The Romanticization of Academic Trauma: How Do We React to Failure in the Pursuit of Greatness?

By Marie Dioneda, Class of 2024

Project Introduction and Description

Marie Dioneda (she/her/hers) is a first-generation, Filipina American student, majoring in Literature with a focus on creative writing, and minoring in education studies. During her senior year, she had the opportunity to become a Student Partner with American University’s Center for Teaching Research & Learning (CTRL). In this position, she often collaborates with Student Partners with the intention of creating a more collaborative, empathetic, culturally responsive, and productive classroom dynamic at American University.

By the age of 23, Marie has made a conscious habit of applying pedagogical practices into her everyday life.

Whether it be studying modes of teaching and learning in class for her education minor, or conversing with friends and family about their relationships with the school system, she is surrounded by education constantly–out of her own volition and genuine interest. She is interested in education’s role in self-perception, how education is interpolated with students’ cultural backgrounds and academic motivations, and how the United States can use education to empower both its students and its educators.

After dropping out for a semester due to poor academic performance, Marie returned to college last year with a newfound motivation. Her past failures propelled her to study education, declare an education studies minor, and above all, finally do well in school. However, she began to realize that both in school and in her personal life, the conversations she had on failure tended to focus on the “glorious comeback”: the ubiquitous, feel-good story of the hero rising to glory despite their past failures, sacrifices, and pain–or rather (and more often) because of it.

In this podcast, Marie invites us to sit with these failures, sacrifices and pain, alone.

Here, she discusses her relationship with high-stakes academic failure, specifically in tandem with the education system and her first-generation cultural background. She gives others a look as to how her failures have affected her self-perception in the past, in the present, and how it will potentially affect her in the future. In truth, she hopes to explore a question that hasn’t left her mind since coming back to school:

Is failure as glorious as we think it is?

Click here to listen to the podcast.





As a Student Partner with American University’s Center for Teaching Research & Learning, my name is Marie Dioneda. Today, I’ll be discussing the romanticization of academic trauma and our reactions to failure in our pursuits for greatness.


DIONEDA: As many relationships go, my relationship with education is constantly evolving as I grow.

It starts like this:

I’m ten years old. I’m one of the two Asian American students in my small, private Catholic school, and both of us are consistently placed in the “advanced classes.” Truthfully, I hardly study or do my work, but for some reason, I still get the best grades. Whether it be because I’m genuinely smart or there are some racial motivations at play, my teachers and peers deem me intelligent before I even open my mouth. I enjoy it. I bask in it. Praise and affirmations are my fuel.

I’m fifteen years old. I’m in high school, and after moving to a much larger school, I’m no longer the smartest in my class. I don’t know how to cope with this–especially when by this point in life, my identity has been tied to my intelligence. Whether it be because I never developed good study habits in primary and secondary school, or my growing depression is keeping me in a chokehold, I do enough to get into a good college, I do enough that, despite being incredibly average, my classmates still think I’m smart, and I don’t think anything of it.

I’m twenty years old. It’s 2021, the world is still on fire, I spend most of my days in my bedroom alone, and I’ve failed about five classes in college at this point. I don’t realize how much school has a chokehold on me until my life depends on it. I’ve wasted money, I’ve wasted time, I’ve wasted my parents’ hopes, and I’ve become a disappointment to them and myself. My depression exacerbates. After a tumultuous year of failing, self-doubt and self-hatred, my family and I decide that the best decision is for me to drop out of school for a semester. I don’t know if I’ll go back.

I’m 22 years old, and evidently, I do return back to school. As a child, praise fueled me, but now, it’s the need to prove myself, but by tenfold. I refuse to let myself drop to where I was because I don’t want to be that “kind of student.” I don’t want to be that kind of person. School consumes me in a way that concerns my friends due to my hesitance in looking after my health for the sake of not wasting time.

But for the first time since elementary school, I now impress my teachers. They refer me to speak on panels; they recommend me to other professors and for jobs; they ask me to lead class conversations. Most importantly, however, my parents are proud.

“Failure is the best way to learn,” my Dad tells me over dinner one day. He’s thinking of his experience failing the bar exam in the Philippines and his unsuccessful job hunts when he first immigrated to the States. “Failure doesn’t define you,” he continues. “It’s what you do with your failure that defines you.”

