Dear College Students,
Your college years are set in a political and social context far different from the one I experienced just a decade ago. Momentum was already building for Barack Obama’s candidacy by the time I matriculated, and during my sophomore year, I voted for him in my first election. I stayed up on election night to hear the results and then headed straight to the library to prepare for a 9 a.m. meteorology exam. Despite knowing that I had performed poorly on the test — non-social sciences were not my forté — I walked home smiling ear to ear because Barack Obama’s election symbolized that my own possibilities were limitless.
You are experiencing “the best years of your life” in the midst of a much more tumultuous time. While I left college optimistic about the direction of race relations in this country, the present is a scary and divisive time, regardless of your political disposition. News stories about deadly shootings, White nationalist rallies and threatening legislation fill your newsfeeds. Natural disasters and domestic terrorism replay on 24-hour coverage. For many of you, such catastrophes are not abstract and intangible. They have real repercussions for your physical, emotional and mental health.
College is romanticized as a time when you will have fun and have your ideas challenged. Despite campus efforts to raise awareness about mental health, for many, learning how to care for yourself and maintain balance are too often relegated to the backseat. The pressures of keeping up with schoolwork, employment and commitments to loved ones can be challenging and may be exacerbated during periods of turmoil like the one in which we are currently situated.
However, it is OK to feel overwhelmed. It is OK to need a break. It is OK to reach out for help.
I learned this lesson the hard way, soon after I finished college and was enrolled in a graduate program. My naïveté was shattered when Trayvon Martin’s killing hit the news. Shock led to anger. I thought in circles trying to reconcile the consequences of his Blackness and Obama’s Blackness with my own. Disillusionment with my idealistic worldview led to a consuming impulse toward activism.
Activism can be thrilling, gratifying and cathartic. It can be thoughtful, strategic and impactful. It can be exhausting, risky and dangerous. It can be all of those things at once. For me, unfortunately, my health suffered as a result. Only in hindsight can I recognize the moments when it would have been in my best interest to have told someone that I felt overwhelmed. I ought to have taken a break and reached out for help.
You represent a range of identities, hold a variety of perspectives and are inspired to action for a number of reasons. I am writing with the hope that reading this will remind you to be vigilant in your self-care, whatever your inclinations and motivations may be. You don’t have to be everything to everyone all the time. Your presence in college may very well be a powerful form of protest in and of itself, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t take a break.
In many cases, your eventual achievements in higher education may open up doors and grant you more influence on the issues that you care about. That doesn’t necessarily mean you must not act right now; your actions and voice are powerful and capable of bringing about positive change. However, be mindful of the potential costs of each choice you make in the present and how they might interact with your future goals. I know well that it can be easy to be swept away by the current moment; it is hard to see the horizon in the rain.
As is often said but cannot be emphasized enough, neither personal success nor societal progress are linear upward trajectories. Setbacks happen and they can be incredibly difficult to come to terms with. But vulnerability is what makes us human. Remember that self-care and struggle are not incompatible. In fact, self-care nourishes and enables you to persevere.
All the best,
Daniel Blake is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a research associate with the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.