About a year ago, I was doing something many Columbians do but don’t like to admit. I was getting tired of the school that I loved. Somewhere between too many all-nighters, too many skipped outings with friends, and too many classes (seven if you count P.E.) alongside a part-time job downtown, I decided in the fall of my junior year that I needed a break.
I could have chosen to drop a class or quit my job, but I didn’t want to feel like a cop-out, especially when my peers seemed to be accomplishing a lot more with their time. I wanted to be in an entirely new place, where I could prioritize my well-being, surround myself with a relaxed culture, and shake the conviction that academic performance is a legitimate measure of self-worth. Ready to trade 2 a.m. coffees for 2 p.m. cervezas, I chose to study abroad in Seville, Spain, with the hope that by changing locations (and more importantly, schools), I could finally take a break to learn how to live calmly and happily.
If you ask me how it went, I’ll tell you I had fun. I was living the right life, as far as I could tell—traveling across Europe and to India and Africa, reading for pleasure on the Guadalquivir, making new Spanish and American friends, even enjoying the occasional afternoon cerveza. My classes hardly required any homework or papers, and I slept plenty every night. But even though I was living my definition of paradise, something wasn’t right.
Whereas on campus I was stressed about having too much to do, in Spain I was often stressed about not doing more with my time. I often caught myself thinking about all the networking, research, leadership, social, and academic opportunities that I was missing out on by not being at Columbia. From trying to manage Columbia’s strict foreign class requirements, to dealing with a less-than-ideal host mom, to realizing that my friends were achieving far more ambitious goals on campus than I could in Seville, I spent much of my time abroad in a flurry of anxiety. That anxiety became a lot worse, ironically, when I realized I was failing to achieve a very simple goal I had set for the semester: to relax.
In my quest for wellness, leaving Columbia, in retrospect, was not the right answer. That’s not to say that staying at Columbia would have been better for my wellness, but rather that I had wrongly considered my campus lifestyle (too many classes, too little sleep) to be the primary source of my stress.
As it turns out, it wasn’t my campus lifestyle, but rather my belief in the benefits of my campus lifestyle that has brought the biggest blow to my personal wellness. It’s why I believe I had a stressful time abroad: I was convinced I was doing something wrong and hurting myself—my career, my ambition, my academic track—by trying to take a break from my hectic Columbia experience.
Wellness is a buzzword on campus. Given that Columbia was rated the most stressful college in America in 2011, and that our community has been rocked by heartbreaking suicides in recent years, people have begun to catch on that there’s something distinctly unhealthy and unbalanced about many Columbia students’ lives. Support has come from a variety of venues, from the Student Wellness Project and Counseling and Psychological Services to sincere suggestions from campus publications.
While I think it’s great that help is becoming more readily available, I worry that many of us won’t seek the support or changes we need because we’re so convinced that stress is the only way to succeed. It took me a semester in Spain to fully understand how much I depend on an exhausting Columbia schedule to feel fulfilled, and it’s hard to break from this mentality. But I’ve realized too that I need to break it as soon as I can, because I doubt the I’m-not-doing-enough mentality will leave me when I leave Columbia—just like it never did when I was in Spain.
As the wellness movement grows on campus, we need to be wary of what we consider wellness to look like. Is it more free massages from Stressbusters? A stricter course limit? Healthier dining hall options? Fewer classes in the core? An expanded CPS? More students studying abroad? These changes may help reduce the impact of stressful lifestyles, but they won’t change a campus-wide belief that stress is a part of, if not integral to, the idea of success. Changing that belief is something that can only be accomplished on an individual level, as each student re-evaluates his or her own definitions of success, stress, and wellness.
For me, that re-evaluation happened when I was stressed doing something I thought would bring ultimate wellness: studying abroad. Now, I’m trying to mentally work on the things that I had thought moving to Spain for a semester would fix. I thought I could escape my stress by escaping Columbia—but for me, at least, it didn’t work out like that. To avoid making my mistake, I hope you think about this question—is it really Columbia that’s causing you stress, or is it your belief in the importance of stress? The answer is important, because although we will all leave Columbia one day, we will take our beliefs with us wherever we go.
Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in Sociology. Keeping Balance with Bhandari runs alternate Wednesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.