As a counselor, I have provided support to numerous students with a wide array of concerns. Although many of them can be grouped into categories (e.g., anxiety, depression, self-identity), each student shares a unique perspective. All students are welcome in my room, just as any experience is invited without judgment.
So far this week, there is a particular theme I noticed among many students – low self-care. Many students have high hopes for academic excellence. With this desire comes the expected stressors: little sleep to study longer, intense worry and concern over grades, decreased socialization due to employment and family care, low self-efficacy, low appetite because “I forgot to eat… I was too busy studying,” and minimized free time to just do whatever for fun. As concerning as this is, I can relate…
I remember a time I was in undergraduate studies and I was taking a Statistics-101 course. I am pretty slow when it comes to mathematics. Furthermore, it used Microsoft Excel to complete functions (Yes, that means older days before the more expensive statistical computer programs were available and affordable). I did not like one bit of it.
I was an all “A” student, but I feared this class would be my first non-“A” grade. I said to myself, “How dare a 4.000 be ruined by this class! There is no way I am getting anything but an “A” here.” There were two opportunities for a final. First one is the regular final. If you are satisfied with that grade, then you are done. If not, there was just one more opportunity to re-take the final which could replace the first undesirable score. First score: 50%. Yes, an “F.” I was not ready, and I knew the second opportunity would be my life saver. One week left to study and retake the final. What did it look like?
There are seven days left until the next opportunity, therefore study seven days without any fun days. There are 24 hours in a day, therefore study 12 to 18 hours with only minor food breaks and shortened sleep. There are friends calling with social events, therefore ignore them. There is much strain in my eyes from staring at a bright computer screen for such long studying, therefore… strain more to ensure that “A” grade. My heart beat every night, resembling the song of marching forward to success. It resonated its song to my mind’s battle ground full of opposing thoughts – “You will succeed from this, so keep going” versus “You failed the first test, so you can’t do this.” There were these constant thoughts that kept me up each night, therefore if I am up… just continue studying then.
This vicious cycle took a toll on my health. Although I am not an optometrist, my vision was not the same after studying on the computer for so long. Tired eyes, yet worthy of the dream to succeed in a competitive world. I became very sick after the exam; the body’s natural tendency based on the Stages of Stress (Stage 1: Alarm; Stage 2: Resistance; Stage 3: Exhaustion). It felt like influenza symptoms and self-hatred uniting as a way to punish me for such neglect of my health.
With this in mind, I am sure there are many students on campus who experience the same pressures. Whether culturally prescribed or personally decided, high achievement at the expense of health is very common among college students. Why must such students sacrifice so much for success? Yes, I know that hard work is needed in such a world filled with unfairness, competition, and other hardships. Some people say that it “filters” out people. I don’t disagree with others’ perspectives. My main question is this:
“Is it worth it?”
If such stress is temporary, then perhaps it is worth it. Furthermore, there can be a middle ground and say that hard work is necessary while also utilizing self-care coping skills to find a balance. I’m totally for this (especially as a Psych Counselor). However, what about students who do not have such adaptive ways to cope yet? What if they are not receiving such support currently? What if particular groups of people do not culturally support Psych Services due to stigma?
I cannot stress (pun!) the importance of self-care of mind, body, and even soul. I look back at the day I took that Statistics final and reflect the emotions and lessons I gained from it. I still have that scantron of the last final, reminding me of the journey I experienced with something so important as a grade. It is filled with reminders about my life directions, choices, consequences, and how the world may or may not be fair to me.
Oh, I suppose you’re asking how I did on the that second final, right? I scored 100%. The instructor wrote me a personal email saying that he never had anyone score a perfect exam in all his years teaching that course. Hence why I kept my scantron as a life reminder.
Although I am not currently an academic instructor (next quarter I will be), I help “guide” students toward their own paths to success when experiencing life stressors. I do not say to each student, “Stop working so hard!” or “You stress too much.” I cannot force any student to change perspectives, and I do not give any advise. I tend to be more of a Psych Counselor who explores the several options and consequences with the student, and then have the student decide their own paths with my support.
If I returned to being a younger 20’s guy with a Psych Counselor saying this, I would feel completely invalidated and decrease the therapeutic alliance. To many students, working hard is valuable, even at the expense of some health. To what degree? Well, I hope that it is a temporary stress that many students only experience for a short amount of time (e.g., during finals only). If it becomes a daily stressor, I hope that balancing life with more self-care is considered given that studies show how chronic stress can permanently alter the body and the brain structure. “Guiding” students toward their successful paths to wellness is my goal, and if it involves safe sacrifices for success… who am I to stop them?
If I were to currently send a message to my much younger self about how hard I studied for that second statistics final, I would share the same thoughts that I would to the students in my office. Sacrifice does help with success. For me, it was not just the perfect “A+” on the statistics exam or upholding the perfect 4.000 GPA, it was the lessons I gained from it and the peaceful message I could share to the warring thoughts in mind throughout school.
If my younger self asked my present self, “Was it worth it?” I would instantly respond, “Yes… it is. It truly is.”