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The Bearcat Minimum: Your student burnout won’t fix itself

Sean Olson

Contributing Writer

Graphic by Isis Coyle

Drinking a couple of shots of espresso in the Bistro. Staying up late hours. Taking a day off of class. Feeling a lack of motivation. All of these traits highlight the presence of the intangible behemoth of student burnout hitting hard on Willamette’s campus.

Burnouts are weird. They’re individualized and complicated, but yet emotionally relatable. The commonality of burnouts among the student body is that they are caused by the overwhelming accumulation of stress, responsibilities and commitment leading to emotional fatigue, a loss in motivation and negative emotional health.

The root of student burnout on campus lies in the “Willamette culture” of activism, involvement and opportunity-taking. Our culture is derived directly from the university mission statement, “To turn knowledge into action and lead lives of achievement, contribution, and meaning.” While burnout takes form in underclass students as trial-and-error and overloading themselves with clubs and activities, upperclass students continue to burn out by engaging in leadership opportunities and committing to specialized fields of studies in seminars, capstones and thesis. Regardless, the common ground among all is that students overload their plates.

“When I was a younger student on campus,” said Oakley Phoenix, the president of ASWU, “I needed to have three jobs to be able to afford to go to Willamette.” Without adequate family financial support, working to pay tuition and other costs was not a choice. In addition, Phoenix passionately engages in theater, advocacy for trans people of color, BIPOC advocacy, and in other clubs throughout campus. “Because I had all these jobs, I had all these classes, I wanted to have a couple of clubs that I could just go have a good time. But all of that adds up to having a really, really full calendar!” they said. “Most folks that are overcommitted aren't doing it because they want to.”

Lisa Holiday, the director of student engagement and leadership, has worked with student leaders dealing with burnouts. Her solution is to clearly outline priorities and limit commitments to an extent that is mentally and physically feasible. “You might care about a lot of things,” she said, but “there's only so many hours in the day.” Additionally, she pointed out that having a packed schedule fails to incorporate unexpected events or emergencies, which can be as simple as meeting with a friend and chatting for an hour.

According to Sue Corner, dean of admissions, economic problems caused by the pandemic have been another stressor adding to the burnout Corner has found a trend amongst the new admitted students. A vast amount of students' applications highlighted how exhausted and overwhelmed they were by lectures over a device and the limitations to learning it imposed. “The hierarchy of needs gets all shuffled around when there's this kind of economic crisis,” she said. Students now physically returning to Willamette are challenged to once again adapt their online routine they’ve developed over the two and a half years of the pandemic.

Don Thomson, the dean for health and well-being, tackles the misconception that student overwhelm is a mere ‘time management problem’ or lack of organization: “They think you have a time management problem; like, no, you have a time problem.” Students commit to various activities which conflict in time, or physically are not possible within 24 hours a day.

“Reflect on how many titles are in your Google signature right now,” Thomson teased: “Right, and [other students] all kind of [give] the look that you just gave me.” The titles we display exemplify the way we want to be presented—with our proudest achievements. However, this student philosophy is what Thomson argues causes students to publicly present a facade of normality, when internally we all relate to being burned out, lonely and other negative emotions.

When having a part-time job on campus, being an athlete, taking a leadership role and having to cope with their hours of academic assignments, students first sacrifice sleep. Lack of sleep negatively affects awareness, mental health and emotional state while also deteriorating your performance in the other commitments you sacrificed your sleep for in the first place. When cutting sleep becomes routine, it creates an endless negative spiral. Constant underperformance drains more time and energy than it did initially, causing students to sacrifice more sleep.

“I think one of the generalities that is mostly true is that Willamette students have a hard time with self-care,” stated Thomson. From eating to exercise, getting good rest to doing fun things, self-care is a necessity to maintain physical and emotional balance. Thomson highlighted that the underlying issue is that students place their self-care secondary to other commitments. “The question then becomes, what keeps you from doing those things? Like what are the barriers to actively prioritizing some self-care, like what gets in the way?” he said. The solution to preventing mental burnout is for students to be cognizant of their often intuitive self-care when outlining priorities.

Willamette presents numerous free services available on campus to receive counseling, care and advice. For example, the recently added UWill is a telehealth service available for students seeking immediate or scheduled mental health support. It is a resource available all year, including holidays and seasonal breaks, and done through texting, video-calling or phone calling. Additionally, counselors can be adjusted based upon preferences including issue, gender, language or ethnicity.

For students who have concerns related to Willamette life, the Bishop Wellness Center—available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays—is another alternative. “If there are academic concerns or things related to your campus life, sometimes students choose to interact with a physical Willamette counselor,” Thomson said. Hidden amongst the depths of Bishop center is the Mind Spa. It includes a leather, multi-setting massage chair and a full spectrum light to brighten you up on a cloudy, rainy Oregonday!

Passion-driven bearcats, there are only 24 hours a day. With COVID protocols fading away, burnouts are slapping harder than ever. However, whether a trusted friend or the Bishop center, having support is always a big plus. Burnouts can feel lonely and daunting, but many students are on the same boat. It's important to take care of yourself in the culture of overcommitment and overachievement.

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