Stuttering Silence in College

I’d be very interested to hear what others might have to say about this — particularly what you were feeling during your first weeks of college as someone who stutters.

I read this article a few days back about the death of Madison Holleran. I had a really long think about it afterward because parts of it really resonated with me.

When I was a senior in high school, things were very good, and I was really happy. By this time, my stuttering wasn’t bothering me too much — I had a strong support group, good grades, and a clear path to college.

When I entered Pitt in the fall of 1997, e-mail and the Internet were relatively new. AOL instant messenger was a thing, sure, but none of us were obsessed with checking our e-mail every five minutes. That being said, we were still connected to our friends at other colleges. Going home for a weekend or Thanksgiving was a pretty big deal since freshman year you could usually find everybody at home.

Those first few weeks were, at times, pretty dark. I remember distinctly thinking one day while walking back to my dorm that I had gone to too big of a school. I wanted to transfer. There’s the idea that you see about college on television and in movies — red brick dorms, people laughing and playing in the Quad (whatever that was), going to parties and meeting cute girls, and having a lively discussion in small classes.

Brochure? Yes. Reality? Not so much. And it was getting to me.

Of course the stuttering wasn’t helping much. There was no partying for me, nor engaging with professors in class (or in recitation, really, cause those were smaller). And my grades were just slowly drifting downward, which was also having a negative effect.

What did end up helping were two things — a few guys who I met on my floor, and the student newspaper that I had joined. I managed to make strong bonds with people who may have heard but didn’t care about my stuttering. I didn’t advertise or anything, but I wasn’t afraid to lean on them when things started getting bad.

If I had been more tuned in to my stuttering, I think I would have tried to join a group. That’s the advice that I would give to anybody who stutters and is going to college. You’re being thrown in with 20,000 other people, so even the fluent people probably think they’re alone, too.

I think we also need to try a lot harder to communicate. We hate doing it because of the stuttering, but you can’t be alone with 20,000 people, questioning your decisions and not feeling like you’re getting what you paid for and just let it all fester inside.

I understand that depression and suicide are completely different from stuttering. I get that. But my point is that there is a tendency for those of us who stutter to really hold everything in. And when there are a lot of huge changes in your life in a short timeframe, it’s a recipe for disaster if you don’t have the right outlet — and you have to be able to communicate to that outlet.

A stuttering new grad tries to find a job

I’m sure I can think of a few more college stories over the next few months, but for now, let me move onto the next phase.

During the latter half of my senior year, I started searching for a job. I understood that I wasn’t going to graduate school — so obviously I needed a job.

I had gone to a nice large public university with plenty of job-searching resources. Did I know about this? Probably in the back of my mind. Did I use any of them? Of course not. That would involve going to an office in some building somewhere and … talking to someone.

A bunch of my engineering friends at the time had done co-ops. They had worked somewhere for a summer or a semester, and presumably that company would give them an offer of employment. Since I was busy at the paper — and being its editor — I didn’t do that. I considered it, but then thought it would mess up my chances of being editor. Nevermind that I was an engineering major and not a journalism major.

The other issue was that well, I was a new graduate. And I had no engineering experience. The only thing I could put on my resume was a lame senior project that I had to do for a class. I say it was lame because well, it didn’t really work. My partner and I worked on it alongside some people in the biomedical engineering department. But they didn’t seem to care much for it. And nobody cared if it worked. So we mostly just sat around and did nothing. During the presentation for the project, I stuttered like crazy alongside my partner. But none of the engineering students present seemed to care — you’re an engineer, of course you’re nervous going up in front of people!

Anyway, by now it was 2001, so the Internet was pretty helpful in searching and applying for jobs. So I did. And didn’t hear back from anybody. Of course. Because what does job searching actually entail? Networking. And what does that involve? Meeting people. And talking to them. And following up with phone calls. You see the problem.

The university also hosted job fairs. I did print up my lame one-page resume and go to these. Did I talk to any career counselor about what the hell to do at these things? No, of course not. I remember very well going to a job fair with my resume, going up to a company, and handing it to the lady standing there. I might have said hi. She just sort of took it, and … it was weird and awkward. That’s how I approached my job search in college. It was a little rough.

