OPINION: The ‘tired college student’ trope is toxic

Before students even graduate high school, we are told how exhausting college will be. We are told about the rigorous workload, long hours, lack of sleep, extracurriculars and the inevitable burnout we will face. But this tired college student trope can affect students mentally, emotionally and physically. 

College students are worn out and it’s not their fault. What does one expect when there are a never-ending plethora of assignments coming at us week after week? In the middle of a pandemic, the outside world is closed off, leaving us to stare at a little screen in our hands to find any source of enjoyment.  

DePaul students are feeling the emotional, mental and physical effects of overworking. What we have normalized as typical behaviors for college students are actually key indicators of burnout.

Some signs of burnout, according to research by Florida National University, could include a lack of ideas, extreme exhaustion, decreased productivity, insomnia, headaches and a feeling of boredom.

“Student burnout can occur when a prolonged period of stress causes a state of emotional and physical exhaustion,” said Shannon Suffoletto, head of counseling and wellness services at DePaul.

This exhaustion may make “students more anxious, unmotivated, experience high levels of fatigue and/or even physical illness [or] symptoms,” she added. 

Apart from a demanding class schedule, students are dealing with a pandemic, social factors, jobs and other personal dimensions, causing mental overload.

“Stress levels are higher right now,” said Deborah Coleman Givens, a DePaul nursing professor. “A lot is going on within the world, period.”

Though we are living in a time of high tension, Givens also said when it comes to students assignments, “the workload hasn’t changed, so the demand is higher.” 

Universities are asking a lot out of students that are dealing with an abnormal time within their own lives and in the world in general. We are taught hard work pays off, but to what extent do we sacrifice our well-being to fulfill this goal?

Anna Starobinets, a DePaul junior, is all too familiar with this feeling.

“I feel like I just have nothing left in me,” Starobinets said — a sentiment that could resonate with far too many college students.

A typically driven student, Starobinets finds balancing her schoolwork, nannying job, social life and personal well-being too difficult to stay motivated.

Like many students, Starboniets will spend about 40 hours on schoolwork alone, not including her other responsibilities. There is little time to decompress with such a pressing schedule; she even feels guilty doing so.

The tired college student trope is familiar to university staff and faculty, yet many students feel hopeless in finding any type of relief.

“We have lives,” Starboniets said. “I don’t think [the] administration even thinks about us.”

There is a clear need for change when it comes to meeting the mental needs of students, starting with an understanding and sympathetic administration that was once in our shoes.

There is a very traditional way of thinking that exhaustion is temporary. In order to shape our future, we must sacrifice particular aspects of our lives to achieve success. But when overworking starts to mentally wear on students so much, we may find ourselves unable to reach that end goal we all so desperately hope for. What was the point of it all?

This year, multiple universities, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have implemented “mental health days” in place of their spring break due to Covid-19 safety protocols. These three instruction-free days per term should be implemented for all universities.  

Allowing students to have a set of days within a quarter or semester to catch up on their mental health could provide multiple health benefits and another alternative to help students facing burnout.

Both Givens and Suffoletto suggest setting limits on school work and spending time doing activities you enjoy. Spreading yourself too thin can cause future harm and creating a healthy balance of priorities will have the greatest benefits. 

Talking to a trusted professional can always help. At the university, Suffoletto encourages visiting DePaul’s University Counseling Services or the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness who offer resources and well-being strategies. 

College is tough, but it does not have to be unbearable. We should be able to achieve academic goals while maintaining our mental, physical and emotional wellness. We must start prioritizing the health of college students and listening to their needs for them to shape their futures mentally intact.