Surviving University 101
This was first published on my personal blog in 2017. Content warnings for anxiety and depression.
There I am, on the far left. It's the quintessential campus life snapshot- a multiracial group having a good time on the university green.
It's all lies.
This picture was taken in Botswana, which you can read about here. The people in the photo were friends, but none too close- merely bonded by the euphoria of an overseas trip, and we all had had united to parody what university administrations around the world thought university life looked like.
It's a beautiful moment, of course. I remember giggling as I stumbled towards the lawn, the only Malay in the group to fulfill the quota. But it's hardly representative of what university is, and when you live on campus, there are so many more layers to uncover. Everyone seems to have it easy- and if they're not, it's a reasonable amount of complaining that they do, about common things like readings and early classes. Instagram is filled with heartwarming shots of their uni joys. In halls and residential colleges, people live with their closest, if not their best, friends: what's there to struggle over? Isn't it a dream?
As a sophomore now, it's slightly easier- being a freshie had brought so many challenges and existential crises. I wasn't merely dealing with the schoolwork, but with living alone; with mental illness; with high expectations; and at one point in my second semester, with a total of nine commitments. The school weeks were still pulling at me, with the persistent determination of numbered days. I was trying so hard to explore all my interests, and handle the responsibilities that came with those interests. People too: you can't forget people, and I was determined to have some semblance of social life outside of CAPT. I told myself that I could handle everything. Mental breakdowns aside, I was doing great. I was an overachiever. I was going to surpass every limit that others set for themselves. I was going to do it all.
I was collapsing in on myself.
It was only when my anxiety attacks were frequent, hitting me mid-week every week like clockwork, that I realized perhaps I had tried to do too much. And so I sat down with my RA, who was a graduating Pysch major, and she helped me as best as she could. We talked, late into the night. We wrote down my schedule (and found out I had a deficit of 8 hours a week, if I were really to do everything) to figure out how to work around it. We practiced breathing exercises, to stave off future panic attacks. She convinced me to seek proper treatment, which I finally did, and now even as I'm sick and tired of going through different medications for my depression and anxiety, it's a whole lot more manageable than those first two semesters. She's done so much for me, but I have much more to do for myself, if I want to be better.
So this is me, trying to help myself. But also you, if you're reading this and wondering how to make it through your first year at university. (I've also added baby steps at the bottom of some of the sections for a mini how-to, for those who are particularly introverted/anxious/etc.)
Your first year is going to be lonely. New environments always are, and maybe you'll get lucky, and immediately hit it off with a large group of friends you can trust. But for the most part, university is a solitary experience- I was fortunate to find pockets of people in CAPT I could count on. A group for my Psych lecture; a pair of friends for my writing module. Neighbours in my corridor, who were always so friendly and inviting. Seniors to pester, when it came to bidding and all the inane administrative details.
But this isn't always the case, especially if you're doing a less popular module or major, or if you're not staying on campus. It's too late to sign up for orientation camps now, of course, but if you have people you've met through them, stick to them. They don't need to be your entire world, but make time for little chats, and socialize when you can. Networks are important in university- sometimes, they're more useful than anything else. You'll learn more uni hacks from them, tailored to your major: like what professors to look for, what chapters to focus on, etc. They'll do more for you than anything else. This is especially important for people with depression: it's easy for us to isolate, to turn in on ourselves when life gets too hard. Try your darndest to do the opposite. It took me a whole semester before I could confide in people from CAPT about the problems I was facing; and when I finally did, I realised I'd found lifelong friends. I had no expectations for us to be closer than we were at present, but I knew that I could call on them even after long periods of silence and find a listening ear.
[Baby steps: Don't be too passive- start by greeting your classmates. When you feel comfortable enough, find someone who's been particularly friendly, and chat with them. Small talk can suck, but it doesn't always have to, and it's a good way for you to build up to having proper conversations. Remember that people don't often deny someone else initiating conversations!]
Join CCAs, or IGs- branch out of your comfort zone. University is the time anyway, to discover who you are. Of course, my mistake was signing up for too many things, and while that kind of worked for me, be aware of what your needs are. These extracurriculars were helpful for me, since I could do what I love, and it gave me purpose. In Kukoh+, I renewed my love for working with children, who in turn got me to practice the initially uncomfortable art of talking, really talking, to them. I researched Botswana's culture for a STEER. With CAPT Cafe, I broadened my worldview and learnt as much as I could about the varying topics chosen. I met the most encouraging girls at floorball, and contorted myself into odd shapes for yoga. I've never had a more thrilling time, doing all that I could.
[Baby steps: make yourself apply for these clubs, and build up to attending one session. That attending could be as simple as sitting in and not participating, at first! You can, from there, choose to either attend these sessions more frequently, or participate more actively in the session you do decide to go for.]
Of course, you'll soon learn like I did, that you don't need to do everything. It's perfectly fine to let go. University is hard, and it takes a while for you to transition. It's a highly independent system, which I wasn't used to, and struggling with this on top of my other commitments nearly broke me. You'll have more time to do what you love, and better, if you join one less IG, for example. While I couldn't give up my duties during that first year, my second year at uni is considerably less packed. It pained me to give them up, of course, but I learnt to prioritize myself, and that included getting enough rest (which refers to both sleep, and recharge time).