That summer I graduated (still with no job) and moved back in with my parents. The search continued.

Stuttering in College Part 7

Today’s story comes from senior year. This is when things had really taken off for me in college — I had made it to editor in chief of the newspaper. So it turns out that despite not having read anything about “setting goals, visualizing success or having a positive outlook,” I managed to set a goal freshman year and attain it. Confidence-wise, this was huge — and something I’ve used a lot since.

At some point during the year, I got a call from the US Department of Education. They were having a conference in downtown Pittsburgh, and wondered if I could sit on a panel and talk about alcohol and college kids. Well, if this was the thing that university paper editors did, well, let’s do it, then!

Since I was pretty busy, I didn’t look into what the conference was all about, and who else would be there. I don’t remember the exact details of what the talk was about, but I remember the logistics of it. Naturally since I was a college student, I put off writing the speech until the last minute. Of course since I didn’t drink, I also didn’t know what to say about alcohol and college kids. So two days before it was due, I started asking my friends at the office. There are only two key things that I remember learning from my friends that I incorporated into this speech. The first is that if your friend drinks himself silly and gets hurt badly, this has no affect on your own drinking. You might pause to consider it, but you’ll still carry on. The other is that if colleges think they can stop underage drinking, they’re mistaken. That has to start way before, during the early years of high school.

Anyway, I typed up the speech at the office, and left it there on the computer. For whatever reason, I thought I’d go in the morning, print it out, and then head downtown. Cruelly, the conference was on a Sunday morning. So of course I got up late. And drove up to the office in a huge hurry, printed it out, and headed downtown. I think I actually woke up about 10 minutes before I was to give the speech. Who makes a college kid go downtown early on a Sunday morning?

I parked up downtown and ran over to the hotel. I found the room, and got up on the little stage at the table. There were three of us, I think. Someone else was already talking. I don’t recall if I had to sit or stand to give the speech. Anyway, soon it was my turn, so I looked at my page and opened my mouth.

If there were 500 words on the page, I stuttered on 600 of them. Seriously, it was a total train wreck. I tried to look up once in a while. I saw a smiling face or two, but otherwise a lot of bored looks. I’m sure the audience members probably just thought that I was super-nervous. I mean, hey, here’s a college-kid giving a speech in front of a bunch of strangers. Everybody is afraid of public speaking, right? It was really, really quiet in there. And here I was, trying to drone on. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t get any kind of rhythm going. I was like a kite dragging along the ground.

I definitely didn’t take the prep work seriously enough. I also severely underestimated my stutter. I hadn’t given a speech or done any public speaking like that while in college. I probably thought I’d be ok since I had been doing the undergraduate teaching assistant thing. But that was more spontaneous. Reading from a script was awful.

What I should have done is written the speech a few weeks before and practiced the hell out of it in front of friends. Gained some confidence. Gained some insight. And really get some ownership of the material. But no. I just winged it, and it was disastrous.

After the speech was over, I just sort of sat there, trying to disappear. There was the rest of the conference to check out, but I sheepishly had a little snack and then got back in the car and went home. I never mentioned it to any of my friends.

Stuttering in College Part 6

Onto junior year. By this time I was really happy at the newspaper and could see that yes, I might be able to reach my freshman-year goal of becoming editor in chief by senior year. The position was really only open to someone who had experience at the paper, and who the advisors were familiar with. There was one other person I’d have to interview against, but I don’t think he was taking it terribly seriously.

This is when I started to see how organizations — and moving up in one — really worked. It was all about networking and who you knew. You couldn’t just cold-call and hope to get a job.

My junior year I also moved off campus (but still within easy walking distance) and got a car. The car was useful for driving the four hours back and forth to my parent’s house. And driving aimlessly around Pittsburgh on the weekends. Gas was cheaper back then.

During high school, I managed to get a bit of a reputation with regards to my somewhat reckless driving. I don’t think I was too bad — I never crashed into anybody or anything — but it continued in college once I got my car. The other bit that added to the story was that I didn’t drink — so I’d end up being the designated driver all the time.

