This semester’s honeymoon period is quickly coming to an end. When the calendar flips to October and midterms start rolling in, quantities of caffeine consumption and sleep trend in opposite directions. For some, the early signs of burnout crop up in the ever-lengthening shadows of the ever-shorter, cloudier, colder fall days. The source of this feeling of constant exhaustion could be any or all of grades, mental or physical health, overcommitment, career anxiety or financial concerns. While symptoms may vary, a general theme is that it all feels like too much. In some quiet moments doubt starts to creep in, “What am I really doing here? What am I toiling like this for?”
For many — hopefully most — having established healthy routines keeps this struggle mostly theoretical. For others, these feelings can be pushed aside for another day and business continues as usual, with a quiet hum of discontent undergirding an otherwise productive routine. Maybe the week in, week out is more painful than enjoyable, but morale and output remain more or less stable. For others still, my previous self included, the pressure of the career expectations, impending paper deadlines and utter exhaustion outweigh the ability to lead a sustainable existence. All assignments start to feel like tasks, innumerable in quantity and insurmountable in scope. Sometime into the semester, external circumstances begin to feel like too much to cope with.
There is data to back this up. Take one of our peer institutions: The Ohio State University. According to Bernadette Melnyk, the chief wellness officer at OSU, 71% of OSU’s students were facing burnout in April 2021. Outside of OSU, it is well documented that mental health suffered during the pandemic, as isolated students were deprived of adequate social interaction. And yet, day after day, month after month, this exhausting ritual continues. Maybe grades are maintained, maybe they are not, but one thing is certain: the status quo is not working. While the stigma around seeking help is being eroded, more serious action remains taboo.
Herein lies the problem with the grinding routine of college burnout: Inaction is a silent killer. The status quo has a subtle ability to disguise itself as safety because it is viciously familiar. Alternatives to the default are largely ignored by fear and uncertainty. For a select few, though, it is worth considering whether college is the right setting in which to move forward. While it may seem difficult to consider, I suggest taking time away from school, as it can be a viable option, even if it feels daunting.
When one leaves school without graduating they “drop out” rather than “move on,” or some other positive phrase. This may be a mere semantic difference, but it speaks to a deeply-held cultural belief: that shifting from the established achievement track is a deviation rather than an act of creation. In a gap year, students can travel, volunteer, learn a skill or pursue a career interest. Off-season internships are often less competitive than the highly sought-after summer gigs. Most importantly, the clock counting down to graduation is temporarily paused while one can explore curiosities with more latitude.
The idea of graduating “late” is scary, but ultimately meaningless. Afterall, what is the difference between the classes of 2022 and 2024? When the weight of each passing week in the few fleeting months that make up a semester feels overwhelming, thinking on a timeline of years feels radical. Taking the time to step away and reorient oneself within a life that can be expected to continue for decades is a mere course correction.
At the very least, whether remaining on campus or not, university students may benefit from broadening their perspective of what counts as a beneficial experience. In two years I moved to a new city, worked in a new industry, traveled internationally and refocused my goals for my return to school. These were formative experiences, made available outside of the context of the four-year college path.
On the other hand, I also attended the graduation of my friends that I entered college with, having completed just half of the credits required to cross that very stage. Many of these friends were also able to explore career opportunities, study abroad and invest in formative growth experiences without having left school. The harsh reality for those feeling “behind” is that time does not stand still, whether in school or not. This is all the more reason to exert agency over one’s limited time, rather than trudge toward an unsatisfying future. The terms of improvement, and responsibility for growth, are more fully shifted onto the student.
Admittedly, a kind of experience relativism can be naive depending on the ends that the student is pursuing. If the goal is to ultimately grow in some meaningful way it clearly matters how the time is spent. I am only advocating for taking time away from school if there is a direct plan of action to best use it. It should also be clear that there is immense value in having completed a college education in terms of the professional and personal freedoms it can afford. Much of the time, gritting something out for practicality’s sake may pay dividends.
I also recognize that this is, of course, not a path available to many. Having strong familial support behind making the decisions to leave and return to school when I did is far from guaranteed, and I do not take that blessing for granted. There are myriad financial and logistical reasons why up and leaving school for a couple of years is not feasible. Do not let the reason be fear. Fear of judgment, fear of career prospects or something even more trivial keep you from thinking about what might be most beneficial, as radical as it might seem.
When the long nights of the soul come for some of you this semester, consider what the risk of taking bold action is. Then consider what the risk of not taking bold action is, if only for a moment.
Will Coveyou is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com