By Devika Goswami (UG22)
There could be a hundred different nostalgia pieces about Ashoka at this point, and I don’t know if all of them (even this one) put together could capture how it unexpectedly helped with my mental health. It’s not just how engaging it can be academically, where online classes have now instead left a gaping intellectual vacuum for most of its student body. It’s the freedom, and not in a CADI-defying Thursday night way, but in the way of a space of expression and, if I may be so bold to admit and then later regret, escape.
I personally could leave behind what felt like an emotionally draining environment, and actually pull off what I saw in the movies: starting ‘anew’. Sure, I, unfortunately, didn’t dye my hair in a stopover airport restroom and conveniently ’change’ my identity on my way to another country. Even so, I did find solace in knowing that I could start cultivating a small corner of the world that would belong only to me and more often than not my friends, who suspiciously seemed to know every time I stocked up on food.
In fact, even the fractured year that I spent here actually gave me the vocabulary to describe my experience and seek help. It was the first place I’d been where mental health was given so much if any, importance at all. Slowly but surely, my own prejudices and hang-ups about seeking help started to erode. I’m not really ‘there’ yet, but I’m much better off than I was a year ago. It has given me a point of comparison now that I’m at home, and is a reminder of the commitment I made on campus to my mental health. That is more than I could say if I had chosen someplace else (cue token Ashokan dig at DU), but you know, hindsight is always 50-50.
More than vocabulary, I’ve observed a community focus on mental health like no other place I’ve seen. There are still flaws with the way it is handled by the admin and sometimes even the faculty. It is often dismissed and even conveniently thrown aside for the sake of the institution’s fragile and frankly, confused ‘reputation’. While it’s possible that the bar was low to begin with, resources like the ACWB made a world of a difference for me. If it was not for the pro-mental health stance taken by the majority of the student body, and especially those encouraging me, I’m afraid I would’ve never taken that first step. So, what helped me the most wasn’t Ashoka as an institution but the people that actually make it.
However, one thing I can confidently attribute to the institution is how it challenges my preconceived beliefs in a very uncomfortable but necessary way. It made me more vigilant when it came to accepting views at face value, which in many ways added to my sense of self. As someone who was blissfully apolitical and not in the least aware of anything outside their sphere of comfort, I now have a renewed sense of empathy. It stretches outside of my friends, and into political and social issues that I’ve only barely scraped the surface of. This is textbook social awareness and bright-eyed ‘first-year’ talk, but it’s an antidote for an easy recipe for feeling powerless in the face of an administration and polity far from ‘socially aware’. [It takes an absurd amount of restraint to not say “woke” sometimes].
I see most students here shouldering real responsibilities, be it to uplift their families or the communities they value. I can now acknowledge that I’m privileged enough to only have some aspects of my life derailed by the pandemic but to still see it through comfortably. I can now acknowledge the accountability I have towards, for instance, the workers at Ashoka— to the people who’ve made life easier on campus without ever even asking for credit.
I’ll address the elephant in the room, and not any unhealthy coping mechanisms at that, but just the fact that Ashoka obviously is not the ‘end-all’ destination for becoming a less despicable version of yourself. To say so would be a grave overstatement, and would play into all the twitter conspiracies of Ashoka mysteriously churning out ‘anti-nationals’ annually. In collaboration with other factors, the community at Ashoka gave me the tools to get help, to argue, to opine, to take action and unforgettably, to click the ‘opt-in’ button as fast as my internet can allow on registration day.
From home, this sense of community is palpable even as it abandons itself to angry twitter rants or speed-reading contests on Facebook. If not in the outstretched, airy halls of campus, then in the long-flowing Facebook threads can that fervent righteousness mixed with good intentions be found. Despite its many problems, the treatment of mental health at Ashoka gave me an ideal to strive for while I’m at a place of lesser acceptance, home. There’s much to improve, much to be disappointed about, and, much to be grateful for in the coming year.