Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
The first day of college is exhilarating, but simultaneously nerve-wracking. We’re stumbling along campus, ruminating over our intended majors, and desperately trying to recall the names of the people we met. Two years later, though, we can finally declare the very aspects of college that once seemed terrifying as merely mundane.
I have now spent two years in college — two years that have taught me how to confidently navigate campus, why a sociology and biology interdepartmental major is best for me, and exactly which campus locations ameliorate my homesickness. I now greet others with accustomed familiarity, and comfortably perceive the bustling tree-lined paths and historic edifices of Union College as my home. Beyond this customary transformation, I learned something even more important: how to flourish in college.
College offers a chance to prove ourselves, pursue our ideas, and undertake novel projects. But where do we begin? The answer: informational interviews.
Informational interviews entail participation in an informal conversation with people whose paths, positions, or careers are of interest to you. This is the best way to find out about tangible opportunities both on and off campus. Talk to those you admire who have taken paths you’re interested in, or are currently working in areas that appeal to you. Start early and stay open-minded — new paths you may not have previously encountered could catch your interest.
Begin with your college’s website, career center, and alumni network. As you interact with faculty and staff, mention your interests and ask if they could make introductions to any students who have navigated your field of interest. Conduct research online about career fields, organizations, and successful individuals. As you find people you’d like to contact, make a list. Utilize professional communication platforms like email and LinkedIn to ask each individual on your list, whether a CEO or a soon-to-graduate student, if they would be willing to meet up or video call for an informational interview. During the informational interview, ask questions like these:
- What opportunities or experiences in college did you find most rewarding and meaningful?
- How did you become interested in this field/begin your career?
- How relevant to your work is your undergraduate major and college experience?
- What kind of education, training, or background does your job require?
- What do you like most/least about your work?
- What current issues and trends in the field should I know about/be aware of?
- What related fields do you think I should consider looking into?
- What advice would you give to me? Which steps would you recommend?
Social anxiety and uncertainty prevent many of us from introducing ourselves to strangers. I get it — the appropriateness of an introduction can be hard to gauge in the ambiguous social situations that plague college culture.
Introduce yourself anyway.
Introductions are the basis of networking, both professionally and personally. The more people that know you, the larger your social network, and the more opportunities that will come your way. Remember: A professor who doesn’t remember your name can’t write you a recommendation letter, and a job recruiter who doesn’t recall your name won’t offer you a well-earned career.
Here’s how to introduce yourself in a way that no one will forget, as explicated by introduction expert Joanna Bloor:
- Go beyond your title, and think about what you want to be known for.
- Think about problems that only you can solve.
- Ask your friends and colleagues for input.
- Flash back to your childhood — a particular distinguishing skill from your childhood could apply to you currently.
- Show a little vulnerability.
- Gather some feedback on what makes your introduction most memorable.
- Ask for advice.
- Resist going back to the same old intro.
Sleep… a lot
The best way to maximize knowledge and memory: getting enough sleep. Research indicates that learning and recalling information require obtaining adequate sleep every night. An essential biological function, sleep also protects our mental health, quality of life, safety, and physical health.
Resist the urge to scrimp on sleep. It can be tempting to get less than the recommended eight hours in the unstoppable barrage of deadlines, exams, extracurricular activities, and college culture — but cutting back on sleep can have massive and irreversible ramifications on our health. Sleep deficiency in teenagers has been linked to lower grades, lack of motivation, increased stress, inability to pay attention, sadness or depression, mood swings, anger, and impulsiveness.
These easy steps, detailed by The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, can augment both the quality and quantity of sleep:
- Avoid substances that interfere with sleep (such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and other stimulants) for a minimum of four hours before going to bed.
- Remove distractions (i.e. computers, TVs, work materials, light, etc.) from the bedroom.
- Reduce stress by consistently performing a relaxing pre-sleep routine.
- If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, do something relaxing in dim light, and go back to bed when you feel tired.
- Avoid watching your clock (turn it away from you if necessary).
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule.
- Exercise (at a minimum) of three hours before bed, or earlier in the day.
- Nap before 5 p.m. for short amounts, or eliminate napping altogether.
- Eat dinner several hours before bedtime.
Defined as “kindness and understanding toward one’s self in response to pain or failure,” self-compassion boosts motivation, enhances feelings of self-worth, and promotes optimism, wisdom, curiosity, and personal initiative. Those with lower levels of self-compassion, a study found, procrastinate at higher rates and experience elevated levels of stress. Procrastination and debilitating stress can be deadly during the time crunch that characterizes college, but we have the power to boost our productivity and happiness by learning self-compassion.
Here are some ways, according to Harvard Health, to cultivate self-compassion:
- Indulge in activities that manage your physical health such as eating a healthy snack, walking outside, or resting.
- Nurture your feelings by writing a blame-free letter regarding a situation that hurt you.
- In difficult or stressful situations, tell yourself what you would tell a good friend in the same situation.
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