In Focus: What does self-care look like at Columbia?

Photography by Aliya Schneider

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Written by Aliya Schneider

Edited by Amelia Milne and Natalie Guerra

Over the past month, I asked people to show me what self-care looks like for them at Columbia. I wanted to find out how the commodified idea of “self-care” actually manifests in lives here, so I asked students what they do to de-stress and how they make time for themselves.

Many of the people that I interviewed for this photo essay asked me what I do for self-care. I gave a different answer each time, stumbling as I talked about learning to say no to opportunities, staying in on the weekends, and finding time to work on my photography.

The idea for this essay came when I was exhausted, and I decided to go for a run. I felt like Brittany from “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” pridefully panting as my feet shuffled over the stones in Riverside Park. I realized that I wasn’t thinking about anything other than my breath—as cliché as it sounds, I was truly in the moment. Running isn’t something I’ve been dedicated to keeping up since this experience, but checking in on myself has been.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that there are people who aren’t constantly stressed—and everyone has their own way of figuring out how to make that happen for themselves. Take a look at these Columbia students who have found their own ways to de-stress amidst all the chaos.

Before getting Coda, Raphael Lee’s, CC ’20, main mode of de-stressing was through rehearsals for his dance group because they forced him to focus on something other than school. But now, his schedule, and ultimately his self-care, is largely based around his new puppy.

His friends help him out when they want some pup time, which also gives Lee a break. Coda has ironically become both a stressor and de-stressor in Lee’s life.

“He's a little devil sometimes, but he's very cute, and he always means well.”

Lee says that there are days when he thinks, “Oh my god, why do I have a puppy at college?” And other times when he thinks, “Oh my god, I have a puppy!”

“Not only do I have to take care of him, but I think I want to play with him for maybe ten, twenty minutes. He’s almost like a reminder for me to stop studying.”

Camille Allen, BC ’20, has recently been teaching herself the ukulele.

“I'm trying to teach myself how to play. I've been thinking about it as self-care. [At Columbia,] we're all very high-achieving people who are used to being good at things, you know, good at school. But I love not having to be good at playing… I can just make mistakes. I literally just do it in my room, for me. And it gives me [the] opportunity to sing, which is an important part of catharsis for me and coming back to my body.”

She points out that while everyone should have coping mechanisms, self-care has been highly feminized and that people of color have had to do the work of keeping peace of mind while facing stress and oppression for years. She speaks about self-care as labor that some people have had to practice more than others because they’ve had to constantly reflect on the ways they take up space.

“To me, [self-care is] the daily work that you do to better yourself and to heal yourself,” she said. Self-care can manifest itself in something like using a face mask, but in actuality it is a “tough introspective process.”

Last year, Allen lost her dad, which “threw school in perspective.”

“I had to practice self-care in a way I hadn’t ever before, because I just never experienced anything this devastating. But it was also an opportunity to better understand myself and how I process things. As much as school is school, it’s just school. Family is so important. Being with friends is so important. And my Buddhist practice was huge for me in terms of processing that and understanding not only what kind of student I want to be, but way more importantly, what kind of person I want to be—and what it means to live a good life.”

Daniel Golde, a JTS first-year Ph.D. student, works at Joe’s Coffee on campus where he often overhears Columbia students discussing their career plans and future goals.

“People put a lot of mental energy into their careers and really [try] to plan out their careers pretty rigidly at such a young age. I’m at a different stage than they are, but I was really fortunate to go to college where it wasn’t like that. And people were a lot more comfortable with the unknown, and figuring it out. And I think that that’s a much more healthy and a much more positive environment to be around. We’re all figuring it out. ”

Golde said that when he overhears “really great and talented young college students” box themselves into specific career paths, he questions his own path. He has to constantly check himself to make sure he’s not falling into Columbia stress culture norms, especially in his first year of a five- to seven-year program.

For his self-care, he speaks to his good friends from college to talk through their different paths. He has been conscious of respecting his friends’ career paths, and not comparing his own journey to theirs.

Daniel Vaz, CC ’23, says that the transition from high school in Brazil to Columbia, where there are fewer classes and many more assignments to do for each, was jarring at first—so he worried more than he should have. But to help him acclimate to New York, he sought to incorporate music into his schedule. “The problem is being in a routine of stress. I can't [be in that routine].”

In between classes, he plays the guitar in his room. And when he has more free time, he plays on the lawns or jams with his friends in practice rooms.

