Reflections of a 4L

stephanieIllustrated by Minji Reem

When I graduate in May, I will receive three degrees – a JD, a Master of International Affairs from SIPA (with the horrible abbreviation MIA), and an LLM in International Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. I am affectionately called a “4L” by my friends because I’ve been at Columbia for 4 years. You would think that I would walk around thinking that I am the “ish.” Or that I am the next Hillary Clinton (my mother is convinced of this). But I don’t. I don’t know how to evaluate myself. And being at Columbia doesn’t help.

Recently, I had a conversation with two classmates from my LLM program about grades at Columbia. I told them that it was gauche to talk about grades, and they couldn’t understand why. How can you know if you really did well in your class without knowing the grade distribution? I told them about the grade curve and general feelings about grades at Columbia. What I didn’t tell them is that this question of grades and evaluation sort of haunts me.

I get a lot of B+’s. Some B’s. Some A’s and A-‘s. A B- is in there too. But mostly B+’s. Does this make me a good student or a bad student? I guess it depends on whom you ask. 1L year, I remember asking a TA if B+’s were good. He said, “Well, that’s the average.” Is average at Columbia good? I can’t answer that. But I’ve walked around here feeling like I am not good enough and didn’t do enough and I blame that on comparing myself to others. Yes, I’ve done great internships. But did I do enough internships? I was on a journal (shout out to Journal of Race and Law) but I struggled with the note requirement. I didn’t do a moot court. I didn’t do an externship. I have professors who will vouch for me. But I’ve never been asked to TA a course.

I feel like I put a lot of myself into and sacrificed a lot for graduate school. I’ve gained weight since starting Columbia, which is due, in part, to medical reasons as well as eating away my stress from school (free pizza and cookies every day doesn’t help). I’ve cried. I’ve been to student health more times than I can count. But still I don’t feel like I gave it my all because I look around and my classmates seem to be doing more, on less sleep, and with greater success. It can be hard to deal with. Especially as a minority and a woman, because I already feel that I have to prove myself all the time. But that is a column for another day.

I’ve been putting in work to change my mindset. And I am coming to the conclusion that comparison is useless and damaging. I have to remind myself of several things: (1) I am God’s child and His love for me is the ultimate proof of my worth; (2) Yes, I’ve made mistakes, but I can learn from them; and (3) Don’t be so hard on yourself because you are “da bomb” (90’s throwback) in so many ways!! I take two steps forward and one step back every day regarding these truths, but I am more and more sure that learning them is way more important than mastering hearsay.

So I am graduating in May with three degrees. With a transcript and resume that may or may not be “good enough.” But that is not important. The most important thing is that I am growing in self-acceptance. And that is powerful.

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