My days in high school started at 7 a.m. and usually ended after 11 p.m. — whenever I had returned from musical rehearsal and finished my last homework assignment. I reserved time for volunteer work and practice tests and family and college applications, but very little of my time was allocated for myself.
The idea of “self care” was a concept I did not encounter until I came to Northwestern, where I learned to put my mental health in front of other issues.
Coursework at Northwestern is rigorous, but it’s also timed completely unlike the high school classes. For example, I may have just one economics class in a given day, but the rest of that day is mine to fill. It’s up to me whether I want to use that free time to edit a campus publication or study for an exam or catch up on rest. That’s the beauty of the quarter system: an unprecedented amount of time to make my own.
At first, I tried to schedule this free time. I signed up for as many clubs as I thought were interesting, enrolled in four courses and booked my weekends with social events to make as many new friends as possible. However, I didn’t realize this schedule was a slippery slope toward burning myself out.
Shortly after Thanksgiving break freshman year, I got a very bad sinus infection. I had a fever that wouldn’t let me walk from my dorm room through the sharp fall air to class without growing faint. I felt behind in class, felt left out while my healthy friends went to the dining hall together and was embarrassed I wasn’t able to meet the deadlines I had promised to my new clubs.
I remember bundling myself in scarves as I shivered my way to the local pharmacy to pick up antibiotics alone. I looked at my pale complexion in the mirror, and I realized my peers weren’t as sick as I was because they prioritized taking care of themselves over any other commitment. This moment may be one of the most important lessons Northwestern has taught me, and I promised from that point on to take better care of myself.
I discovered that the pace of high school cannot survive at the college level. I tried to be as busy as I was in high school and ended up hurting my ability to succeed. I started to schedule “me time” into my agenda, during which I would read on the Lakefill, grab coffee alone, journal, make a new playlist or take a nap.
I grew more comfortable saying no to opportunities, such as being an editor of a publication. I knew that if even if I didn’t sign up for this role, my resume was still representative of my leadership.
I also made better decisions about when to be or not to be social. For example, if I had a large exam on a Monday, I would go to bed early on Saturday and spend the rest of the weekend studying. If my academic load were lighter one weekend, then I excitedly signed up to attend performances or grab dinner in Chicago with friends. There was a “fomo” feeling at first, but the fact that I wasn’t sick and consistently able to enjoy Northwestern meant more to me.
These choices turned into habits which now define my college lifestyle. I thoroughly believe that if you exert positive energy toward yourself, it will reverberate into your environment. My decision to take better care of myself has been reward with unanticipated opportunities, such as the chance to study abroad, take on a second major and have a summer internship.
Self care doesn’t happen all at once. It takes small choices to create a big difference. Start from the morning and take the time to list your goals for each day. One of those goals should always be to do something for yourself.