Iíve spent most of my life in and around academia, both as a student and as a teacher, and I can say from either role that being in school is a very specific current to get caught up in. Itís rewarding to expand your knowledge and abilities, but attending college or university can be fast paced and overwhelming. In trying to attend the required courses, your schedule will change frequently, day to day. And though the weekly schedule might be the same, the entire roster will likely change in 10 or 15 weeks when the term is over.
Along with the haphazard schedule, instructors donít often communicate with each other when designing the workload of their courses. Inevitably, all your deadlines will fall on the same week, forcing you to study for the exam, finish a project, and revise the final draft of your essay, all at once. This leaves little time for a healthy lifestyle.
Whether youíre currently in school, a prospective student, or someone who knows and cares about a student, itís important to have a plan to deal with the challenges of higher education. Here are three major areas of university life that deserve careful attention to navigate successfully: nutrition, living arrangements, and sleep.
Watch What You Eat
You probably know, eating healthy foods can help fuel your mind. But when your schedule is crazy, itís easy to reach for whateverís convenient. Often that means burgers, pizza, and other fast food. While these options may be cheap and readily available, they arenít great for your body, and they can have a negative impact on your ability to focus and retain information.
The first step to eating healthy as a student is to be mindful of your meals and snacking. Itís easy to sit down with a bag of chips or a huge bowl of popcorn while youíre studying or watching your favorite television shows. Without thinking, hours pass, and youíve mindlessly binged the entire time. Because you werenít paying attention to what you were eating, you may still feel like you need more food. Instead, take a break from your work and focus on what youíre eating. Not only will this help you avoid overeating, but youíll enjoy your food more.
Along with overeating, the opposite can also be true. Itís important not to go too long without eating. It can sometimes seem impossible to find time to eat, especially on busy days when you have classes back to back. Unfortunately, skipping meals can fog your mind as well as lead to nutrient deficiencies and blood sugar imbalances that could have serious consequences. On your busiest days, rather than going long stretches of time without food, prepare one or more of these easy snacks:
String cheese and an apple
Dried fruits and nuts
Yogurt with fruit or granola
Banana and peanut butter
Peanut butter and crackers
Hummus with pita wedges or baby carrots
Bagel with cream cheese
These wonít satisfy all of your dietary needs, but itís important to maintain some kind of nutrition throughout the day. Personally, as a student and later as a teacher, I would always carry a jar of peanut butter and a spoon in my bag in case of food emergencies.
You may be familiar with general nutritional guidelines, but hereís a quick recap for achieving a balanced diet. In general, you should aim to limit the amount of fatty, fried foods you take in, as well as foods with added sugar. Instead, try to get some of each of the following every day:
Whole grains from pasta, cereal, and bread
Fruits and vegetables
Protein from meats, eggs, beans, or soy
Dairy like yogurt, cheese, and milk
Healthy fats from avocados, nuts, and fish
Adjust to Dorm Life
Most university students are required or choose to live in a dormitory, at least during their first year. This can be a great opportunity to meet new people, take part in the community, and cut out your commute by living on campus. Unfortunately, dorm life also creates the potential for new problems.
The most obvious issues that might come up stem from the fact that youíre likely sharing a lot of spaces that might have been private before, including the bathroom and your bedroom. Living in close quarters with so many strangers can be a major shock, especially if youíre nervous or shy. But consider that everyone in your dorm is probably also a little nervous, and it will take some time to adjust.
Hopefully you get along with your roommate from the outset, but itís a good idea to also discuss potential boundaries. Do you plan on sharing space in a mini-fridge? Will you be sharing some or all of your regular food items? Will you be sharing dishes? How do you feel about inviting guests over? These can be small things, but establishing clear expectations with your roommate early on can help avoid misunderstandings, frustrations, and hurt feelings later.
Aside from initiating new interpersonal situations, there are also a number of storage and organizational problems in dorms. This is because dorm rooms, in most cases, are much smaller than your normal living space. This means youíll need to get creative with where you store things and how you make the space functional for you and your roommate.
