I’ve always found it troubling that students can manage to get away to a far off tropical destination over the course of a Reading Week. I cannot wrap my head around how they find the time to do so. They were either super diligent and managed to get their work done before leaving, or they don’t care at all and skim over their readings the Sunday evening they return. Realistically, you’re not getting any reading or work done on a beach in the company of your best pals and unlimited alcohol, so we won’t even consider that a possibility. Perhaps I’m not proactive enough, but in my years at university I’ve found every reading week to be as stressful as any other week of school, even with the elimination of upwards of 15 hours of class. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten much extra “reading” done over Reading Week at all considering that I usually have three or four assignments/midterms the next week, and most students being faced with the same.
If I’m being honest, I’m envious of those who will be walking through the halls over the course of the coming weeks with skin so unnaturally bronzed for the middle of February in Canada. However as I bitterly envy their pigment from afar, I have to question who I should really be worrying about: the people who are probably returning refreshed from an exciting break with more energy to take on the rest of the semester, or the people who stress themselves out by trying to get ahead on every single assignment and readings? Furthermore the topic also begs the question: is it even responsible to take time for yourself?
Do you have a day during the week without any classes? Great. Go volunteer at a school. While you’re at it, join a club on the day where you finish early, it’ll look good on your resume. Pick up an extra shift when your boss begs you to come in on a Wednesday before a midterm, heaven knows you could use the extra cash, not to mention the fact that you’re relying on a good reference from them when you start looking for jobs in your field. Hell, pick up a second part-time job just one or two nights a week because you didn’t qualify for quite as much OSAP as you needed.
Wait, why are you putting yourself through all of this again? Oh, right, because you’re in university studying to one day find a meaningful career. So how exactly does the rest of this fit in?
In the last few years, there’s been a number of articles and videos circulating about how millennials are whiny, and that students these days are “soft”. We hear from older generations that we don’t understand what “real work” is. Well sure, Gramps, that may be true, and I’m certainly not disrespecting how hard anyone has had to work to be successful in life, but I’ll tell you one thing, I know what really “effing” tired feels like, and it’s because I barely have time to take a breath between school work, jobs, and volunteering. Most of my peers are in the same boat or worse.
Considering the rapid increase in tuition, Ontario universities average as the most expensive in the country, so it’s no wonder so many students feel obligated to work so many hours during the school year and even more in the summer.
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in 2013 a student would have had to work 708 hours at a minimum wage job just to cover the cost of annual tuition, a 173 per cent increase from 1975 where on average it would only take about 260 hours at minimum wage to cover the cost of tuition. 708 hours works out to being about 14 hours per week annually. It might not sound like much, but remember that this is only to cover the cost of tuition. It does not consider that most students are paying for rent, food, books, supplies, gas if you commute or, god forbid, a night out with your friends every once in a while. It’s impossible to just be a student let alone to take time to yourself when you’re trying to balance a job and school. You either work following a long day of classes, or have to work weekends, leaving yourself without a day of rest. Even students who rely strictly on summer jobs are transitioning right from being a full-time student to working a full-time job in a position which rarely allows its employees time off during the season.
As reported by CHCH following a nationwide survey in 2013 in which 30, 000 college and university students were asked about their experiences, it showed that students in Canada aren’t partying nearly as much as in years past due to an overwhelming workload and the stresses that come with it. While the report included the word “debauchery” in reference to what students have been assumed to be doing, it was also careful to counteract this seemingly positive outlook on less partying by exposing the very negative impacts that stress is having on students.
I’m not suggesting everyone should party more but the statistics uncovered by the 2013 national survey are scarier than expected. 89 per cent of students surveyed expressed that they were overwhelmed; 54 per cent stated feeling hopeless; 64 per cent expressed feeling lonely; 86.9 per cent said they were exhausted; 56 per cent expressed extreme anxiety; and finally, a striking 10 per cent of those surveyed said they had truly considered suicide due to their school work.
We enter university knowing it’s not going to be easy; after all, we did our best in high school to get into the schools we wanted and we knew full well that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. However for many, the stress is more than what was bargained for. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told that there’s good stress and there’s bad stress. Good stress is a motivator to get the things you need to get done on a daily basis, but when compared with the 89 per cent of students who say they feel overwhelmed it becomes a completely different breed of stress.