Now, at 23, I can trace my steps back as to why I failed. It was a toxic mixture of burn out, pressure (and not knowing how to handle it), the side-effects of 2020, my lack of work ethic, and validation as my singular, academic motivation. To be frank, failure was inevitable for me–possibly showing up in my professional career rather than my academic one. But luckily, I’ve learned how to cope with burnout and pressure. Time has soothed the pain of 2020 and minimized its side-effects. I’ve built a better work ethic. I motivate myself with the desire to learn rather than the desire for praise. It’s the first time I’m a straight A student, and I’m enthusiastic, passionate, and excited to not only go to school and do my work, but I’m also excited to see where my studies will take me professionally.


DIONEDA: And that’s where the story usually stops, right? I’ve not only overcome my failures, but I used them to succeed to a higher degree than I ever have before. But I have a confession to make. Even with all the valuable lessons learned, the feel-good story I can now tell, and the confidence and success I wear proudly, my past failures still haunt me in ways that make me question if they were even worth it.


DIONEDA: If we’re going to discuss failure, it’s important that we first define what exactly failure means. I asked two students to define failure for me. And what they said was pretty similar.

DIONEDA: How do you define failure, first of all?

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 1: If I fail at something, it means the goals that I (inaudible) even in my mind, I set out to achieve, I didn’t.

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 2: I would define failure by not achieving the goal you set out to achieve.

DIONEDA: For the most part, I agree with them. It’s a pretty succinct way to define failure. I then asked them afterwards if they’d ever failed a class before. I wondered if their definitions would be different or change if they framed it under an arguably high-stakes situation, such as failing an entire class rather than, perhaps, failing a singular quiz.

DIONEDA: Have you ever failed a class before?

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 1: No, I haven’t. No.



DIONEDA: Have you ever thought about what would happen if you did? (inaudible) Like fail a class, or experience any type of high stakes failure?

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 1: I have, yeah.

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 2: I mean, I think it would be really upsetting, but the only choice is really just to like, retake it and try again.

DIONEDA: Like how do you think you would react?

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 1: I-I know how I would react, personally–I’d probably go into a spiral of depression–

DIONEDA: (laughs)

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 1: –and manic and anger and probably the five stages of grief.

DIONEDA: Do you think that failure is useful, despite that type of mentality?

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 1: I don’t think it’s, like, something to be strived for.


ANONYMOUS STUDENT 1: But I think, failure in other experiences and in other areas of life is more constructive than academic failure. Academic failure has consequences on your marketability as an individual, for other things and other experiences–


DIONEDA: –such as?

ANONYMOUS STUDENT 1: –you can’t change. Job opportunities, internships, connections, networking. It stains, and you can’t make up for it, (inaudible) you can’t rectify that easily to sort of prove your capability as a person after that and it’s rare that you can—there are opportunities where you can, but you’re just so caught up in all the doors that have then been closed as a result of this.


DIONEDA: I think that my ideas of education and failure all start and are framed by my cultural background. I was raised to have a growth mindset. I was taught to never settle. And based on my own experiences and observations–tenacity, drive, and the strive for success are inherently, though not exclusive to, Asianic cultural values.

There’s this unspoken desire to prove yourself worthy, and that you deserve to be here. It’s something I’ve observed from my fellow Asian peers and friends, but most of all my parents, and I think it’s something they’ve passed onto me. Pressure equates to motivation, and the more pressure I have (put on by me, by my parents, or society in general), the more I feel motivated to succeed. My problem is, I never thought of what would happen if I cracked under it because I never thought to question it in the first place.

So, when I failed, badly, majorly, and irreversibly, I didn’t know how to cope with this. In fact, I made my situation worse to the point where it caused me to drop out of school. And when I returned, it felt like I finally understood what my parents have been teaching me since I was a child. That in this world, you need to prove that you are worthy of being here. You need to be worth something. Because if not, you’re left with nothing but disappointment from society, from your friends, from your family, but most of all from you.

And being disappointed in yourself that’s … that’s the worst feeling of all. Because it’s inescapable. So, I did whatever it took to succeed again. And if it meant that my physical and mental health deteriorated, or my social life suffered, then so be it. And my parents, well. They agreed.

I understand how much failure affects an individual. It’s not a glamorous process–it’s painful, it’s shameful, it’s embarrassing, and I spent years stewing in my guilt because of the amount of money I wasted in college, failing, and because I couldn’t believe I let myself get to this position.

