Meet VALLEY’s Spring 2022 Self-Improvement Section Opener: Maryah Burney

Photo by Annie Princivalle and Becca Baker
“You cannot save the world in one day.”

Maryah Burney, a third-year student majoring in digital and print journalism with a minor in sociology and DMTA, learned how to put herself first while at Penn State—but with any lesson, it takes time.

When Burney arrived at Penn State in 2019 as a freshman, she felt like she was an outsider looking in. 

“I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb,” explains Burney. “Even when I tried to minimize myself to fit into places, I just felt like I wasn’t being my authentic self.”

Burney had a tough first half of her semester, to the point where she became physically sick for weeks at a time. 

While Burney was proud of herself for getting into Penn State, she wanted to prove to herself that she was accepted because she was worth it, not just because she “checked off a box.” 

Burney didn’t even realize it at the time, but she was dealing with anxiety and depression throughout her freshman year, with some bad experiences only amplifying these feelings. For example, Burney was the only person of color in one class. In that same class, she was signaled out for doing “poorly” on her paper. And although she now loves that professor, at the time, the incident made her feel horrible and even more ostracized from the rest of her peers. She eventually talked to other POC and found out they also had similar experiences that left them with a bad feeling.

During her first semester, Burney took an astounding 18 credits. She was trying her best to become involved and knock off her goals, but she couldn’t shake her negative feelings. After a long day of doing her work and feeling successful, Burney would return to her dorm and feel not-so-great mentally.

“When I was alone by myself at like two in the morning, I would wake up and feel like sh&#*.”

Burney described this feeling as a sticky shower product that stays on your skin because you can’t scrub it off no matter how hard you try. 

Having to isolate from others when COVID-19 hit during that spring semester certainly didn’t help her mental health, but she pushed through and did the one thing she had made a goal of hers when coming to Penn State: Get involved.

During that summer of 2020, Burney applied to be in the President Leadership Academy (PLA). She also became the university relations co-director of the Multicultural Association of Schreyer Scholars (MASS). In these two roles, she met with administrators at Penn State about areas of the university that needed improvement. 

This was happening during the time period when George Floyd was murdered and racial topics were at the forefront of many conversations. Yet, for Burney, she (and other POC) were struggling to have their voices heard and validated.  To them, these important topics were not being discussed enough.

Burney says she was constantly having heavy conversations with people who weren’t empathetic to what was going on.

As someone who experienced anti-black violence herself, Burney, rightfully so, believed she and the rest of her POC peers deserved to feel safe on campus. 

Although Burney was doing something important to her, it was mentally draining — and frustrating. While she watched others have fun, she struggled and “felt miserable.”

There were moments when Burney wondered if what she was doing made a difference. But the accomplishments added up. For example, Burney told VALLEY she and her peers in the programs had data released about the number of underrepresented students on campus to increase transparency about the discrepancies. They helped get more scholarships for students of underrepresented groups and gained grants for emergency and research funding. They worked to connect first-year students to upperclassmen of similar identities. Burney even co-teaches a class titled AFAM 297: Anti-Blackness in America where the students learn how anti-blackness impacts different social systems.

“It [the class] has forced me to constantly be learning and to see other people’s perspectives,” says Burney, who has persevered through hard times and come out stronger.

An especially tough time was when her brother passed away; she was just 16 years old. Burney had been very close with her brother, so losing him, she says, “rocked my world.”

Nevertheless, Burney used this experience to motivate her in new ways; she created a stronger connection with her nephew because she knew how much she needed that emotional support as a child.

Burney believes that a setback can be a setup for a come-up.

“Who would you be if that thing you never thought you would bounce back from happened?” asks Burney, who says the loss of her brother taught her how to deal with tough moments. “Who would you be if that never happened?” 

One of the best organizations Burney has been a part of at PSU has been the Bellisario Alliance for Multicultural Students, otherwise known as BAMS.

As someone who had struggled to fit into the spaces around her and feel like she could be herself, BAMS was a breath of fresh air with its incredibly welcoming and friendly environment.

“Having a space like BAMS and moving from a member to being president has helped me realize how important spaces like that are.”

She especially loves being in BAMS because she is around other people in the College of Communications who can really understand what it’s like to be in that school.

Burney feels BAMS enabled her to find that sense of kinship she was longing for.

“You matter [in BAMS] because you matter,” explains Burney, who sees everyone in the club as who they are. It has taught her a lesson that she applies to her own life: No matter how many accomplishments you achieve, what matters most is how you take care of yourself.

She has also learned how to work through the intense imposter syndrome she occasionally feels.

Burney does this by leaning into more positive thinking like “what if I AM good enough?” and “What if I AM doing a great job?”

While no growth path is linear, Burney’s time at Penn State has taught her to prioritize her rest. She used to feel guilty whenever she would lay down in her bed to relax. But now she knows she cannot be there for others if she is not there for herself first.

It’s a universal truth that you cannot achieve your goals if you don’t also give yourself the time to take a step back to relax, especially when you are dealing with heavy issues as Burney has had to do.

“Caring for myself has motivated me to care for others…and not just in the face mask way,” says Burney. “But holding myself accountable for things…having the ability to understand myself and show up for myself has helped me to understand that until I do that, I cannot show up for others.”

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