The three top definitions of the word “overwhelm” are:
- Bury or drown beneath a huge mass
- Defeat completely
- Give too much of a thing to (someone); inundate
These seem to go far beyond an ideal form of stress as I’m sure nobody goes into university wanting to feel completely defeated but that seems to be what’s happening. Additionally, the findings in the national survey only talk about students being stressed about their school work. It doesn’t even touch upon what students are having to do outside the classroom.
You can’t just be good at school, you have to be good at everything. Good for you if you’re getting high eighties and nineties in your classes, but if you don’t have anything else to add to your portfolio or resume, then good luck being considered for jobs or being accepted into many other programs. On the other end of the spectrum, good for you if you’re holding down a job, doing extra volunteering and doing everything you can to get practical skills employers like to see, but at what expense? Barely meeting your program requirements so you can stay in your honours program doesn’t make for an ideal education. I love being in school. I love learning new things and being able to discuss what I’ve learned and apply it to life, but that’s often difficult with everything else that’s going on. Eventually my education turns into me just trying to get things done on time because I have deadlines. That isn’t how we should be viewing our education or other responsibilities in our lives.
Maybe students shouldn’t be partying as much if they want to do well in school, but should they be so overwhelmed that they feel guilty doing anything that isn’t school or work related? Should anyone be struggling to get adequate sleep because they worked a long shift and still have homework to do when they get home? It’s easy for people to tell you, “well just remember that school is the most important,” but for a lot of people who are paying for school themselves, this viewpoint is difficult to agree with. It is also important to acknowledge that many graduate programs require X amount of volunteer hours if you want to apply, which may seem easy enough, but add this to 15 hours of class each week and a possible 10 to 20 hours of work or more it becomes a lot more daunting. Don’t forget full-time unpaid co-ops, and that’s an issue deserving of their own separate examination.
October reading weeks have been added to help alleviate the stress of students during the year, but how is it any less stressful when in both October and February you know you have assignments due and midterms the very week you return? Since the nationwide survey, the mental health of students is on the forefront and initiatives such as the Wellness Week that Brock holds each semester have been implemented, but are these Band-Aid solutions that help students unwind for a brief period of time. It doesn’t take long for the reality of endless hours of school and work to kick in again.
It’s not that we’re lazy and it’s not that we don’t know what hard work is. It’s a different world where we’re taught that taking time for ourselves is a selfish thing to do. We’re expected to constantly be building our resume, do well in school, make money and at the same time keep a smile on our face and accept it as normal. We live in a world where taking a vacation garners a “must be nice” from at least one person. It’s certainly difficult to find motivation when you feel that it’s hopelessly impossible to get everything done, which seems to be the case as per the 2013 national survey.
Ultimately it comes to a need for more downtime. Whether it’s laying in bed and doing absolutely nothing, or actually having time to fit in the workouts you’ve been missing, it’s vital for your physical and mental health that you take the time to yourself. Unfortunately, there are flaws in the system that negatively impact our education and our mental health that are difficult to change, but recognizing that it’s happening is an important step to take for yourself. You can’t change the amount of homework you’ll get in your classes, but you can control what you’re doing with the rest of your time.
Learn to say “no” more. You may be a highly dependable person, and that’s great, but the more you give, the more people are going to take. It’s okay to say no to extra volunteering, and it’s nothing you should feel guilty about. It’s okay to say no when your boss asks you to take an extra five hour shift on a Wednesday evening. Trust me, the extra 50 to 60 dollars you will have made will never be worth the stress it will end up causing during a busy semester. Additionally, make sure to schedule downtime for yourself on a daily basis. Even if it’s only for an hour or two a day, if you set a specific time for yourself every day to do whatever you want, you’ll know you’ll always have that time to look forward to and you won’t have to wonder when your next moment of peace will be. Treat this sacred time the same way you would work or class. Stick with it and treat is as being a mandatory portion of your day, and it will be easier to schedule the rest of your day around it.
As cliché as it sounds, grades and money aren’t everything. If you’re more overwhelmed than you are happy then there’s something wrong, so don’t always worry about filling your time so much to secure your future. Make sure you take your time, breathe and set time aside for yourself. Keep your goals in mind, but never go beyond the point where it’s too much to bear. Last but not least, plan a vacation on reading week and, most importantly, enjoy it.