This semester is the first time I’ve felt stress this intense. I’ve always been a self-starter and rarely felt the expectations of others on me in my day-to-day life, but this semester is different. I’m to maintain my expected GPA and beyond, to mentor younger students while I feel in need of mentoring myself, to find a career path when I don’t even have a clear view of the road, to constantly apply for scholarships and programs and then find time for “self-care,” whatever that means. All these challenges come in my third semester of college as a first-generation student.
Not all college students share these stressors at once, but I feel like many of these stressors are universal. However easy or difficult high school was, the pressure that comes with college is a totally different experience like being on a different planet in a faraway galaxy. It can be debilitating. There’s so much stuff to take care of it’s easy to get overwhelmed, cry, shut down, lie in bed and avoid the real world. Of course, that just sends the spiral further down, so what the hell can we do?
I really hope you weren’t expecting a simple, five-minute tutorial or 12-step plan that ends with you living your best life; I don’t know how to work that kind of magic. What I can do is share a couple of things that might work for you, as well as an acknowledgment that sometimes it takes a bit more of a professional approach than an article by a 19-year-old sociology major with a limited set of personal experiences.
Do your absolute best not to measure yourself by the standards of others. Does that sound over-simplistic? Yes, but there are ways to get there. After listening to the expectations and wishes of your parents, aunts, uncles, professors, friends and whoever else, write out a list of goals that you have for yourself. Maybe some of your goals overlap with those people and maybe there is no middle section of the Venn diagram. It’s important to remind yourself what matters to you and what you classify as success and happiness. If that’s changing your major or skipping an eight-hour study session to exercise or go out to eat, do what’s best for you. You can always go to others when you want advice or some direction but know that the only person who should be steering the ship — the ship is your life — should be you. We only get to live life once, we may as well choose the path we want.
Comparing yourself to others is awesome if your goal is to either destroy your self-worth or be condescending to everyone around you, both of which suck when you’re trying to maintain friendships and not be a terrible person to be around. I’m guilty of this one. I see people doing things I wish I could do, or I see people who I don’t think I can live up to. Use other people as a reference for things you want to do and who you want to be without letting petty emotions and jealousy find a way in. Have conversations and find out what it took to get there instead of watching from the side. Those people have the potential to become friends and resources rather than enemies to take down.
When you have to live up to an expectation, like balancing a job and classes, taking care of siblings at home or maintaining a certain GPA to be eligible for financial aid, you just have to fight. Try to utilize on-campus counseling services or off-campus therapy as a way to manage your stress. Find and participate in a community that supports and understands where you’re coming from and helps take some weight off here and there. Kickbox, meditate, journal or schedule a couple of hours to do nothing but watch Netflix and subtweet about that professor you can’t stand. Lean on other students, family and close friends and let others lean on you too. Not even the most successful-looking students have everything figured out, and it’s only through some type of community that any of us can make it through the long, grueling torture-chamber we like to euphemize as “higher education.” Who knows, we might even get a degree and a fulfilling job after all of this.