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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

As a young professional, I am still unlearning Middlebury’s culture of overwork

<a href="" rel="attachment wp-att-55477"></a> <span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">Sarah Fagan</a></span>

One phrase I said a lot as a Middlebury student, in response to questions about my wellbeing: “This week is pretty rough.”

Usually, I said this in passing, walking down College Street or waiting by the Proc panini machines. Often, I would throw in a self-deprecating joke or an eye roll. You know how it goes.

It’s no secret that the academic culture at Middlebury rewards overwork. It seems expected for students to take on as much as they can — plus a little more than that. From coursework to jobs to clubs and sports, free moments are few and far between.

So often, it feels like the focus is just getting through. Get through the week so you can blow off some steam this weekend. Get through midterms so you can relax over Spring Break. Get through this semester with that one class that’s really putting you through it. Get through your four years of college and be sure you are doing something every single second because the price tag is high and if you’re relaxing, then you’re missing something. It’s only four years, after all. You can cram a little bit more into your schedule, can’t you?

What we don’t talk about enough is how the cultural norms of stress and a too-heavy workload will follow you right into your professional life, if you let them. Because college may just be four years, but the habit of doing too much and accepting poor work-life balance has stuck around, at least for me. And it’s gotten much harder to take now that I have to admit there is no end in sight unless I make some changes for myself.

Middlebury, like many of its peer institutions, does not teach healthy boundaries between work and personal time. After spending an upside-down pandemic year in the workforce since graduation, I have realized that if I don’t learn how to create those boundaries, I am going to spend a lot of time being miserable. And I don’t want to live my entire life just waiting for the next break from work.

I work in an (at-home for now) office job as a journalist in Austin, Texas, and the news industry is not renowned for work life boundaries even in the best of times. I know my work experience is different from many of my fellow grads, but learning how to navigate whatever workspace you are in is a big part of post-college life.

Naming this problem is not in and of itself a solution. As one of my favorite pandemic think pieces recently put it, “You can’t heal a sick culture with personal bandages.”

And to be honest, I am not sure I would do my Middlebury experience all that differently, if I could go back and pack my schedule again. I wish there had been more quiet space in between the noise, but I also loved the organizations I was a part of and the classes I took. This might be the graduation goggles talking, but I have a hard time imagining what I would have wanted to forgo in order to have more free time.

However, it is also clear to me that if Middlebury claims to want to teach us the life skills we need to succeed in whatever we do next, the skill of work-life balancing is sorely missing from that list. Without it, the risk of burnout and suffering mental health abound.

I wish I could offer better advice for soon-to-be graduates about how to tackle this problem, but I am still learning myself. It can be a challenge for me to set boundaries at work, to say no when I can’t take on any more projects and to ask for the help I need.

What I will say is this: When you transition to life after Middlebury, remember that you are allowed to take time for things you enjoy. Pick up a novel. Plant a vegetable garden. Hit the craft store. Learn to cook that thing your mom used to make.

Nobody is going to make you take that time for yourself, but do not let anxiety and imposter syndrome get in the way. If living over a year in a pandemic has reminded us of anything, it’s that life is too short to wait for some undefined future before you make time for the small passions that bring you joy.

Sarah Asch is a member of the class of 2019.5.