As I reflect on the first week of my last semester at Columbia, I am filled with elation from the great times spent with friends, whether it be eating four-hour dinners and wandering the campus aimlessly, or goofing off at the Winter Jam in Central Park and dancing till 7 a.m. at the CU Dance Marathon.
But as I continue reflecting, a wave of gloom overcomes me when I realize that the pervading spontaneity and optimism throughout the campus may not last. In a matter of days, we will fall behind on readings and problem sets, our dinners will become increasingly rooted only in their function of sustenance, and the pallor of stress will creep across our faces.
The problem is that for many of us, this anxiety is all we know. We have likely been habituated since high school or earlier to biting off more than we can comfortably chew. And even if ambition was not always in our DNA, it certainly was spliced in as we faced the dual insecurities that accompanied our acceptance letters: living up to societal expectations for our exceptional aptitudes and discovering that such exceptionality is mediocrity at our new home.
Given these forces, it should be no surprise that they coalesced to pressure us into taking on more responsibilities than we want and to accordingly compete to be the most physically and mentally unwell students we could be. When I was tabling for the Student Wellness Project this week, students filled out Post-its saying they would sleep, pleasure-read, cook, go downtown, go to office hours, work out, and chill with friends if they gained the time that came with dropping a class, yet few were inspired to carry through with doing so. Instead, we all watch as beloved pastimes like playing piano, sketching, and acting become enemies to our social and physiological needs. All the while, inspiring course readings get SparkNoted as we do whatever we can to get a good grade, often forgetting why we signed up for classes, clubs, internships, and more in the first place.
In this way, we are making time for the opportunities at Columbia to take advantage of us, rather than the other way around. Even more ironically, though, is that as we turn real interests into superficial ones, we not only get wrapped up in living for ends rather than means, but we also sabotage ourselves from achieving our ends anyway. By giving into the pressure and belief that we need two-page résumés full of “accomplishments” in order to land our “dream jobs,” we often do not realize that these superfluous, unfulfilling, and overwhelming commitments do more to create wrinkles and gray hairs than they do to get us into grad school. Therefore, my response to the friend who wants to add another course to her “light” course load is the same as to the one pursuing a summer internship in finance: if that’s what you love, go for it—but be sure to remember what it means to love something before you answer.
Instead, we should keep our goals simpler. Use college to make ourselves happy and explore who we want to be as people. Fulfillment and personal development should not be deferred when considering our short existences. Therefore, we should all spend at least one semester experiencing another side of college, minimally filling our schedules with activities in order to explore our personalities, meet new people, and discover what truly sustains rather than drains us. Only after relaxing can we know if we prefer educating ourselves simply through talking with peers about their passions.
Dissenters may still say that a healthy level of stress is necessary to motivate us to reach our potential. And while I agree, I think we at Columbia have particularly lost all perspective on what’s healthy, not to mention that we often equate reaching our potential with becoming money-generating robots. Just look at our (likely still unhealthy) peer schools to see what I mean. A normal credit load at MIT is four to 4.5 courses. At Dartmouth, students face additional fees if they take four classes for more than 3 trimesters (the equivalent of taking six classes for more than two semesters). And if you want a good laugh, there’s an article in the Harvard Crimson where the 20 undergraduates taking six or more classes are portrayed as deranged masochists.
If it’s the Harvard students you’re laughing at, you’re missing the point.
Ultimately, less can be more. We can use college to pursue hobbies, socialize, and attend the campus events that we currently only notice when clearing our Facebook notifications. All the while, no one—including employers—will think any less of us for choosing to develop ourselves rather than our second major. Drop a class: It’s refreshing.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in biophysics. He is the Columbia College Student Council academic affairs representative and the Student Wellness Project policy chair.
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