Let’s talk about the narrative of “resilience” that is spoken of as the prized possession that happens when first-gen/low income students are put through elite institutions.
I went to a dinner the other day that my university was hosting, and it invited FLI students, faculty and staff to sit and eat together while talking about our common identity. As we were leaving, I mentioned that in the beginning of my college years, I didn’t go to office hours because I didn’t know the etiquette behind them, so it would trigger my anxiety. Now, three years in, I don’t go because I don’t have the time: a reality of taking 6 classes and working three jobs. As I bitterly mentioned this, a staff member very high in the college hierarchy exclaimed, “Good for you! That’s great!”
I couldn’t find it in myself to feel the same. I am perpetually exhausted, physically and mentally. If there was ever a light in my eyes, it has been extinguished. Burn-out is so common among college students, but there are disproportionate impacts on first-gen/low income students. It takes me longer to do homework for classes because I don’t have the same foundations as my more prepared peers, and I have less time to rest because of all of the jobs I’m juggling. If I’m not in class or working, I’m doing homework. With my current schedule, the only time that I have free and to myself is Saturday evening, coming off an 8 hour shift in a busy, fast-paced restaurant only to repeat it the next day. Once I get off, the only thing I want to do is consume my weight in food and go to sleep. I don’t have weekends, I don’t have free time, and I am starved of creativity and meaningful human interaction. Are these supposed to be the best years of my life?
That narrative is toxic for two reasons: 1) classism and 2) because it builds a narrative that we can’t have fun after college. Our life doesn’t end–we just have to prioritize ourselves. The 9-5 schedule sucks the life out of you, and as first-gen/low income students, we need to start building mechanisms to keep ourselves full of happiness. It needs to start in college because this is where boundaries are most contentious. Living in the same place where you work (be it in jobs or school) is can blur the lines of how much you should commit your time. I don’t have an easy solution, as I myself am struggling (and failing) at prioritizing myself.
So do what you can–write in journals as often as possible so you can reflect. Make your living space as cozy, comfortable, and restorative as possible. This is what has helped me the most: I find peace in my soft lighting and warm blankets. Eat food that feeds you physically and keeps you sated. Create!
This belief that building resilience is only going to help us in the long run needs to be discarded. Because in the end, we know that working hard doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the connections. Working hard doesn’t matter if it’s taking away from who you are as a person and exacerbates mental illnesses. What is the cost of resilience? If your spirit breaks achieving it, then it is much too high. We can’t forget that we’re people. We grew up financially insecure and we strive for these high-paying jobs, but let’s not forget that the greatest liberation is happiness. Yes, financial stability, but evaluate the costs. The true distinction between surviving and thriving is happiness. It’s creation. It’s being able to take a step back and breathe.
Make sure you can always breathe.