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There’s nothing quite like the stress of college: exams, assignments, and presentations seemingly taking over every inch of your mental capacity; battling imposter syndrome as an intern; searching for community on campus and meaningful extracurricular pursuits; finals week looming overhead; and, of course, navigating the constellation of career possibilities you could pursue.
You’ve probably done the juggling act more times than once – and you’re not alone. No one understands these stressors better than LSA students themselves. But, what’s the solution to the pressure that’s felt to perform and the exhaustion of keeping up with demands of school? How can you improve your mental well-being while still prioritizing learning AND career exploration?
We spoke with recent LSA alum and current dental student, Riley Russell, about how he navigated stress, found balance, and prioritized his wellness among challenges.
When Riley began his journey at LSA, he knew studying Biomolecular Sciences would allow him to pursue his dream career of becoming a dentist. But, with a rigorous schedule packed with STEM courses, he began to feel the effects of burnout.
While considering the academic stress he underwent during his sophomore year, Riley began to ask himself: “Do I really want to go to dental school?” The intensive science courses began taking a toll on his mental health. Like many students, Riley experienced a period of self-doubt and questioned his chosen path. With time, his schedule became less demanding, and he decided to pursue a second major: Drama.
Adding a second major may seem like an odd response to an already stressful workload, but Riley said, “Studying theater taught me a lot of ‘people skills’ that can be applied to my career in dentistry.” He says the soft skills he gained through this major are what got him into dental school.
Although career exploration can be intimidating, it can evoke ideas about yourself that were previously unimagined. Riley explained that his Drama major taught him a lot about himself, and not only “lightened the load” of STEM courses, but also helped cultivate an appreciation for his desired career path.
If you’re feeling burnt out, stressed, or overwhelmed with school, Riley says finding balance is key.
“Consider seeking out an opportunity that energizes you, whether that’s inside or outside of academics."
“Consider seeking out an opportunity that energizes you, whether that’s inside or outside of academics,” Riley recommends. “Choosing to take drama courses revived my passion for and interest in dentistry.”
In addition to his dual major, Riley was a part of the Health Sciences Scholar Program at U-M, which introduced him to many other students on similar academic journeys. Additionally, he joined a pre-health honors society (Alpha Epsilon Delta). Within these learning communities, he found balance by participating in intramural sports with friends from these groups.
Although his involvement in academic-focused organizations was primarily for exploration purposes, allowing him to consider different careers in healthcare, Riley explains that it’s important that your extracurriculars don’t feel “like jobs,” ensuring they have aspects of fun and socialization.
During Riley’s early years at LSA, like many students, he admits that he was “still figuring things out,” and overcommitted himself by getting involved in too many extracurriculars. He recognized that trying new things is an essential part of exploration, but in order to preserve his mental well-being, he eventually learned to strategically prioritize the activities he was involved in and actively set boundaries for himself.
“It’s all about setting boundaries for yourself,” Riley attests.
In terms of extracurriculars, Riley suggests considering quality over quantity. Trying to get involved in three or four meaningful groups and organizations was key to Riley’s experience, as it allowed him to develop a lot deeper and more intimate relationships with the people in those organizations.
To avoid overcommitment, Riley recommends “finding the things that make you you and sticking to them.”
Creating Realistic Expectations
“You have to be realistic about what you can accomplish and what you can achieve,” Riley explained.
He found that while studying for finals, he was much less productive when studying after 10 p.m. So, he proactively set a time block during earlier hours of the day, ensuring he made the most of his study time.
Riley shared that, although it can be a hard lesson to learn, “It’s important to check in and ask yourself: will I actually gain something from this, or am I feeling [unnecessary] pressure to do it?”
“It’s important to check in and ask yourself: will I actually gain something from this, or am I feeling pressure to do it?”
Many students feel the need to overextend themselves or study for an unreasonable amount of time, but there comes a point when it’s no longer productive or self-serving. In fact, it hinders your commitment to balance and downplays the importance of rest. Setting realistic expectations for yourself will prevent burnout and stress.
With demanding courses and lives outside of schoolwork, it’s easy for students to lose sight of the importance of physical rest. Riley stressed the importance of taking a step back from work as needed. He said, “If you get tired, stop and take a break – your brain won’t retain information if you’re tired.”
Lawrence Epstein, MD, medical director of Sleep HealthCenters and instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School says, “adequate sleep is essential to feeling awake and alert, maintaining good health and working at peak performance.” Research suggests that adults need between 7-8 hours of sleep each night.
Additionally, recent studies by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine show that college students who pull “all-nighters” are more likely to have a lower GPA, reiterating the importance of rest.
We encourage students to listen to their bodies, do what they’re capable of doing at that moment, and take brain breaks. This will set you up for success later on.
In conclusion, navigating the multiple stressors of being a college student can be challenging, but it’s important to stay hopeful and driven. Implementing balance into your schedule, setting boundaries and realistic expectations for yourself, and prioritizing rest all contribute to maintaining your well-being. Riley’s experience is a testament to that.
“The key to all of it is sitting yourself down and prioritizing the things that allow you to preserve your identity and who you are.”
Riley says, “The key to all of it is sitting yourself down and prioritizing the things that allow you to preserve your identity and who you are.”
For more information on career exploration and how to get involved in purposeful activities, reach out to our team at the Hub. We’d love to support you in navigating your self-authoring journey through academic success and professional development.