have a normal college experience, to meet new people and try new things. But I couldn’t. I had trapped myself into fitting the mold of someone I didn’t want to be — someone I felt obliged to become to succeed as a woman in STEM.

I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my mental health and well-being just to academically succeed in STEM. I shouldn’t have to feel like I need to put my school work over every aspect of my life and that it is normal to disregard making time for myself. I never want to be the student who sits on the floor, sacrificing everything for academic success. Instead, I want to simply be myself, working hard on things I love while taking the time to love myself, too.


Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].

FEBRUARY 28, 2019