Through a music mentorship program at Columbia, Vaz has also been teaching a seven-year-old girl to play guitar. He says learning songs to teach her has also been part of his self-care.

“She's actually learning very fast, which surprised me because her fingers are very small, so it’s kind of hard for her.” Vaz says that she’s starting to learn how to play guitar at the same age he did. At his mentee’s request, he’s been learning Taylor Swift songs.

“You learn to take things slow and be more peaceful. But also it gives you an outlet. If you really are having a bad day or a bad week, you can get a guitar and play. And then you just forget about everything because you have to focus on what you’re doing.”

Amanda Ong’s, CC ’20, main qualm with the term “self-care” is that some people think it only means taking breaks from doing what you have to do.

“I think that self-care, sometimes, is doing what you need to do for yourself right now. But self-care can also be doing what you need to do for the you of a month from now or tomorrow or five years from now. And that's part of taking care of yourself, too.”

When Ong was about 17, she wrote a list of affirmations called “10 Notes for Self Love and Self Improvement.” She wrote it for her friend who loved it, so she started sending the hopeful words to other friends who were having a hard time.

To de-stress, Ong takes a moment to journal, listen to music, or watch something. Sometimes it means making herself do the work she needs to do. When she needs an immediate pick-me-up, she reads the notes she wrote for her friend. “Sometimes I feel like since writing them I’ve become more jaded. But whenever I reread them, I’m just, like, ‘Oh, these things are still so true.’”

She read the notes to me as if it were both the first and millionth time she had read them. Each time she reads them, they remind her that life is a process, and that she isn’t always just a good or bad person.

Annette Stonebarger, BC ’21, has an anxiety disorder, and says the atmosphere in New York City makes her more anxious than her hometown in Northern California.

“It's really easy for me to get very overwhelmed in New York, and so creating a space for myself, my dorm room, has been really important to me in de-stressing.”

Stonebarger is involved with theatre and outdoors communities on campus, which means she’s often interacting with people. For her, self-care is being alone in her well-lit, plant-filled room, doing whatever lines up with her mood—be it yoga, stretching, watching a movie, or just dancing.

“I try to go to Yoga to the People because I really believe in their mission, and it's nice that they are pay-what-you-can. But when I don't have time to do that, which is most days, I do yoga in my room… I really like Yoga with Adrian, [I] watch her YouTube videos. She has all sorts of themes for her yoga practice, and whatever mood I'm in, I'll choose one of her videos and do that.”

Stonebarger says that her friends are understanding when she decides to take a night for herself and that they’re also good at telling her when they need to decompress from the day.

“Everyone is like, yes, you do you, take all the time you need.”

Joon Baek, CC ’21, travels off-campus to de-stress.

“You could have your life at Columbia, but you could also have a life outside of Columbia. And they're not mutually exclusive. It's not like other schools, where school life is the only thing you can have. And it's not like other schools where you can't have any kind of campus life. So I like the nice balance between those two.”

Seeing non-Columbia students live their lives makes him gain perspective on the weight his schoolwork has. He said that going off-campus brings him “outside the system” that he’s been entangled in for so long, and he starts to care less about academic pressure, at least temporarily.

Annie Bouchet, BC ’20, often bought into the high-pressure environment as a first-year student. She felt like she had to thrive academically and be busy socially in order to be “living the college experience.”

But she found balance by slowing down and being careful how she spends her energy. Now, she makes sure to keep some of it for herself. When she gets stressed, she feels an aggressive energy and has found that boxing is the best way for her to “have that explosive release.”

“Sometimes it's just more important to look at the bigger picture and understand that it's more important to prioritize yourself and your sanity.”

“If I’m not boxing, I try to get to the gym [about] four times a week, depending on the week.”

As military veterans, Brandon Lowe, GS ’23, Daniel Hineline, GS ’23, and Michael Bollinger, GS ’23, (left to right) are accustomed to regular group workouts from their military background. They have taken on leadership roles in CU Fit, a club that hosts workouts for beginning and experienced weightlifters alike, and shares a message that anyone can take a break from school and make time for physical fitness to mitigate stress levels.

“I guarantee you could find half an hour a day to take care of yourself… put yourself first and take care of you, because at the end of the day, getting an A in a class doesn’t mean a whole lot if you’re not okay,” Bollinger, the president of the group, says.

Karolina Sadowska, CC ’20, started cooking at a young age. She laughs as she tells me that she taught herself how to cook because her mother couldn’t. She loves cooking with her friends to take time away from worrying about her schoolwork.

