Content warning: suicide
Every time I start talking about how much my Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, accommodations have helped me and how much I think they can help others, the other person always chimes in with this question: “But if you’ve done this well so far, do you really need the extra help now?” This fallacy breaks my heart. UC Berkeley students would rather continue suffering in silence than reach out and finally ask for support that they desperately need.
However, at the beginning of the semester, I fell into that same mindset. Growing up with social anxiety — especially in a Mexican household — was difficult, but I survived. I knew nobody in my family had been formally diagnosed with a mental illness or had even regularly attended therapy for more than three weeks. Counseling wasn’t an option for me unless my parents were holding it over my head as a punishment, not as necessary healthcare.
But despite the generational trauma that made my family eschew therapy, I graduated high school and was even accepted to my dream school. Now, college was simply the next hurdle to go over. Not being diagnosed until the summer before my freshman year, I believed I didn’t have anything to complain about. I was simply just an “anxious person.”
I had heard about DSP accommodations and how helpful they were to others, but I didn’t think I’d be the type of person to benefit from them. Sure, my anxiety made me compulsively avoid interaction with others — including professors, classmates and friends alike — and left me spending all my time alone in my room, but was that really such a big issue?
In short, yes — yes it was. Being a STEM major, especially at UC Berkeley, means you have to communicate and collaborate with others if you truly want to succeed and even thrive within this environment. Those students who get straight A’s without ever asking a teacher or friend for help may seem impressive now, but they’ll come upon roadblock after roadblock if they don’t learn how to work with others.
With multiple midterms, intensive labs that take up entire evenings or mornings and professors who expect perfectionism, it isn’t a field you entered lightly. The expectations on campus for STEM majors are uncomfortably high, and many students who come from marginalized backgrounds much like myself don’t have the resources nor the background knowledge to traverse these unwritten benchmarks.
I knew I needed support, but I wasn’t sure where to get it. My mentor recommended that I apply for accommodations from the Disabled Students’ Program, but I was still unsure. I spent years earning my spot at this school, but as a Chicane student who only knew how to learn alone, I felt like a fraud seeing all my other classmates succeed.
UC Berkeley’s motto “You belong here!” rang in my ears every night.
Finally, after being encouraged to just ask for a diagnosis, I was told I had major depressive disorder on top of my social anxiety. It felt like a curtain was finally pulled back, and I could see clearly that what I was experiencing wasn’t something I could combat alone.
While it’s possible to live with these illnesses and still live a fulfilling life without ever reaching out, I knew that wasn’t an option for me. I started the semester out strong, but slowly my motivation died out, and the only thing I looked forward to was going back to sleep after the monotony of the day. I was riding off of my passion for computer science and excitement for the new school year, but that adrenaline quickly wore off.
Soon, I did worse and worse on assignments and turned in projects later and later in the week. The reality was that I could “survive” this semester without accommodations, but what would my college experience eventually turn into? I wanted to learn, flourish and enjoy life during my freshman year, but the future seemed bleak.
This reminded me of how I felt during elementary school. My parents still thought I was just being shy, but I was well past the age where that was endearing or even acceptable. My anxiety grew more and more debilitating and soon impacted every relationship I had.
I didn’t have a single friend until the fourth grade, despite my parents setting up playdates every week in vain. Every day, all I could think of while sitting in my room alone was how hard the pavement would feel if I jumped out the window right at that moment. I was completely conscious of my social ineptitude, and I tried so hard to fix myself. Still, I found myself spending recess alone every day.
At some point, I started making friends, but only because they reached out first — and that pattern continued all the way into high school. Here, I knew I had undiagnosed social anxiety, but my parents were convinced I just didn’t like talking to strangers. If “didn’t like” meant bursting into tears after speaking, or not being able to make eye contact once and staying awake all night thinking about it, then I guess they were correct. But it was slowly destroying my social and academic life, and because I managed to get straight A’s, nobody thought twice about it.
That was high school. College was a completely foreign environment to me. I knew I wanted to do something differently this time around.
So, I applied to the Disabled Students’ Program. It definitely wasn’t an easy decision or process — even simply booking an intake appointment could take weeks, and the appointment itself would be months in advance. Additionally, accommodations don’t apply retroactively: They’re only applicable after being approved.
I spent a long time preparing what I would say and what I would request, but during the appointment, I couldn’t hold back my tears. Whether it was my social anxiety manifesting itself in that consequential moment, or being faced with the fact that this process was finally almost over, I’m not sure. Thankfully, I got almost everything I asked for. I think I’m both a better student and better person for it.
While my accommodations haven’t made my college experience flawless, I don’t think perfection is necessary to succeed at UC Berkeley. I still need to study, manage my time and schedule my week, but now that’s become manageable for me, finally.