Sometime during my junior year I had the first thoughts regarding my stuttering and what was really going on below the surface. I got a taste of the iceberg — although I didn’t know about it at the time. And even though I got a taste, I didn’t do anything about it.

It goes like this: I realized that my driving — reckless or fast or otherwise — was causing people to talk about it. They’d think me, then they’d think of the driving. My subconscious had, for the past few years, been playing this little game. It found things to divert everybody’s attention. Sure, they seemed innocent or “just the way I was,” but really, they were all just a diversion. If people were talking about my driving, then they weren’t talking about my stutter.

I think for some people who stutter, they’re introverted to begin with. So they’re not doing other things to divert everybody’s attention. I’m not. So if I was going to be out there, out talking to friends, seeing new things and having new experiences, I’d dictate the terms. And what people would remember of me during those times.

A few years after college, I sat down to write more of my thoughts on this. And realized a lot of who I was had been set up by my crafty subconscious.

Stuttering in College Part 5

Back to reviewing my college experience. If you want to check out the first few parts, here are the links.

Before College

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

That covers things up to my sophomore year.

During freshman year, I had taken a University Honors College course in chemistry. And done poorly. Well, a B- anyway. Second semester I took regular chemistry. For whatever reason, I was determined to make this Honors College thing work. So for my sophomore year, I took an Honors physics course. Horrible, horrible idea.

This wasn’t some extension of high school physics. This was a deep dive into theory and fast paced. The guy who taught it had founded the Honors College. And here I was, lost in a class of more than a hundred students without anybody to go to for help. I had a pretty solid outing, but ended up getting Cs both semesters. The medical school dream was starting to wither away. A horrid showing in organic chemistry (and its lab) sort of sealed the deal. By the end of that first term, I was searching around for something else.

Since my dad had an engineering degree, he thought I should give that a go. So I signed up for some of the introductory engineering courses. Stuff like basic computer science and engineering analysis — lab stuff. Turns out that if you stutter, you really don’t like talking to people and finding out the exact course to take. I can figure this out on my own!

When I applied for graduation two years later, I found out that I had taken the introduction to computer science course — for computer science majors. That pretty much explained why it was so bloody difficult. I was told that there was a more basic one that all the engineering students took. Right. And remember, if you’re doing poorly in a course, it’s not somebody else’s fault — it’s yours. So figure it out!

My rampant foray into academic mediocrity aside, I was making great progress at the newspaper, though. I was still taking photos, writing the occasional news article, and doing sports as well. All of my friends were at the paper, and none were in whatever major I thought I was in. I spent a lot of hours there. That would definitely explain the deteriorating grades.

While I can’t remember a specific stuttering story from sophomore year, I think the transition from pre-med to engineering is a great example of how my stutter got in the way. I could have sat down and had a long conversation with a counselor, or professor, or fellow student on what courses to take. And in what order. But I didn’t. I did it the hard way. And I never did have that conversation! I was under the impression that I’m in college, so I should be able to figure stuff out on my own. Well, not really. There’s plenty of support systems out there, you just have to ask.

However, I don’t want any of you to think that I acted entirely in a vacuum. Oh no. You did have to have a sign-off from your counselor on courses. The one assigned to me was a really nice professor, but he was also very busy. And I don’t think he knew the exact order to take courses in. Or that some should be taken before others or whatever. For the entire time at Pitt, whenever I visited any professor (very rarely, mind you) I always felt like I was bothering them, that I was taking up their valuable time. That my stutter would drag things out, and things would just take way longer than they should. I felt the same about e-mails. I thought they’d think to themselves — ‘why can’t this guy figure it out on his own? He’s in college!’

Stuttering in College Part 4

Let me wrap up freshman year today with this article — it’s something I talked about earlier. As I said before, the whole of an article may not be what point I want to make, but sometimes I find something in there that’s interesting and applicable.

The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies.

So my stuttering basically made me doubt whether I could ever fit in or not, and a few bad grades in a bunch of classes made me wonder if I could ever succeed long-term. It would have been nice to have someone there to give me a lot more guidance on all of this.

