Put yourself first and school second

By Becky Wandel

Justin C./Flickr
(Justin C./Flickr)

I’ve found that many high school students, my past self included, are guilty of romanticizing a fantasy version of college to get themselves through high school. You too, right?

If you hated high school, college was a beacon for a better life ahead, and if you loved high school, college was your promise that you hadn’t peaked yet. Either way, you were susceptible to thinking college would be some kind of utopia away from all the juvenile problems of provincial adolescent life – a place where you’d finally have it all figured out.

Now that you’re here, you know that’s not exactly true. You may be at the best school for you but still find it’s not perfect – nothing will ever be. It’s hard and you get homesick. You find out that a lot of the demons you were hoping to leave behind when you moved away didn’t just magically disappear. Maybe you’re even more confused than when you left.

Freshmen cope with this anxiety in many ways – some healthy and some not. Eventually, most smooth out the stressed vertex where expectations have met reality and formulate the beginnings of a college experience that will be just right for them. However, many are not – and to them I say this: it’s okay to take a break.

I know from experience since I took time off during high school. I know high school and college are different in a lot of ways so my experience isn’t the same as what one would go through taking a leave from college. But when I hear my peers at UMass utter the oh-so-familiar phrases like “I’m dropping out” on a daily basis, I can’t help but reminisce back my own days of being pushed to the brink.

Long story short, as a junior, I was a perfectionist and an overachiever and I looked really good on paper. But I was slowly dying inside (not an exaggeration) because I had no idea why I was letting something I cared so little about – school – take up so much of my time, and why I was letting that same thing get in the way of my mental and physical health. In a word, I was having a bit of an identity crisis. I ended up taking a five-month hiatus from high school.

During that time, I lived very irregularly and experimentally. For the first time in my life I let myself be a bad student and a bad friend. I was selfish and deregulated. I ignored texts and stayed up all night. My weight fluctuated, I bleached my hair, I started a blog, did a lot of art and taught myself guitar. I even painted Jim Morrison quotes on my walls (cringe). It was a very cliché and ridiculous time in my life, but it was so incredibly necessary for me to become the adult I am today.

Rebelling against authority and experimenting drastically with your identity is supposed to be a quintessential part of the teenage experience in the United States, but in many high schools across the country there simply isn’t time. Many students feel pressure to take the highest level courses their school offers and maintain an A or B average, as well as participate in at least two or three significant extracurricular activities just to get into college. This leaves high schoolers with little to no stress-free time to actually figure out who they are.

Now, it’s worth noting that some kids are able to “find themselves” with these immense stressors weighing on them, but as far as I’m concerned, they are superheroes and we cannot hold all students to this standard.

As a community of college students, we are responsible for recognizing how important self-exploration is for our peers and for ourselves. We must accept and support our peers who prioritize this journey over their schoolwork for a little while or seek time off from school altogether.

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, about one in 14 undergrad/grad students and about one in 11 similarly-aged adults who weren’t enrolled in college “seriously considered suicide” in 2012. It is our responsibility to eradicate the stigma that led some of these students to perceive suicide as a better alternative to taking a semester off.

So if you really feel like you need a break, you probably do. And that’s okay.

Listen to what your body is telling you and look into it without feeling guilty. Know that you are doing something that you need to do in order to have the most successful life, career included, possible.

It’s okay to take a break; it’s okay to trust yourself and when you’re in college, its okay to be cliché for a little while.

Becky Wandel is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].