One option to free up floor space is to loft your bed and put other furniture like your desk and dresser beneath it. Once youíre up there, it may seem intimidating, but you can request a railing for your bed to ensure you donít roll off. You can also buy a shelf that attaches to your bed frame and would allow you to hold things like a glass of water, your phone, or a book. You can even add clip-on lamps and fans to make you more comfortable in bed.
If you even have a closet, space inside will probably also be minimal. If you have too many clothes, you may need to downsize your wardrobe to fit everything in your closet. Beyond that, try investing in space-saving hangers that allow you to hang multiple items of clothing on a single hanger. If you prefer folding and stacking your clothes, hanging shelves are a great way to utilize the vertical space in a closet.
Itís also worth addressing a few issues that might come up with shared bathrooms. You may be sharing a bathroom with one to three people, or your entire floor might share one communal bathroom. Separated toilet and shower stalls provide a basic level of privacy, but you may want to invest in a bathrobe and a set of towels of different sizes.
Because you wonít be able to leave your soap, shampoo, loofa, and other shower devices in a shared bathroom, youíll also need a shower caddy to carry the essentials back and forth. If you use devices like a hairdryer or straightening iron, you may also need a style station to carry those more easily. Also, wear flip-flops. Showering barefoot is a luxury you canít afford when 30 people all use the same shower. Athleteís foot is real, and the best way to protect yourself against it is to invest in a basic pair of rubber flip-flops for the shower.
Get Some Sleep
There are many reasons you might not get the best sleep while in school. Your roommate or other people in your dorm might make a lot of noise, keeping you awake. You might be stressed about classes, social relationships, or other personal matters. You might choose to stay up all night studying or working on a paper. Or the technologies you rely on for communication, coursework, and entertainment might be suppressing your brainís instinct to fall asleep.
Whatever the circumstances are, be aware that sleep deprivation can cause a number of effects that can hurt your ability to be successful in school as well as your personal life. In the short term, you may experience trouble remembering names and facts. Youíll also likely have problems processing information, following a conversation, or solving problems. This means staying up all night to study for the big exam tomorrow might not be such a good idea.
Also, when you donít get enough sleep, you arenít as alert, which means you may have a greater chance of injury when driving, walking down stairs, or any other activity that requires quick reactions. If you suffer from sleep deprivation over a long period of time, you may be at a higher risk for a heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, and depression, among other conditions. So, even if it seems like you can function well enough on too little sleep at the moment, know that this could have serious consequences later.
Of course, you donít want to spend all your time in bed either. Oversleeping creates its own set of problems. But you shouldnít neglect your need for adequate sleep. If people are keeping you awake, talk to them about it or discuss the issue with your dormís resident assistant as they may be able to take care of the situation or come up with another solution.
As a culture, weíre encouraged to remain constantly plugged into our phones and computers for social media, entertainment, and coursework. Unfortunately, the light emitted by these devices restrains your brainís ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep cycle. This makes it much harder to fall asleep. To combat this effect, try to avoid using any screen devices at least 30 minutes before bed. Because notifications and late-night texts can also pull you out of a restful sleep, itís also a good idea to turn off your phone at night.
If youíre having difficulty sleeping because of anxiety, depression, stress, or general restlessness, it may be a good idea to speak with a professional about possible treatments. You might choose to reach out to a counselor, doctor, or your resident assistant. Your school may also have specific resources to help you. While sleep issues may not be the root cause of these conditions, getting a good nightís rest can make a huge difference in feeling better overall and doing well in your classes.
Despite the challenges above, attending college or university can be one of the most fun and fulfilling times in your life. By acknowledging the potential difficulties, creating a plan, and seeking help when you need it, you can maintain a basic level of physical and mental health. This will allow you to focus on what is important ó learning ó and youíll stand a much better chance of having a positive, successful experience.