It’s not an exaggeration when I say that I hated myself when I failed my classes. And if I’m being honest, there’s a pretty small part of me that doesn’t necessarily hate myself but is still incredibly ashamed of what happened. It’s this self-hatred that propelled me to keep going. I hated myself so much, I wanted to be as far from who I was as possible. I think that I blacked out when I came back to school with the burning need to prove myself, and I remember expressing this to my professors, and I was met with this sense of… disapproval. And I get it.

If we perpetuate and reward this type of mindset—one where our decisions and actions are constantly rooted in trying to prove that we’re … better than we once were, it frames the education system negatively. School then becomes a place to prove yourself rather than a place to learn, and both professors and students alike want to shift our academic motivations towards something personal, where students learn because they want to, and not necessarily because they’re afraid of failing or they want to get a good grade.

But for me specifically, I find it impossible to go against this instinct–of wanting to prove myself. Grades still exist. Cultural backgrounds exist, with values that demand we get straight A’s or else. In the past, I’ve never questioned why schools define success in such a conformist and structured way; I just knew that I needed to follow it.

I recognize that this is still problematic, regardless. When I went back to school after dropping out, and I was studying for hours on end every day, I was in pain all the time. I hardly slept. I hardly ate. I was so focused on my work that it ended up defining me as an individual.

But at the time, it was difficult to see this as problematic because I was constantly praised. So many people—classmates, professors, peers, friends, my family, and my parents, especially—they all applauded my ability to bounce back, were in awe of my work ethic (if not slightly concerned), but they ultimately framed my mindset towards school now, as something to be impressed by—or in some cases, emulate, because clearly, I learned from my mistakes. I failed five classes last year, but now I’m getting A’s.

I’ve come to this realization: failure, or rather how we talk about it and frame it in our successes, glamorizes this “tormenting pursuit of greatness.” Many students, including myself, take pride in our pain, romanticizing agony constantly because society demands it and is fascinated by it. I hear it every day in conversations with my roommates and in the media I consumed: “I worked out for two hours at the gym today, and now I’m exhausted,” “I spent eight hours studying for this test that I forgot to eat and now my eyes are burning,” “I’ve been practicing the guitar for so long that my fingers are now scarred.”

It’s almost as if we love, or, are in awe of the extent humans can push themselves for the sake of greatness. And, quite honestly, I can’t lie and say that I’ve been any different. But now, I just don’t know if people understand how much willpower it takes to actually learn from our failures, how much suffering goes into getting back on track, how it breaks the trust you have for yourself, how much your self-esteem and self-worth plummets, and how it follows you for the rest of your life in every decision you make—whether you’re conscious of it or not.

But what is the purpose of this? Why are we so obsessed with masochism for the sake of our dreams? Why do our dreams demand and reward self-inflicted pain? Why do we glorify pain for the sake of our dreams and for greatness? Why and how did we decide that this was a good thing in the first place?


DIONEDA: My relationship with education is constantly changing. Right now, it goes like this:

I understand that failure is important. I recognize that because I failed, I found a passion for school and education studies; it gave me a focus; it motivated me in a way I’ve never been before, and right now, I’m, what some may say is, “successful.” There’s a part of me that wishes I didn’t have to go through so much money, time, and self-hatred to get to this point, but if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t know if I would have reached this point if I hadn’t. But what exactly are we applauding—what are we really, truly, praising? Because in truth, aren’t we applauding and, by proxy, perpetuating the glamorization of suffering?

I think back to my parents. I think about how much racism, prejudice, exhaustion and suffering they had to endure for me to be here. I think of how my success is theirs, and why me doing well in school is so important to them. And I realize, this isn’t about Asianic cultures or Asianic values. It isn’t even solely about the education system, really. It’s about the U.S. as an institution and the institutions that reside under it.

My failures in the education system, the desperate need to prove myself, the romanticization of trauma, the pressure my parents put on me to succeed, the racism that they faced, the values that they’ve instilled in me since I was child—these things exist because U.S. culture demands they do.

Capitalism, consumerism, colonization, White supremacy, heteronormativity, neoliberalism. This is what the U.S. values and rewards, and everything that falls under it—each ugly, masochistic, self-hating thought—is a reaction to it.

This isn’t a success story. It’s a story of conformity and the perpetuation of historical U.S. ideals. So where does that leave us? What do we do? I don’t know. But maybe talking about it is the first step.


need to transcribe this audio still [SD1]