Students should balance multiple commitments, mental health, experts say


Photo credit: Anna Dobrowolski

Starlight Williams

Up at 7:30 a.m., Kate O’Leary is already on the run and getting herself ready for the day as she grabs a quick bite to eat before her first class at 9:30 a.m. From there, she slogs through four back-to-back classes before going to work study in the biology department.

With time running against her, O’Leary, biological sciences senior, uses every second to make her day count, and she’s not alone.

The increased demand on millennials to be more than just students and to stand out as graduate school or employee prospects forces them to juggle multiple commitments that could include: being a leader in the community, being involved in extracurricular activities, working one or more full- or part-time jobs, athletics, children and a loaded class schedule.

This does not include balancing mental and physical health and a social life.

Halfway through her day, O’Leary takes an hour break after work study to do cross fit at a local gym before running back to campus to do homework for an online class through a different school. She doesn’t take the class for Loyola credit, but to increase her science GPA so she may stand out in the applicant pool for medical or physician assistant schools.

O’Leary grabs dinner and is off to her next meeting, whether it be for her sorority Delta Gamma, Iggy Vols or LUCAP. After her meetings, she bunkers down in her room as a resident assistant in case one of her residents need her. While being on call, O’Leary works on homework and projects into the wee hours of the morning. When her day is finally done around 2 a.m., she cranks out an average of five hours of sleep before starting the clock over with a new day.

“I don’t sleep much. I completely understand when people say, ‘If I don’t get eight hours of sleep, I’m a mess,’ but that is simply not the case for me,” O’Leary said. “Even though I don’t get much sleep, it’s my fourth year here and I’ve never failed a class. I have a pretty decent GPA, I have an active social life and I’m happy. So five hours of sleep would really not be uncommon for me.”

All this action is only a Monday for O’Leary.

She fills the other 518,400 seconds of her week as a tour guide for Loyola’s Office of Admissions, a research assistant in Ochsner’s neurosurgery lab and cancer center, a teacher’s assistant in the environmental sciences department, a volunteer at Habitat for Humanity and as a student in her chemistry and biology labs.

Students like O’Leary may seem superhuman, but Jeanne Stanley, executive director of Grad School Coaching, said these are the people for whom graduate schools are looking.

“In grad schools, they want to see that you can juggle multiple things,” Stanley said. “They want to see a student that can do it all.”

Laura Garbers, career and business coach, agrees with Stanley and said that when hiring, managers are looking for students who were highly involved.

“There is no excess involvement in college and career, as long as students are able to balance the work involved,” Garbers said. “It’s important for students to demonstrate at least 40 hours per week of activity during college. In other words, if classes and studying takes 20-25 hours per week, then the extra 15-20 hours per week of potential work energy should be invested in something.”

According to Stanley, the reason why students need to achieve more than previous generations is because graduate school is much more competitive than it was in the Generation Y and baby boomer eras.

“There has been an increase in the amount of students applying for graduate programs, but there hasn’t been a correlation increase of open spots,” Stanley said. “Students do and have to do more in order to hopefully stand out in the applicant pool.”

However, according to Kate Yurgil, assistant professor of psychology at Loyola, taking on too many responsibilities could have serious consequences, both pragmatically and psychologically.

“In a pragmatic sense, our ability to accomplish multiple goals at once depends on having sufficient time, resources and on our own individual capabilities,” Yurgil said. “Underestimating these factors can lead to significant declines in performance on one or more tasks. As a result, the pressure we feel to maintain or improve our performance may increase feelings of anxiety, and increased anxiety can have a negative impact on attention, decision-making and other aspects of behavior.”

This is why, according to Kathryn McKinnon, time management expert and author of “Triple Your Time Today: 10 Proven Time Management Strategies to Create & Save More Time!”, being able to manage one’s time proficiently is essential to being successful.

“Effective time management isn’t just about getting things done. It’s not about staying busy. It’s about living the best possible version of you. It’s about doing things that you’re passionate about, that excite you, that make you feel alive. It’s about setting aside time to refresh your mind, body and spirit,” McKinnon told The Maroon.

Yurgil warns that if a person doesn’t manage their time well or forces a full work schedule, they may be at risk of burning out.

Yurgil said one of the hallmarks of burnout is physical and emotional exhaustion, diminished concentration, mood swings, social withdrawal, apathy and unusually
poor performance.

“If you recognize these signs in yourself or a friend, it is helpful to evaluate your habits, priorities and environment,” Yurgil said. “Make time for friends and family, as social support is one of the most important predictors of resilience. It is important to take time for yourself to rest, recover and replenish
those resources.”

According to Garbers and Stanley, hiring managers and graduate schools don’t look to see if their new employee or student is on the verge of burnout, which is why one must be very aware of what he or she is capable of doing.

“Maintaining a full schedule is great; however, be careful what you fill it with,” Garbers said. “It’s simply a matter of balance and what is the most important and healthy way for you personally to fill your week.”

Stanley recommends students not compare themselves to other people and take a year off to self-evaluate and avoid burning out.

“I always advise my clients to take a year off and get a few life experiences. Not only does it give you time to recuperate, but it also looks good when applying to graduate school,” Stanley said.

McKinnon said while ambition is something to be applauded, it does not mean much if students do not use their time wisely or let it drive them productively.

“Remember, we all have the same 24 hours in a day or 168 hours in a week; however, many of us live like we have all the time in the world to get things done and never accomplish anything, or we live like there’s never enough time to get it all done and we become overwhelmed,” McKinnon said. “Learning how to get the most from your time is one of the fastest ways you can become more productive and begin to create balance in your work and your life so you can have the freedom to live the life you want.”

According to O’Leary, getting the most from her time is exactly what she is doing.

“I’m not the type of person who keeps adding stuff then realizes that I’m way over my head. I know what I’m getting myself into because I plan accordingly. As long as I can get four to five hours of sleep at night, I know I can do it. I would stop if I wasn’t happy,” O’Leary said. “I think it is super important that I am able to take a step back and say I love everything I do. I think being an ambassador is awesome. I love biology. I love Latin American studies and chemistry, which are my minors. I love Iggy Vols and what it stands for. I love being the project manager for Habitat for Humanity. I love being able to help in a classroom and teach students. I guess that is why I am able to do it all, because I truly am happy with that I do.”