The Quarter-Life Crisis (and How You Will Survive It)


by Sulan Bailey, United World College Maastricht
10 December, 2020
Illustration by Can Mavioğlu


This year, on September 15, I “celebrated” my nineteenth birthday. The word celebrated being used loosely because, for me, it did not feel like an accomplishment. As a matter of fact, I live in the constant dread that I am playing catch up. Most of my classmates here at UWCM are anywhere from 3 months to 3 years younger than I am and all the friends that I grew up with back home have already started university. In all honesty, the month leading up to my latest birthday has been one of the darkest periods in my life. I look around me and all I can see is the successes of the people I know and the people I admire who are my age or even younger. At 16, Greta Thunberg was passionately educating people worldwide from all generations about an impending doom to our planet. At 17, Yara Shadidi was interviewing Hillary Clinton and the next year she started at Harvard University. At 18, Billie Eilish has five Grammys and countless other awards.

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I’m 19 and still in high school. Even if I had foregone starting UWCM with only a year left at my previous school, I have no idea what I want to pursue in university, or as a career. Nearly two decades of my life: gone. What now?

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This monologue is one that plays on an endless loop in my mind. It seems that no matter how much I fill my schedule with academic pursuits and extracurricular activities to distract myself from this line of thinking, my brain finds its way back to that place. Through late-night conversations with many of my friends and classmates, it seems that many of us have slipped into this vicious cycle of overcommitment and self-loathing. Upon reflection, there are several common elements that appear among the feelings of underachievement and discouragement that my peers have shared with me; ones that I can relate to in my own internal struggle. Many of those common elements have a lot to do with attending a UWC.

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There are many benefits to the “UWC experience” and each day I take time to be grateful as those benefits present themselves to me. However, unless you’re particularly mindful, it’s all too simple to become overwhelmed, frustrated with yourself and even burnt out. If you’re attending a UWC, you may see this happening all around you, or you may be experiencing it yourself, especially if you’re a second year. This process usually stems from internal pressures to achieve excellence. After all, many UWC students’ very acceptance to one of the colleges was based partially on the fact that we were high achievers in our previous academic contexts. While the drive for success isn’t harmful in and of itself, the pressure that comes to continue achieving at that level can be overwhelming. Simply put, it’s often not possible to maintain academic performance at the same level as before when also dealing with a change in academic system, moving away from home (often for the first time) and learning to live in close quarters with 200 other students. The feeling of not meeting one’s own expectations can be devastating. For me, it was. Comparing my grades at the end of DP1 to my grades before arriving was ultimately detrimental. In my head, that meant comparing who I am to who I used to be. And, according to the numbers, I had become a worse person. 

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Like many other students in my position, I sought an outlet for all this newfound academic stress. Luckily, my school community easily provided that in the form of a variety of extracurricular activities, many of which I was excited to try for the first time. However, this abundance of opportunity soon proved to be a double edged sword. Through CAS, conferences and cultural events, I demonstrated my engagement, talent and commitment to the whole school community. Seeing that I was capable of those few things was an invitation to my teachers, fellow students and others in the community to ask if I would be willing to do even more. I could have said no, of course, but adding one more responsibility to my plate never seemed like too much, until it was. 

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Before I knew it, I was trapped in an endless cycle of running from class to CAS to voluntary campus activity, working until the early morning to submit assignments barely on time, then sleeping whenever I could find the time. Somehow, during this last term, I have felt the most accomplished and fulfilled in my life , while feeling more tired and burnt out than ever before. I find myself turning in work that I’m very proud of, and, soon after, just struggling to the end of an assignment so that I can meet the deadline. Then, not being my best all the time adds more pressure for me to work harder and do better in the future, when I often feel I have nothing left to give. I know many of my friends and classmates share this constant internal contradiction. Whether or not you are attending or have attended a UWC, you may be at a place in your life where you are struggling with it too. I haven’t written this article to tell you how to better manage your time and responsibilities to avoid a situation like this. I have not quite figured that out for myself as yet. But here’s what I can say:

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I am not perfect. Neither are you. That’s okay. On some days, I am very productive, knocking out task after task with my short- and long-term goals in sharp focus. On others, getting to the end of the day feels like a significant victory. I spend many minutes and hours in introspection, reflecting on my habits and traits that allow for me to become trapped in that vicious cycle of exhaustion and burn-out and working to counter them gradually. I encourage you to do the same. However, my biggest obstacle is simply self-acceptance. Regarding my failures as failures and not as an indication of my self-worth. Acknowledging that, like everyone else, I have weaknesses, as well as strengths, and that that fact does not make me a bad person. At the end of the day, the person I will become is a combination of all my experiences, good and bad. If I never failed, stressed or felt overwhelmed, there are many lessons that I need to become the person I want to be that I would have missed. So, my challenge for you (and for myself) is to be more accepting of you, achievements, mistakes, everything. After this storm has passed, you’ll see how it’s all shaped you into who you are and gotten you closer to who you want to become. 

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