A pause for breath

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The truth is, I love learning. I remember visiting Durham for an open day and being thrilled by Hallgarth House, the quaint headquarters of the English department. Its walls, plastered with portraits of famous writers and timetables of alluring special topic modules, seemed to glitter with promise. Every time I go back there for a tutorial, I’m reminded of that first glimpse of higher education – briefly – before my mind returns to its usual scattered monologue of everything else I need to do that day.

Most of life’s endeavours are harder to achieve than we imagine at the outset. Completing an undergrad degree, though a pathway that many are expected to follow, is no exception. Amidst the mounting stresses of summative essays, dissertation hand-in, and the prospect of graduating with no clear plan for the future, taking a moment to stop and breathe seems essential.

I want to remind myself why I’m here

I want to remind myself why I’m here, and that the process of reading texts, writing essays, and sharing ideas in tutorials is, while to some extent a means to attaining that shiny degree title, far more importantly a challenge and pleasure in its own right. When we look too far down the line, or compare ourselves to those who appear to be achieving more than us, we miss out on what is unique and precious about our individual experience of university as it unfolds in the moment.

I’m coming to realise that the joys of uni life are found not in its perfection but in its messiness

I feel that student life tends to be romanticized by older generations, with the phrase “best years of your life” frequently thrown around. In reality, it’s an intense period of time which socially, romantically, and academically, can pose many difficulties. There are, of course, several pearls of the university experience.

I’m coming to realise that the joys of uni life are found not in its perfection but in its messiness. It’s okay to not have your future planned out, to take time for relaxation rather than productivity, and to not be constantly on the go, juggling endless commitments.

While in the past, uni was a path pursued by just a few, a large percentage of the population are now pushed towards higher education. The increased competition that this generates for jobs and grad schemes, complemented by idealized notions of how youth ‘should be’, played out through the ubiquitous presence of social media, creates a complex set of pressures for modern-day students.

The additional factor of tuition fees may contribute towards making studying a less laidback affair than it was for past generations. Bringing laptops into the equation also makes it easier to never stop the clock on research or essay-writing, and as someone who values health and rest, I’ve shocked myself with how much of the above I’ve ended up doing between midnight and 3 am.

it still saddens me that for some students at least, chronic stress is an accepted feature of existence, and I’m sure that it doesn’t have to be this way

I don’t know if it’s coming back to Durham after a year abroad, dealing with the demanding final year of study, personal difficulties, or a mixture of all of the above, but student life appears to carry with it a rising level of anxiety, which frequently goes beyond what is healthy. On entering the library recently, coffee in hand, I overheard one student describe life as being “constantly stressful.” Although this is not necessarily representative of the entire student body, it still saddens me that for some students at least, chronic stress is an accepted feature of existence, and I’m sure that it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are great initiatives in Durham to help those who are struggling with their mental health, but the issue of stress and academic pressure also reaches those who are mentally well. We all deserve to enjoy our time here as much as possible, and one way of doing so may be reconnecting with the sheer privilege of being able to pursue a subject that inspires us, without excessive focus on its outcome.

our time at university is fleeting, and there’s much to be said for simple moments of connection as we explore these formative few years together

While my own current sense of being overwhelmed makes me feel ill-equipped to prescribe advice to others, I would urge anyone struggling with pressure to prioritise self-care, not just through actions but by adopting a mindset which retains a sense of perspective.

I would urge anyone struggling with pressure to prioritise self-care

Go for a walk by the river, and let the trees remind you of your connection to the natural world. Cook yourself something tasty, with lots of vegetables. Have a hug with a housemate, maybe even a boogie to some funky tunes in your living room. After all, our time at university is fleeting, and there’s much to be said for simple moments of connection as we explore these formative few years together, pausing to notice their gifts.

Illustration by Navya Lobo

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