The counselors who we had there would help in selecting classes and figuring out a rough idea of a major. I wanted to do the whole pre-med thing. But there was never any follow-up. They never asked that we come back to see them and make sure we were making adequate progress. And since I was so good at hiding my stutter, they never said anything about that either.

For whatever reason, during freshman year I also signed up to become an undergraduate teaching assistant. I probably thought this would help my confidence out a little bit and get me some “public” speaking practice. I had done some one-on-one tutoring in high school and enjoyed it. I probably also thought I should do something extracurricular that’s academically-inclined to keep up that whole medical school dream.

Basically at Pitt they had math classes that were also given at the high school level. That is to say if a student wasn’t very strong at math, they still had to take algebra or trigonometry as part of their major. It was also for adult students who had to meet minimum requirements. So the teaching assistants could be undergraduates instead of graduate students.

The deal was that you’d take this single-semester course, and then in the next semesters, you’d be able to have a recitation of your own — going through course material, grading papers, helping the professors proctor exams. The odd thing was that I only remember doing one presentation in front of this class — and I’d be “presenting” during my recitations. I still don’t understand how I didn’t freak out and bolt this course. I mean, it’s public speaking. Weekly. With questions.

Despite all of that, during my sophomore and junior years, I enjoyed doing this a lot. I think along with the student newspaper, it helped keep my confidence in the black despite the heavy anchor of lousy grades.

Alright so next week I’ll take a break from talking about college to getting back to some situations I run into on a daily or weekly basis. Fun simple things like ordering food at Subway and then getting ambushed by friends bringing new people to lunch.

Stuttering in College Part 3

During my senior year of high school, I took photography. I enjoyed this a lot. I wanted to keep on taking photos in some capacity come college time. What I found was at the newspaper, The Pitt News, they had some openings.

I managed to go up to their offices and introduce myself to the photo editor. He was a pretty big guy, very jovial, great sense of humor. I think he had a lot of other things going on in his life, so he was happy to show me around and take some of the load off. He had an assistant editor as well — but he was just as busy with other things.

For whatever reason, I remember that I would just go up to some of the people in the newsroom and happily introduce myself, stutter-be-damned. There weren’t too many introductions to be made, and once I met everyone, that was that. I wanted this to be my group. Joining theatre wasn’t an option, and clearly the academic-inclined groups were too intimidating.

Since I was only going to be taking photos, the stuttering thing wouldn’t be a big issue. I didn’t have to call and interview anybody.

There were basically two types of photos to be taken — news and sports. The problem with taking news photos was that I thought I’d have to introduce myself. And that I was from the paper. And then ask the person what their name was so I could make sure the caption was right. I was definitely not a fan of this. I gravitated more toward shooting whatever sports I could and let the others take news photos. Also, remember, it’s 1997, so we’re still shooting film and processing it in the darkroom.

By the end of my freshman year, there were definitely some strong forces in play. On the one hand, I was still struggling academically since I didn’t have any good friends in any classes. I was still afraid of raising my hand in class or talking to professors afterward. On the other, I had made a great group of friends at the newspaper and was spending a lot of time in those offices. It was basically the confidence thing again. I’d say that by the end of the year, I was slightly positive on the confidence scale.

The older friends who I had at the newspaper basically took me in and, during my freshman year, plotted the next three years out for me. They said that if I stuck around, I could be editor in chief of the paper. It was a simple path — start writing during your sophomore year, then be assistant news editor your junior year. That was the tried-and-true path. And there weren’t many others interested.

Awesome. People are helping me plot out my life, and they want me to succeed.

Now only if I had gotten that kind of help in plotting our my major.

Stuttering in College Part 2

I know a lot of this will sound like “woe is me,” but really, that’s not the point. First of all, it’s got a nice happy ending. Second of all, I want to show that although the journey may be difficult, it’s entirely doable — and by the way, try not to make the same mistakes I did!

Also, please do feel free to comment and share your own story. We’re all in this together.

On to the next bit of college.

