As William Jewell College focuses on re-branding itself, the notion of what comprises a good student undergoes an intellectually trendy articulation.
“We” – the good college student(s) – are hardworking, thoughtful, innovative, intelligent.
It’s not wrong, of course. But it’s not completely accurate, and just-exiting-high-school me never saw what Jewell sold as what I would become.
I just saw that, after the applications and visits and interviews were over, I was expected to live up to the titles. Add on the honor of being an Oxbridge student, and I did the only logical thing my anxiety-ridden self could do.
I spent most of my free time working. I would say all, except there were stretches of times where, exhausted, I watched Netflix, but that was all I did. If I wasn’t studying for a class, I was resting.
I didn’t rest often. I didn’t get more than six hours of sleep on the weekdays–I mostly got three or four hours. I threw myself into my work, and I doubt that, even if I had straight-As, I would have been able to stop on my own.
I knew I didn’t live up to what most – if not all – college students feel pressured to become, and it impacted my time outside of class greatly.
Then, I left for Oxford.
Look, I know it’s typical for an Oxbridge student to have something to say about their time there. I dislike casually talking about my time there mostly because it comes off pretentious and/or awkwardly vague.
Because really, how do you talk about a year abroad?
For this conversation, I will say that Oxford was a wildly strange environment. For all of the pomp and circumstance of being a student studying at Oxford, it was also very simple and straightforward.
I made it, and now all I had to do was learn and grow in my tutorials.
I slipped into a loose schedule, automatically, that prioritized rest and exploration as much as it did studying. Often, I took my tutorial work outside my dorm and explored the different studying (and non-studying) environments Oxford offered. I had lectures I could attend if I wished, and I chose them based on my personal interest.
When I say slipped, I don’t mean that I sunk into a schedule that suited me with the grace and happiness of someone slipping into a luxurious bath. I slipped into an indulgent schedule in the same way one slips walking down the stairs.
It was clumsy, awkward and somewhat embarrassing. I had a perfect schedule dreamed up, full of constant studying and papers written days before their due date. I was going to attend several lectures daily, never mind that they were often located at the English Faculty Library, a stuffy building a 12 minute walk away from Lady Margaret Hall (albeit through a beautiful university garden). And that was the closest location.
I went to Lady Margaret Hall, located outside the official city center because of sexism. Literally. The college was the first to admit women, which meant the University of Oxford disallowed them from living in the city.
I didn’t live up to my imagined productivity. I found myself sleeping until noon and doing my best work from four in the afternoon to midnight.
Naturally, I turned to my therapist. I told her I felt guilty because I wasn’t being productive enough. I was getting sleep, I wasn’t working myself to the bone. One tutor’s reading list included secondary sources we could read if we were interested – the first time a tutorial’s weekly reading list gave us options. And I hadn’t forced myself to read all of them – just the ones I wanted!
My therapist helped me distinguish between the perceptions of success I’d internalized and what actually worked for me. Slowly, I found myself paying attention to myself.
What I began changing wasn’t what I did but how I narrated it. I made sure to give myself permission to sleep when I needed, to work and to enjoy Oxford.
I told myself over and over, nicely, that I could eat, that I could sleep. It felt funny at first, and definitely clunky, but it became comforting. Telling myself that I deserved things I had denied myself helped so much not only with developing healthy studying habits but also with the way I felt about myself.
My year at Oxford helped me challenge myself as a student to study not only for my major but also for myself and what harmful narratives I internalized.
Now, I’m back at Jewell, and I don’t have the luxury of an independent schedule.
To an extent I can choose how I spend my time, but it feels less freeing than Oxford, both because I have daily obligations and because the mindset and expectations are different.
At Oxford, I’d made it. Here, I still don’t feel like I’ve made it, even as a senior. I feel, in some ways, like I will never live up to the perfect student standard.
Good students here are hardworking, thoughtful, innovative, intelligent. They also don’t get more than five hours of sleep and balance other non-academic activities flawlessly with hours of homework, studying and paper-writing.
We read between the lines and understand that we either work constantly or don’t work at all, that we must either be hardworking or careless.
I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to feel guilty doing things that aren’t schoolwork. I don’t want to spend all my time re-reading my notes, compulsively examining my texts for tutorial every spare minute, terrified of forgetting a single detail.
I want to do enough, and I want to be enough. I want to enjoy studying, even though I know that will not always be realistic. I want to be in-tune with myself enough that even when doing required tasks, I can pay enough attention to myself to compete them healthily.
Oxford didn’t fix things for me, but it did set me up for beginning the process of examining and re-working harmful behaviors I had internalized. It is still a work in progress.
I still find myself sometimes slipping into bad habits. The important thing is that I continue forward and learn from my mistakes.
I still work hard on my coursework. But I also eat several meals a day, get more than six hours of sleep (on weekdays too!), and spend at least a little time each day deliberately on a non-academic hobby.
There is a space between hardworking and lazy, and, for me, it is the most productive and rewarding space for my academic growth.
Cover photo courtesy of socialsciencecollective.org.