The Problem with Perfection

How student empowerment can change the “mask” culture on campus

Today’s college students are hiding in plain sight.

At one East Coast institution, students reference the “Penn Face,” describing the mask they wear to conceal any perceived imperfection.

At another institution, the term “Columbia Face” is similarly used.

At a West Coast university, students have written about the “Duck Syndrome,” the phenomenon of appearing graceful on the surface like a duck, while, in actuality, one is struggling to stay afloat.

At one southern university, students have coined “The Undertow,” alluding to a force beneath the surface, unseen by others, which is dragging them down.

College students are suffering from an intense fear of being perceived as anything but perfect. A debilitative campus culture exists in which students feel the need to mask themselves. Students are meticulously curating their outside images, attempting to meet an impossible ideal.

This masking brings with it negative implications, not only for students’ mental wellness, but also, I contend, for the ability of colleges to foster innovative students who will change the world.

The Spring 2018 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment survey reveals that over 62 percent of college students report having felt “very lonely” within the past year. Students have described themselves as feeling like imposters in their own skins, hesitant to reveal anything beyond what they think others view as “ideal.”

“Penn Face,” “Columbia Face,” “Duck Syndrome,” and “The Undertow” are not clinical terms. They come from their respective campus communities.

While there is, no doubt, a bleak way to understand this—that masking one’s true self has become so ingrained within the culture of college campuses that students have literally branded the phenomenon to their particular institutions—there is also a silver lining: if students are those who create campus culture, then students are also those with the power to transform it.

I often meet with college administrators about this. While there are, of course, vital methods used to support students’ wellness along a variety of entry points, I urge that we not overlook the power of a proactive approach that aims to change the underlying culture of college campuses. Doing this can produce a synergy that brings more comprehensive wellness support.

I also believe a proactive approach can further students’ ability to innovate. A common theme running through my discussions with college administrators is their desire to foster innovators; they want their institutions to forge the next generation of people who will change the world.

In my view, the ability of students to be innovators is hampered by a campus culture of loneliness, isolation, and masking. If we are serious about innovating society, how can it be good for colleges to have a culture in which students aim to conform to an impossible ideal grounded in current societal norms?

Today’s colleges are packed with students who have ideas that could change the world. The shame is when these students, instead of becoming empowered and inspired, feel pressured to abandon their innovative ideas, put on their masks, and suffer silently.

But it does not have to be this way. By working collaboratively to empower students to break down the standard which says, “you should be this” and replace it with the message that “you should be you,” I believe we can usher in a new chapter of cultivating wellness and promoting innovation on campus.

Jared Fenton is Founder and President of The Reflect Organization, a national nonprofit designed to empower students to foster a culture of authenticity, self-love, and allyship on college campuses.

While at the University of Pennsylvania, Jared produced the first mixed-methods research examining the phenomenon of “Penn Face.”

Jared has been honored by numerous mental health organizations, and he was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award by Barack Obama.

Jared graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, with a BA in Political Science and a certificate from the Civic Scholars Program for Social Action and Civic Engagement.

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