One of the goals that I had my freshman year was to get involved in more extracurricular activities. During high school, I did the theatre thing, and that was it. I sat at home bored a lot. So at a minimum, I should get into this theatre thing again, right? I found out that auditions would be held for several plays. Clearly I needed to get in on this.

What I of course didn’t realize is that theatre at a university wasn’t just another extracurricular activity. Oh no. It was a major. This was supposed to be taken a lot more seriously. I just kind of showed up, unprepared, and tried to find out what I should be doing. There were a few short pieces available for reading. For whatever stupid reason, I chose one from Shakespeare.

Now, did I think I was going to stutter during this? Of course. But the mentality was No Regrets! I had done some theatre-esque public speaking in high school! I can do this! I need to do this! Even if they don’t give me a part, I can say I tried. And who knows, I might be able to meet some people.

So I get up in front of the directors and professors with this piece in hand. It’s dark. They’re sitting, staring, very serious. I don’t have to introduce myself, so bonus there.

They asked me a few quick questions, and I responded — without stuttering. I was loose! I was happy! This was going to be great! No pressure!

Then I started reading from this piece. (I was probably supposed to memorize and “perform” it.) Also, I can’t say that I completely understood what bit of Shakespeare I was reading.

Total disaster.

I could barely get the piece out, sweated a lot and then ran out of there. No Regrets! Oh well, let’s move on to the next thing, whatever that may be.

I thought I had screwed the entire thing up, so of course I didn’t follow up at all. The only people who saw this awful stuttering were those professors who I’d probably never see again. Minimal amount of damage done.

By this time I had joined the student newspaper (story to follow soon) and while I was up in the offices a few days later, one of the writers told me that I had gotten a callback. He was involved in the theatre.

What? How was that even possible? I ran over to check the list. Sure enough my name was on there. Twice. The first call back had already gone, but there was still another.

I went to that one. Maybe they need a tree in one of their plays to say a few words?

The director was interested in how I was able to freely talk before the audition but then got all gummed up as I spoke the piece. But more importantly, he said how these plays will take a lot of time, and they’re really meant for students who are pursuing this as a major. I told him I wasn’t planning on majoring in this.

Probably should have talked to someone and figured that bit out before auditioning.

Stuttering in College Part 1

Obviously there’s a lot that went on my freshman year, so I’ll highlight just one main point today. More tomorrow, of course!

I found out quickly how different college classes are than high school classes. In high school, we’d have several tests per semester, a few quizzes, and some easy homework to turn in. In college, there were three exams. If you messed even part of one of them up, you’d already be knocked down to a B for the whole semester. (I had over a 4.0 in high school, so grade expectations were pretty high for college. Oh, and that scholarship I mentioned? That was also GPA-dependent.)

What I also found out is that I wasn’t so smart after all. Pitt has this program — the University Honors College. So I took a chemistry course through it. It didn’t give you any extra boost to your GPA — like an AP course in high school — but it would look nice on your transcript. And remember, medical school! So I’m in this class, and I really don’t understand a damn thing they’re talking about. I’m reading the book (whenever I can) and still don’t get it. Naturally the thing to do would be to approach the teacher and ask for help. Not gonna happen. I stutter. Approach someone else in the class and try to form a study group? Yeah, also not going to happen. But that’s ok! I’ll suck it up and figure it out on my own. Right. Go figure quantum mechanics out on your own. Good luck with that.

I had heard that the path to success was to sit in the front row and ask questions. That was a joke, right? And they had these lovely after-class sort of sessions — those recitations. You’re with a smaller group and can get help with your homework and talk to the professor or her teaching assistant. I’d go to some of these off and on, but I found the idea of asking a question that I already knew the answer to sort of stupid. Naturally I sat in the back of most of my classes and didn’t utter a word.

With regards to stuttering, the real problem wasn’t class participation — there wasn’t a need for that in 200 and 300-student lecture halls — but the fear of asking for help.

Looking back I think the biggest contributions to a really lousy first semester (academically) were the lack of a study group and the idea that I already knew what was going to be covered in a class.

