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Don’t Let College Just Happen to You

We all know that college goes by in the blink of an eye. We feel it when we look at the calendar and realize it’s a different month and that semester-long paper isn’t just a side-thought anymore. There is so much happening at once – parties, internships, papers, midterms, clubs, voting, lease dates, boyfriends and boy friends – that it is hard to feel like you are in control of anything, let alone your life. Though it may lessen at times, that fast-paced college experience isn’t going to change. Not that you would want it to slow down! All in (approximately) four years, you are mastering a subject(s), discovering who you are as a young adult, making lifelong friendships, challenging your beliefs, building your resume and GPA from scratch, developing relationships with mentors and reshaping your worldview over and over again. That’s a lot. Yes, it will feel like everything is happening at once, but there is a difference between going through the motions and actively participating in the experience. It is a tricky thing, keeping your head above water. The challenge is doing that and maintaining control over your attitudes and actions at the same time. Doing this looks a little different for everyone, but there are a few tips that have helped me work toward that state of living.

First and foremost, volunteering is great for grounding myself. In the chaos of college, taking a moment to focus on the needs of others reminds me what’s important. It is even better if I get to go off campus. It reminds me that there is a whole world out there, other than the same sidewalks and buildings I pass everyday. There are definitely psychological studies backing up the benefits of volunteer service on the volunteer, but I’m no expert in the science. All I know is that it works for me, every time. 

A simple trick that I am trying my hand at is keeping my space clean. Maybe this is more for the type-A’s, but having an organized room to return to at the end of the day keeps the space safe. And, it is not just about keeping the space clean. That is just the first step. I need to add my own personality to the room. I try not to underestimate the little things like opening my blinds, buying a plant or defibrillator or having photos set up of family, friends and (most importantly) pets.

There are a bunch of other tips and tricks that focus on these grounding, self-care practices [insert plug about #SelfCare week from a few weeks ago]. However, there is more, I think, to being an active, rather than passive, participant in the college experience. You can eat healthy, journal and workout, but those things are short-term maintenance of your mental health. Long-term growth is another area on which we can focus to take control of our experience.

Part of long-term growth, I think, is the extracurriculars I join. My theory is that my growth has a lot to do with the environments in which I place myself. For example, when I wanted to work on my social life, I rushed a sorority. When I wanted to learn about social justice from people with different worldviews than my own, I joined a committee on the Campus Y. When I wanted to continue working with kids, I joined HYPE as a tutor. When I wanted to learn more about my perspective as a woman, I signed up as a writer for this wonderful site. Of course, I failed a lot during this. Rush was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting, and I didn’t always show off my best because of it. I had a hard time getting on a committee for the Y. There have been days when I didn’t make time for the kids I tutor. Some of my articles are definitely not my best work. But, if I reframe “failing” as “growing with an ‘oops,’” all this becomes a lot more productive in my head. In the end, purposeful engagement, which is what I had planned when getting involved in these activities and what I struggle and strive to keep up with, is a powerful tool in your toolbox for growth and control. 

Finally, I think the last tip I have, for now, is to maintain an honest dialogue with yourself. I need to check in on myself to see if I am just letting college and life happen to me, or if I am taking it by the reins and doing something with it. In addition, I think it is a mistake to believe we are the only ones swamped with college life. Remember that others are going through similar processes, just in a different way. We don’t all go through the same experiences, but we do go through the same emotions. And, at the end of the day, you cannot always control what happens in your life – no one can. What we can control is how we react to it. Don’t let college just happen to you. Take control; use it for something. Happen to it. And don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way.


Katie Jackson

Chapel Hill '23

Katie is an undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill. She is part of the Campus Y Outreach Taskforce and HYPE Tutoring. Interested in sustainability, economics, and global culture and policy, Katie plans to study business, public policy, and environmental sciences. Katie loves her kitten named Hiccup (yes, from How to Train Your Dragon), her two dogs, her other kitten (even though it is technically her sister's) and her cat.
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