“It's hard for me to worry about other things when I'm cooking because you just need to stay focused and think about the specifics.”“Like not cutting your finger,” her friend adds.

“[Cooking is about] being very in-the-moment. I think that's the overarching theme... being in this place at the right time, not thinking about broader issues that are going on.”

Sadowska says that being surrounded by friends and talking about what’s going on in her life adds to the value of cooking. Plus, it holds her accountable to make sure she’s still cooking for herself, at least on the weekends.

“I don’t think that cooking must be a universal self-care activity. It works for me [but] it might work or might not work for other people. I think it’s very individual. So I think the core here is to find something that makes you happy and just follow your interest.”

Lauren Kranzlin, GS ’19, School of the Arts ’21, practices self-care by doing what she needs to do to keep things in order. From painting her nails to using colored pens, Krazlin pays attention to the small details to keep herself in check.

“Part of my self-care is forcing myself to do work for class... You just stress and stress and you finally get it done in the last 10 minutes before class. And then you go to class, [and] you're like, ‘Oh, I'm fine. I did it.’ But it's a really hard habit to break because you just proved [to] yourself that if you wait until the last moment, you can do it and get it done. But you caused all that mental anguish. And it's something that can be avoided if you just sit down and do the work.”

She laughed when telling me that she is in the School of General Studies, saying that she, like many other GS students, has a story to tell about her path to college.

She went on to explain that she attended Johns Hopkins University straight out of high school and immediately struggled to cope with the “work hard, play harder” environment.

“I kind of crashed and burned within a semester. And at that point, I had to take myself out… [I] dropped out of school to figure out what was going on with me. And I was undiagnosed bipolar. And I was an active alcoholic. And I was self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and had no idea how to take care of myself.”

So when she started coming to Columbia, she was careful about how many courses she signed up for.

“If you’re struggling, reach out, talk to someone tell your friends… I kept everything inside. And I almost died because of it. And it’s so easy to do, to isolate. But everyone in the community needs you [in some way] or another. You never know what you’re going to accomplish.”

Ayesha Kapur, GS ’20, grew up in an “experimental spiritual hippie community in South India,” and her childhood was full of people who prioritized healthy living. In school, she would meditate with all of her classmates before classes started in the mornings. Meditation is important in the community she grew up in, but she feels that she lost touch with the practice when she came to study in the U.S.

For the past few months, she has incorporated meditation into her daily routine.

“I genuinely try and meditate wherever I can, whenever I can,” Kapur says. Over the summer, she meditated for ten to fifteen minutes every day during her commute to her internship, and experienced an overall happiness and awareness that had been missing before.

“That's when I feel like everything else in my life aligns.” She says that when she meditates, she takes more time to focus on the things she actually wants to be doing.

“It’s literally an investment of ten minutes a day. For me, I’m happier, I perform better. I still sometimes don’t do it, you know? And it’s like, ‘Why don’t I do it?’ Because I’m just overwhelmed with other stuff.”

Micah Roschelle, SEAS ’20, has had musical tendencies since he was little. His family plays a lot of music and goes to concerts together.

He says that listening to music helps him “connect with [his] surroundings and get out of [his] head.”

He says that it’s easy to “get stuck on things that you’re doing” and have an overwhelming amount of thoughts about deadlines.

“And for me, I think it’s really, really helpful to, in those moments, when you’re feeling really overwhelmed, to just focus in the moment. I think music has been a really important venue for me doing that.”

Grace Armstrong, BC ’20, often sees events on campus offering tea and face masks for self-care, but says she’s never been to one. She thinks that self-care is more about “coming back into yourself and finding harmony and calm in a very chaotic structure.”

She plays video games on her Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Switch to de-stress. Her 3DS goes with her almost everywhere.

She pointed out that there isn't any phone service in the subway tunnels, so it’s a perfect time to play her 3DS on her way to work. She also reaches for her games when she feels overwhelmed and needs a quick break. During the summer, Armstrong brought her DS with her when she would go to lab or hang out with her friends. While her friends were surprised that she still had a DS, some ended up bringing their own Nintendos back as well.

“I feel like I spread it a little bit, like a virus,” she said.

“A lot of people ask me why I specifically play video games … [and] not phone games. But I think it has been a personal stress relief for me ever since I got my hands on a Gameboy… It’s kind of nice to be able to take a step back from all the craziness that’s happening in life and you can be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go train a team of Pokémon, and I am going to go do this objective, or just absolutely run around and do whatever I want to do and have no real obligation or fear of failure because I can always try again.’”