On the Transition to College: Making Time for Time
When I first arrived on campus the September of my first semester, some combination of anxiety, excitement, and nostalgia fluttered in my gut. As my dad dropped me off for my pre-orientation camping trip, I felt an overwhelming and simultaneous sense of loss and beginning. Beginning this new phase of my life meant leaving behind many parts of the past: friends, family, and the comfort of the routine. I felt torn between feelings of excitement and terror of the unknown.
At first, I was homesick. For two weeks I struggled to get used to going to sleep over 300 miles from home. Even though I lived in a suite of six girls, I didn’t really know them, and so the room somehow felt both crowded and isolating. But eventually, as I got used to weekly Skype sessions and phone calls, the feelings of homesickness subdued. My roommates and I bonded, and I began to get swept up in the plethora of classes, activities, events, and clubs advertised on a campus that seemed to be awake 24/7. I was hungry to do it all.
Even as a senior now, I remember that feeling from my first semester. That brand-new and eager desire to eat it all up. It’s a wonderful feeling to be sure, but as a senior looking back on the past three years, I also think it’s a feeling that one should embrace with caution.
At my college, four classes per semester is the norm. While upperclassmen can take up to five or six courses a term, there is a cap at four for first-year students. As a peer advisor to first-years, I often get asked why they are forced to limit themselves to fewer courses. Everyone is excited to start college, everyone wants to eat up as much of the experience as they can—take all the best classes, snag an awesome job for the semester, join a million clubs, and party as hard as possible.
But what I certainly didn’t realize at first, and what a lot of my advisees need to hear, is that you are taking five courses your first semester—that fifth course, it’s called life. And it’s a class that deserves your attention.
Of course, every school is different, with different class credit systems and different rules about maximum courses per semester. But no matter where you go to school, navigating life in college is an adjustment that takes time and energy. You have a lot of required academic course work, and sometimes a required job to help pay for school or just to earn some extra spending money, and juggling these requirements in a new environment is hard.
Take time to learn the ropes. Plan your schedule so that there is flexibility for you to take a break when you want a break. You may be able to handle a schedule that’s bursting to the limit at the beginning of the school year, when the adrenaline rush of starting a new phase of your life is at its peak, but you also need to be able to function and be happy during the weeks when every class gives you a midterm examination, when your job needs you at every shift, when every extracurricular is putting on its performance or show or competition, and everyone seems to be throwing a party.
Beyond the obvious benefit that managing your time has on your grades and quality of life, cutting yourself some slack the first semester or year of college can help you to face the unexpected that will inevitably arise. It is likely that, somewhere along the line, something will happen to throw a kink in your plan. For me that unexpected turn was an emotionally draining relationship, coupled with a struggle against unhealthy body image and disordered eating tendencies. For many others I knew, these unexpected turns took the form of everything from family trouble at home, to physical illness that kept them in bed for months, to depression or anxiety that interfered with their daily functioning and quality of life. A long-distance breakup, a failure, a falling-out with your best friends from high school, a fight with your roommates—college is hard, and these are all things that you don’t necessarily think about when you sign up for classes or write your email address on that club sign-up sheet.
Even if you never personally face a challenge to your mental health, chances are that someone you know will. Therefore, I believe that it is critical for you to be aware of the potential issues you could face yourself or as a friend, to understand the resources available at your campus, and to have some wiggle room in your schedule to make time for yourself or your friends in the event that something does take a stressful turn. Hopefully, incorporating a little extra time into your schedule will help you to be proactive in balancing that fifth course called life, and prevent your schedule from draining your energy and taking a toll on your happiness and mental well-being in college.
So, here’s my advice: make time for time in college. Make time for reflection. Make time for you. It’s important to figure out what balance of courses, extracurriculars, jobs, and social time best fits your needs, values, and goals. You’ll thank yourself later for investing some time in yourself now.