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Confessions of an Overwhelmed College Student

By Sydney Meyer
On October 12, 2018

Photo by Bruna Pacheco

He wades through the stack of to-do lists scattered on the floor, cramming dry cereal into his mouth as he digs through his homework, searching for his cleats. Sticky notes cover the walls, his over-stuffed backpack waits next to the door, and just as he prepares to leave his house, he remembers to grab the only thing that will sustain him through this long day: coffee.

Sound famiiar? This is not an anomaly. Should you ask any student how they are, their immediate answer is “busy.” Exhausted, overwhelmed adults are the norm on campus — especially one as small as Ottawa University.

“I have not experienced a day in which I have nothing to do. There’s always something to do,” says senior Jose Ventura.

Ventura’s involvement on campus certainly provides benefits and opportunities, but the maelstrom of meetings, events and responsibility often becomes overwhelming.

“This year I told myself I’m going to put stuff down, I’m not going to be as involved,” Ventura says. “You know, with my academic schedule being a little lighter than last year, I thought ‘I’ll have more free time. I want to enjoy my senior year.’ But what ended up happening is that I changed the time that I was spending for my academics into involvement. And so, like, it balanced out again, but at the same time, it didn’t.”

A certain satisfaction comes from having a busy schedule. Filling up planners, checking off to-do lists and running from one event to the next can bring a sense of productivity — a high-priority value in America.

“There’s a lot of research that suggests we don’t really know how to enjoy leisure time,” says Dr. Fish-Greenlee, professor of sociology and human services at OU. “There’s a lot of focus on making money in our society, and if you’re busy, you’re not wasting time, which means that you’re not wasting money.”

Students aren’t the only individuals suffering from a perpetually overfilled calendar -- professors and graduate students are also guilty.

“I don’t think I’ve had a problem sleeping for, like, the last eight years,” says Kurt Hamilton, TAU Coordinator, Finance Graduate Assistant and student on track to obtain his MBA.

With so many moving pieces in his schedule, keeping track of responsibilities and events is difficult. Hamilton utilizes his work calendar to coordinate the many events he has scheduled — if it’s not in the calendar, it won’t be remembered.

Oftentimes, when he has a lot of responsibilities to handle at the same time, Hamilton makes lists.

“I write to-do lists that have all of the things that I have to do and then I put numbers, like numerical order of what I have to do first,” Hamilton says. “And then I cross them off like that until I’m done. Which is never.”

With so much going on, it’s not surprising that staying caught up with events and responsibilities becomes a challenge. When your brain has many different things to focus on at once, your quality of thought goes down, kind of like a computer bandwidth. If you’re using too many applications at the same time, the system slows down and glitches.

“If you’re just spending all your time running from one meeting to the next, it’s not like you can switch it off and on that quickly,” Fish-Greenlee says. “What kind of thinking are you doing in those meetings where you’re supposed to contribute to and/or prepare for?”

This leads, not only to physical exhaustion as your days are stacked with events, but also mental exhaustion — something that’s much more difficult to recover from.

“I’ll definitely say that mental exhaustion is probably worse than physical exhaustion. Because with physical exhaustion you can relax a little bit and you can kinda regain your energy,” Ventura says. “With mental exhaustion, with a lot of things that you have to do, it just becomes overwhelming, even with little breaks that you give yourself. Sometimes you just want a whole week off without doing anything.”

Despite becoming overwhelmed, despite the exhaustion and sleep deprivation, stress often turns into something people become dependent upon.

“In the past, when I thought about stress, I was always like ‘I never wanna be stressed,’ you know?,” Ventura says. “Now it’s kinda become part of who I am, honestly. As sad as that sounds, maybe.”

Fish-Greenlee lists many reasons for stress becoming a large part of an individual’s life, from sociological reward systems to definitions of fulfillment and experiences growing up. Environment, too, plays a large role in student and staff’s mental states.

“From a sociological standpoint, I think it’s important to understand the environment that people are in. You know, people just take on too much sometimes,” Fish-Greenlee says. “But sometimes the environment encourages that, and they have not really learned to govern themselves — when to say no.”

“I think what happens is when my schedule frees up, I see it as an opportunity to pick something else up. I don’t think I would be happy if I wasn’t busy,” Hamilton says.

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree, Hamilton made the transition to GA and continued to work the same jobs he did in college full-time instead of part-time. Though his schedule hasn’t changed much, his focus has shifted.

These days, he spends his time wisely, making sure that his priority is growth and self-fulfillment.

“I worked things that I wasn’t excited about or volunteered more because I knew I should [in undergrad], but now I just do more stuff that I want to do instead of just doing stuff that I know will help me. … Everything I do now has some kind of value,” Hamilton says.

In the future, Ventura hopes for a break in his schedule.

“I hope that once I get to adulthood or whatever I end up doing, that I’ll have something figured out, like how to balance. But at the time being, there’s just a lot of uncertainties, a lot of last-minute meetings, last-minute things,” he says.

Stress is not healthy. Overwhelming schedules can lead to mental health deficits, leading to distracted thought, sleep deprivation and paranoia. Becoming overburdened affects quality of thought and ability to function.

“I think students don’t have time to do critical thought,” Fish-Greenlee says. “They don’t have time to be reflective and your brain does need to rest a certain number of hours a day in order to be refreshed enough in to take on the next task.”

Working at full capacity at a constant rate is impossible without some kind release. Both Ventura and Hamilton have found reset buttons that allow them to center themselves.

““When I get really stressed or I get really frustrated, I run. I’ll just drop everything and I’ll go run,” Hamilton says. “I walk my dog every morning for 30 minutes and that helps me prepare for the day. Most of the time I’m thinking or praying on what I need to get done, but I try to get in the right mindset for the day, so that really helps me.”

“I love to work out. I think that’s like my me time. … I think it helps me kind of reset,” Ventura says. “The other thing is going home. I’m very family-oriented, so going home to me is always like a fresh reset button that I just get to hit.”

Whether it be working out or hanging out, finding something that resets you is essential. Schedules can get overwhelming, responsibilities pile up and sometimes the meetings just don’t stop. Whether student or staff, young or old, overburdening schedules affect everyone, especially in college life.

Instead of falling into the trap of an overwhelming semester, take some time to practice saying no. Reorder your priorities, making sure to include things that will enhance your life, not just hoops you must jump through. And, most importantly, find a reset button. Otherwise, you’ll end up with sticky note reminders plastered over every empty space, a continual caffeine buzz and the processing speed of an ancient computer with an overextended bandwidth — and nobody wants that.

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