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Campus Life 200: Surviving School

Photo by Steven Schnur

On our own for the first time, we students quickly discover that the increasing pull of multiple gravities in every direction, from Greek life to weeknight social events, from prayer groups to extra­curricular clubs, not to mention classes, exams, and papers, can quickly cause us to lose balance. We may find ourselves confronted with assignments for which we’re underprepared, strained personal relationships that end in bitter text messages, and a sense that terra firma has suddenly turned to quicksand. How can we cope?

The work-hard, play-hard ethos comes to mind. When exams fall during a week of essential parties (they always do), we head to the library with a venti-sized Starbucks, a six-pack of Red Bull, and/or over-the-counter stimulants, stuffing our brains for the academic test so we can pass the social one that follows.

Our behavior recalls that of our ancestor Esau. The prototype for brainless brawn, he returns home famished and convinced he may starve after an exhausting, unsuccessful hunt. His younger brother Jacob, the clever homebody, has spent the day concocting red lentil stew. The atmosphere is thick with mouth-watering aromas when Esau arrives and begs Jacob for a portion. Jacob savors the moment: possibly

it’s the first time he has power over his muscle-bound brother. At last he offers Esau a meal in exchange for Esau’s birthright, the special privileges accorded to the first-born son. Esau agrees, reasoning that his inheritance is useless if he starves to death.

Esau: what will you do the next time the hunt yields no game?

The work-hard, play-hard method of surviving school is the modern equivalent of selling our birthright, and as a college alumna and former member of the work-hard, play-hard school, I will testify: the method doesn’t work. Our birth­right is the maintenance of our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Overtaxing the mind and body in an exam crunch and then rewarding oneself by excessive partying only leads to burnout.

How, then, can you succeed academically and have a life?

My advice to you is this: Stop neglecting yourself. Don’t saturate your schedule with excessive classes and activities, drowning out time for tranquility and recuperation. Make time for you.

“You time” can be as simple as blocking off a few hours several days a week to read books not prescribed by a syllabus, watch movies, write, or even take a nap. It might also mean a trip to the weight room, a pick-up basketball game, or browsing the local shops. It can be spontaneous, like a block in your schedule with a question mark—you’ll see how the mood strikes you.

During my NYU years the most valuable time I carved out for my­self was dedicated to tzedakah. That might sound paradoxical—Isn’t volunteering a sacrifice when I could be with my friends?—but stepping outside my life to focus on someone else’s needs was restorative. Every Monday afternoon, I volunteered at the nearby Hebrew Union College soup kitchen. While checking coats and luggage, I chatted with Anthony about his powerful poetry, with Elma about her struggles with city housing, and with Larry about “our Vegas wedding.” After three hours I felt recharged.

This semester, don’t sell your birth­right. Reward your hard work not just with a party, but with peace of mind.

—Juliana Schnur, NYU grad; a RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant


Union for Reform Judaism.