I strongly believe that if someone who stutters goes to college, they should sit down with some kind of “mentor” who either has just gone through college or is going through it — and has a stutter. The mentor would force the student to review what did and didn’t work in high school, and how that would (or would not) translate to college. Also, to encourage the student to talk to the professors privately about the stutter (an e-mail would be fine as well). For example, such a mentor would have pointed out to me that if I had a strong core of friends who are taking the same classes, would I have such a thing in college? No? Then how would I go about making those friends if I had a stutter? The classes are pretty big, and there’s a lot of change from one to another. I distinctly remember on several occasions thinking that I had gone to too big of a school.

How bad was I at making friends in my classes? To this day (13 years on) I only talk to two people who I met in a biology class. (the other college friends who I still talk to were met through other activities which I’ll get to later).

The worst part is that I only realized toward the end of college that a lack of friends in my core courses was really hurting me — since I was afraid of going to professors for help. Even after getting that first report card, I didn’t sit down and think, Ok, what’s going on here? I was doing so well in high school, so what’s the big disconnect?

Stuttering before college

As promised, let’s start talking about the college experience. This may take a few days.

The first important thing to mention is that I graduated high school in 1997. As said before, this was pre-Internet-as-it-is-today. Meaning that things were still mailed (hard copies!) and the phone was useful for communication. (well, for other people anyway)

Two years prior, we’d taken the PSATs. (What do the kids have now, anyway?) So you’d take the PSATs, and get a score back. I think you were supposed to allow your score to be released to colleges. Well, I did that, and there were tons of catalogs that came in the mail. From all over the country. (I did pretty well on the PSATs). I took the SATs later on and did fairly well on those, too.

These catalogs were coming in, and my brother was already off starting his freshman year. His choice of a college was a little more simple than mine for reasons I’ll get into later. So here I was with a pile of catalogs and no idea if I should apply to some of them, none of them or a few of them. Or where in the country should I go? Should I try for a specific program? Do I need to find a college that’s “right” for me? What about money?

My brother had gone to a large state school, and growing up in Pennsylvania, it seemed a lot of my friends were going to Penn State. So I knew I would apply there. I talked to some of my friends and even decided to room with one of them at Penn State. Done deal.

Well, not exactly. I also applied to three other schools and got into all of them — Pitt, Lehigh and University of Rochester. I applied to Pitt because well, it’s another large state school. Lehigh because a friend had applied there. Rochester because um … I dunno. Did I ask any of my other friends where they were going and why? No. Should I? Probably.

Pitt ended up giving me more scholarship money than Penn State. So I decided in the end to go to Pitt. I had no idea what the differences would be.

So here’s where the stuttering comes in.

I really knew absolutely nothing about college. Nothing. It was all very vague, and the expectation from my parents was like, “college, and then medical school, and then become a doctor.” That’s it. No information on exactly how this was to be accomplished because, remember, everybody thought I had my stuff together.

I stuttered, so I was afraid to ask anybody about this. I could have called any of the colleges that had sent me a catalog to find out more. I could have called the friendly folks at Pitt or Penn State to ask them what to expect and what I should bring … and what classes would be like … and what groups to join … and how to pick a major and … and … none of that happened.

I think I had this idea that college would basically be this extension of high school. Classes wouldn’t be that hard, I’d have some friends, and before I knew it, I’d be in medical school.

Had I called up Pitt to ask them about taking Advanced Placement tests, they probably would have told me it’d be a good idea. Did I do this? No. Did I take some of the AP tests? Yes, but I could have taken more. And I probably could have skipped a semester or two.

It’s important to note that in high school I had my brother to tell me what courses to take and in what order. So I didn’t spend a lot of time with (or have any need for) the guidance counselor. In college I would have nobody, but I’d also have this idea in my mind that well, I could figure it out.

I understand that many kids go to college not quite sure of why they are there and what they are going to do. But I was told specifically why I was there and what I would do (by my parents). But nobody ever sat me down and said, “well, how exactly are you going to do this?”

Looking back on those months before college, there sure was a lot of uncertainty. And a lot of things that, if changed, could have made the next four years a lot easier. But I was blissfully unaware of any of this.

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