burn·out ˈbərnˌout/ physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
I think most of us have been there. You know, that realization in the middle of the night that you absolutely can not go on any further. Even though you haven’t memorized all 300 vocabulary words, it’s definitely time to turn the lights out and go to bed because not only can you not cram any more information in your head, but you also feel like you literally cannot push through any longer without having some sort of mental/emotional breakdown. And that the feeling won’t go away after you take this exam tomorrow because it’s become a part of your life.
I’m a little afraid for a lot of college students. That a lot of us experience burnout too frequently and that some of us experience burnout so drastic that we literally cannot continue. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great to constantly push yourself further to be all that you can be, but when it becomes exhausting to a point of misery, I don’t think it’s okay anymore.
Every summer of college so far, I’ve been thrown a million opportunities. Study abroad! Paid research! Live for free on campus as a Resident Assistant! Do an internship to build your resume! I filled myself up with these opportunities last summer. Partially because I felt like going home would be miserable, but also because I felt like I needed to do so in order to keep up with everyone else. I went for nearly two full years with virtually no extended break and it seemed great at the start, but I quickly learned that I was living an unsustainable lifestyle. (Note: I know there are no breaks in the real world. But in the real world people aren’t expected to juggle all of their extracurriculars, the pressure of success, and a full time job, especially not when they’re 20 years old. The ones who do all of that experience burnout, too.)
As a result, six or seven months ago I made the decision to leave the second half of my summer untouched. To make sure I was doing nothing except relaxing. This time, it meant going home to be with my family, going on vacation with them to Florida, and going to Austin for a week to visit John. I’m almost halfway through my self-mandated break, and I think it was one of the best decisions of my life so far.
It’s not sustainable to have every single break (summer and winter) shortened by a week or three because of RA training. It’s not sustainable to work a full-time job, complete 50 hours of community service, fully participate in extracurricular activities, and be a functioning resource to my residents all at once. I needed some time off.
It wasn’t easy, though. I was still thrown all of the same opportunities as last summer and I almost took some of them. There’s still a little part of me that feels like I might be behind when I go back to school because I didn’t fill up my time. Or, more likely, that I will be judged by my peers or mentors for “wasting” some of that precious time relaxing.
A bigger part of me knows that I should start encouraging others to take the same kind of breaks. Do a semester in DC or abroad to take some time off of extracurricular activities. Limit your “other stuff” load during the semester that you’re working a full-time job. Clear your plate off and get some peace of mind. Prioritize reading books over attending meetings or socializing with friends over adding an internship.
This may seem impossible for some. Many engineering or health field programs are basically year-round. My RA friends who are pharmacy majors get basically no break because they are required to take classes in a sequence and classes are only offered once a year, plus they have to be back at school weeks earlier than their peers because of RA training. Giving yourself a break doesn’t look the same for everyone, but I think it can be done.
We, college students, need to prioritize taking breaks. To make this a less intensely competitive place where we stop enjoying ourselves because we’re trying to keep up with each other and impress professors. We need to tell everyone no. We can’t take any more on our plate. But mostly, I think we need to tell ourselves and our internal desire to achieve not to put anything more on our plate.