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Peer blog: “I need a life jacket”

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

In a previous blog, I explained that I love the water. The ironic thing, though, is that I can’t really swim. Don’t get me wrong: I can do the bare minimum to pass any kind of swimming test, but my swimming is definitely more of a fancy dog paddle. That means when I’m out on the water, I need a life jacket. Life jackets are designed to keep us afloat in water, so they’re absolutely crucial to safety. We all wear—and we need—life jackets in other areas of our lives: the things we engage in that keep us afloat and not sinking to the depths that lie far below. (Dramatic, I know!)

So, what constitutes a life jacket in the context of student life?

It can really be anything that helps keep you going and staying afloat: hobbies, extracurriculars, routines, study strategies, friends, family. Your identity. Your mindset. Your supports. Whatever works for you.

However, when life jackets are exposed to water for long periods of time without the opportunity to dry out, they can actually make staying afloat significantly more arduous. They need to be maintained, dried out, and sometimes replaced. The same goes for all those supports in other areas of your life. Let me explain.

What do I do if my life jacket is failing me?

As a peer advisor in both PASS and SASS, I always recommend students reach out to someone they trust and who cares about them when they need some extra support. I recently did the same. I called my mother and stepfather, and we had a very emotional talk about school. I worked so hard to get to third year, and everything my life jacket has been designed to do is failing. Right now, it feels like I’m sinking most days of the week. I’ve touched on my struggles before in this blog. I told my parents that I’m still struggling. I hate the thought that I have struggled through nine weeks of term without being able to swallow my pride and seek more help. My parents said something that really resonated with me: “Sarah, your identity is too tied to your academics.”

I think the reason my own personal life jacket is no longer working is because I have been hyper-focused, and I’ve lost sense of who I am outside of being a student. At my part-time job, friends will ask me how I’m doing or what’s new with me, and all I talk about is school. It’s okay to be proud to go to Queen’s—but when that’s your entire identity, all-encompassing of everything you live and breath? No matter my life jacket is so water-logged.

But how dare I not take 5 or 6 courses a term? Lots of us Queen’s students would think that our academic identity is our life jacket. A full course load, extracurriculars, our GPAs are the fabric of that jacket. But just because they are, does that mean it has to be that way?

Given everything that has happened this year, I’ve been reflecting on that question a lot. Do I want to be the person constantly stressed about school? Do I want to continue to be feel this constantly sad when that sadness eclipses all my other successes and joys? Do I want to continue to push myself academically at the cost of my mental wellbeing?

I can’t answer for you. But for me, the answer to those questions is no. I’m tired of my academic identity being the sole component of my life jacket. Because it’s waterlogged and causing me to sink.

So, if you’re like me, you might be asking: “Where do I go to fix this life jacket?”

Talk to someone

Even if it doesn’t feel like it, there are people out there at Queen’s who can help. Your professors (who are, surprisingly, human beings too), your teaching assistants, an academic advisor, a learning strategist with SASS. The list is long. Even if you don’t know these people, they’re there to help.

I wrote a long and beautifully crafted academic advisor outlining my troubles during the online fall semester. Student Wellness Services is available for those seeking physical and mental health support. I also highly recommend talking to a learning strategist: I used one when I was in first year, and I continue to use the service in third year. It is so validating to have someone feel for you and the position you’re in with online school, then to sit with you, find where you can work more effectively and efficiently, then work with you to figure out a plan.

Ask yourself if your life jacket is working

If your academic identity is the only thing that is keeping you afloat, it might be a sign to rethink it. Academics are only a small part of our life. Taking a step back and ask: “Is this jacket the right fit for me?” Once you find that your supports aren’t helping keep you afloat, ask what you can do to change them. For me, this might look like taking fewer courses for the winter semester.  For you, it might mean taking time out of your day to do the little things that set you up for success. Or taking time to do more things you enjoy. Or it can be as simple as reframing your appraisal of situations to look for positives—even if they’re small—in your daily work.

Find something to be proud of

After talking with the people who care about me, I find myself at a bit of a crossroads for next semester. I am constantly second guessing my actions: “Do I take 5 courses and repeat the strain and sadness of this past semester? Do I take 3 or 4? How dare I only take 3? I can do more. But what about my research internship? What if the 5 courses I stubbornly talk myself into staying in take away from one of the most valuable experiences of my third year? Could I just drop a required course and take an elective?”

Welcome to the express train of my thoughts. It’s exhausting.

I caught myself spiraling down this rabbit hole earlier this week. Then, a small voice reminded me that this is a process. So what if I only take 3 or 4 courses? If the cost of engaging in a full course load is too high, there is nothing wrong with taking less. We are not worth less because we take less than 5 courses in a semester. This has become my mantra as I stubbornly unlearn all the mindsets that waterlogged my life jacket in the first place.

On that note, I hope the fall semester has been a learning experience for everyone. Whether that’s learning how to facilitate a Zoom meeting, mute your Outlook notifications, how to navigate a new environment, mute your microphone, or learning how to restructure your life jacket—you’ve done it. And there’s a light on shore telling you you’ve almost made it, so keep floating. The holidays will be here soon!