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ESCHLEMAN: Academic achievement should not overshadow mental health

Column: Shower Thoughts

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A cliché that has been notoriously drilled into people’s heads is “live a balanced life.” Essentially, the rule of thumb is to focus on your work or studies while always leaving time for exercise, a social life, sleep or free time.

In high school, I tried to abide by this lifestyle and I felt that it was attainable. I was able to dedicate a substantial amount of time to studying and earning good grades while also participating in sports, organizing club events, keeping a social life and having free time.

I thought this would be achievable in college since I previously took several AP classes. But then, I took a notorious “weed out” course at Rutgers, Calculus 1, in order to fulfill a Rutgers Business School prerequisite. 

Luckily, I took AP Calculus during my junior year of high school, so I did have some background in calculus. Yet, even with this prior knowledge, I felt as if Calculus 1 was outrageously hard. Lectures were extremely fast-paced, homework assignments took several hours, weekly quizzes were draining and left little time for additional studying for the daunting midterms.

I do think there is value to an academic challenge, especially in a subject someone is not naturally inclined in, but calculus courses at Rutgers made me consider where I draw the line as a student.

I am confident that calculus has super useful applications in math-heavy fields, for example, engineering. But, I am an aspiring Marketing major who wants to minor in English. I have no desire to work with numbers. They simply do not appeal to me. They do not give me any sort of excitement or spark any passion. I would much rather write essays, articles and poetry. And I’m sure this is the opposite for other people.

Calculus may speak to them like a favorite song, and the thought of writing an essay is the equivalent to accidentally drinking expired milk. 

I realized with calculus, I could lock myself in my room and use every free hour to attempt to grasp each concept for the validation of an A, leaving no time for classes, friends and sleep — things that I actually care about.

Calculus taught me what my breaking point is, what sacrifices I am willing to tolerate and which ones I am not. When I realized studying hours and hours to ensure a high grade in calculus would mean little time for sleep, exercise and writing in my free time, I had to set boundaries. There is an important lesson from this. 

Someone recently told me that “academia is loyal to no one”. Academia can drain you of all of your time, willpower, creativity and mental sanity for the validation of a perfect GPA if you let it. It is important for students to know where to draw the line.

What things are you not willing to sacrifice? Sleep, mental health, time with family? As college students ponder what kind of career they want to pursue, I think this is important to think about. Will their aspiring career fit their values?

For most of my life, I have been set on going to law school. But now, I question if I am really willing to invest more of my money into it, how draining law school could be and what the stress of a career in the field could entail. 

These are hard questions to ask when people may be motivated to pursue a stressful major or career to make a lot of money. We live in a capitalistic society, regardless of whether you agree with it, and our living conditions rely on our income.

I understand wanting to pour so much energy into classes, no matter their difficulty. I understand the validation of academic achievement. Though, I would argue it is worth setting boundaries with academia when it starts to dishonor what you value.

Society will make you feel weak if you decide to take time to rest instead of studying all hours of the night. It may be a symbol of strength to stand up and say no. Enough is enough. It is not lazy or spoiled. Your time is your most valuable possession, so what are you doing with it? Are you giving it to a system that just takes your money, time and happiness? You are allowed to say no. 

For calculus, I do my homework, take every assessment and study when I can, but it will not consume all my time. I am not saying academic challenge has no value. Education is a privilege. Some classes have pushed me and transformed my thinking, and I am beyond thankful. Not every class has the same value for each person, and there will inevitably be classes that attempt to drain you. It it is healthy to know when to say no.

Society will push values onto you without asking you what you really want out of your time, education or career. Be sure to ask yourself if you are honoring personal values during your time in academia.

Sara Eschleman is a Rutgers Business School first-year majoring in marketing and minoring in English. Her column, "Shower Thoughts," runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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