[Baby steps: Write down your schedule! See what commitment takes up _ number of hours, and see what's bothering you the most. List out your priorities. Go over them repeatedly, like I did. It might take a while for you to actually let go of them, but it's important to know, very thoroughly, what's occupying you.]
Talk to your professors. Get to know them- understand their pet peeves when it comes to submitting work, and don't be afraid to ask for extensions. Most are able to accommodate, and even when I wanted to scrap my whole research paper for a rewrite, my Soci prof was kind enough to ask me when I wanted to hand it in. Another kept in constant contact with me over the semester, patiently handling every anxiety-ridden Whatsapp message I sent her.
[Baby steps: Open an email/text. Type in your message, and you can keep doing this and let them sit in your drafts in the meantime. Get used to writing to your prof! When you're ready, you can begin sending them.]
Start early! I'll be the first to say that I'm a mugger, though that is borne more out of a combination of kiasu and nerdiness than anything. But it truly, truly helps to begin your work the moment you're able. Live a little, but if your professor's already posted what readings you ought to have done, then. do. them. I can't stress this enough but in uni your workload will snowball without you even realizing, and sometimes despite my strict study schedules and early start, I'll find that I'm way behind. (Of course, that might be just me, and some people genuinely don't need the headstart, but it's up to you to decide if you're that person.) Most modules will give you a syllabus overview, and let you know when what papers are due, so if you can prepare for an essay earlier, that will free up a lot of time in the future for other (possibly more fun) things and stress you out less.
Find a routine that works for you, then stick to it. Especially when you live on campus- it's so, so tempting to stay up late, free from your parents' naggings, to watch your shows or even do your work. If you want to sleep at 2am every day, like I did, make sure that the next morning's class is reasonably late so you can get enough rest. Routines helped my body clock adjust after a long, long break of lazing about, and it meant I knew what to expect, and what to do, every day- which meant this lowered my anxiety considerably. Use a bullet journal to keep track of things, if you can- it took me ages to grasp the system, but when I finally understood how to adapt it to my advantage, it helped so, so much. (Below, I've a few pictures of my bu-jo if you need inspiration!)
It seems obvious, but keep healthy! University may be the time to sloth out, since that seems to be the trend, but regular exercise and eating right are really important in making your body and more importantly, your mind, function well. It's easy when you live in a dorm without your parents fussing over you to eat veggies to forget to, well, actually eat veg. (I'm looking at you, friends-who-shall-not-be-named who refused the spinach bought particularly for the pasta I cooked.) It's even easier now that we have no P.E to not exercise. I've always eaten well (I keep to a vegetarian/vegan diet during the weekdays, and ate meat when I returned home on weekends) but I tend to forget how much exercise does me a favour until after the workout. It doesn't need to be a rigorous, one-hour session; you can try blogilates/yoga at home, or do push-ups/sit-ups/jumping jacks during study breaks. Swimming or even splashing about in the pool for half an hour is an excellent way to relieve stress, and a quick jog around UTown can take me 10 minutes or less. The rush of endorphins will brighten your mood, and keep you in shape. Either way, you can't study well if your body isn't in tip-top condition. Nourish your body!
[Baby steps: Start with small exercises in your room. I did one push-up a day, until I felt strong enough to do two, then three, then four, then five... then sixty. It's amazing how even starting that one push-up can break the cycle of fear/laziness/etc. For veggie-phobes, begin with fruit instead! Then slowly add veg to your plate. You can choose to not eat it, at first- build up to it!]
If you're struggling with mental illness: schedule ahead, take breaks, talk to your profs (more than usual) and forgive yourself. Whether you're neurotypical or not, it's good to set goals- but for us, it's even more important to track everything. If you use a bullet journal system, keep using that. If not (or if you do, this can be an additional method) set alarms for things. Set an alarm for Tuesday, 9am, to begin reading a journal. Set an alarm for Thursday, 7.30pm, to start on your draft. Set an alarm everyday to take your medication, if you're taking anything. Set reminders for everything.
Make sure you're sticking to a goal, but also make space for forgiveness. It's fine to take a break. If you, like me, find that doing so triggers your anxiety, write down everything you need to do and break them down into small parts. There are breathing exercises you can do for anxiety, and I've found that this helps. Also, remember that taking breaks = more efficient studying. It's okay to not live up to your expectations- it's hard, and it's painful, and it sucks, but it's okay.
This turned into a very lengthy and possibly obnoxious post, but hopefully I've helped some. I'll leave you with a reminder that a "university degree isn't about education, but class. If we actually cared about everyone being educated, we'd accredit free online courses and allow people to achieve intellectual growth and success without going into debt. Sure, in college you can travel and learn from amazing professors and start your own anything and have access to facilities/resources/money, so sure, university is all that. But at the end of the day, uni is just a business. It's one more way to perpetuate the system.
Fuck the system." - Vanessa Newman