AKA: A Case Study in Mental Health and Traditional Post-Secondary Education
I have been officially enrolled in university for 12 non-consecutive semesters. I spent two years, four semesters, as a private liberal arts college where I went through 4 different majors. I then transferred to a local “community college” where I did four more semesters piecing my way through 3 more majors. I’m now attending university online pursuing the major I’ve always dreamed. My path getting to this point has been a seemingly unending sequence of ups and downs, but I think I’m getting it figured out.
This post is really long and rambling so… CLICK HERE if you’d like to skip down to the Take Away/Conclusion.
The first 2 years
My time at a small liberal arts college was an interesting and difficult one. I took 18 hours each semester, the max the university allowed and truly felt like I was in the right place. At the end of my first semester, however, I lost my father, my rock, my entire support system. This traumatic event was the catalyst of a downward spiral for my mental health. I definitely didn’t realize it was a spiral at the time, especially because most of my friends really loved the “fun” person I became. I, of course, now see those people weren’t my friends if they were only there when I was “fun,” but I digress. The second year of university, I fell face first into advocacy for any and every cause available. I wish I’d traded one coping technique for another, but I kept both the party phase and the advocacy and entirely lost myself. That summer I left my fancy liberal arts college to move in with my boyfriend and essentially sulked then partied then sulked again for a few months.
The next 2 years
After that summer, I chose to not attend the very good school I’d gotten into and, instead, come back to Louisiana to live with my mom and get my shit together. Getting into the new school and away from the negative influences I’d found at the first college and with my boyfriend really helped. Not living on campus, I only put time into things I truly was interested in. It was the time I was able to figure out how to cope with my anxiety in a generally healthy way. I found safe-zones that weren’t people and I figured out exactly how far I could push myself without having a meltdown. I was able to take the time to figure out not just what advocacy movements were important to me but also which ones I could focus on and truly help with. I joined a group and eventually became president of that group studying nonprofit administration and got to spend my time learning so much about charity work and what it really takes to make a difference! That January, I went away to a conference and met the man who is now my husband. The second year at this school I kept pushing myself and falling into old habits of getting over involved. I started working a real job, took on another role in a local nonprofit that took up much more than the 10 hours/week I was paid for, stayed full time in school, and somewhere in there I got married, despite not really cultivating the relationship… Thanks for sticking around, K.
Okay, I didn’t exactly fail out, as in get kicked out. But I did make stupid decisions due to absolute overwhelm. Everything started to suffer. I changed my major from social work to mass communication (a step in the right direction but still the wrong major for me). I let my dedication to the Nonprofit Organizations I supported falter and started to hide away in my apartment with my husband, cat, and TV. At this point I was still surviving school, despite the crushing feeling I had on my chest thinking about writing another news article or doing that for a living. Then one night I was scrolling through facebook and saw a friend talking about her time in the Disney College Program. I off handedly said, “Man, I wish I’d done that when I had the chance.” K, being the lovely supportive person he is told me to give it a try. I did, thinking I wouldn’t get in. I did. I’d found a new dream to cling to and stopped going to classes. I effectively dropped out without giving the school any notice… Bad decision. When I got home from my magical experience, I didn’t go back to school immediately. I knew I didn’t want to be a journalist, or a social worker, or a french teacher, or a translator, or any of the other majors I’d tried before. So I just stayed out. All I wanted to do was be a writer and save the world, neither of which I needed a degree for.
Fun fact… the universe gives you signs and hints, if you’ll just listen. I knew I didn’t need a degree to be a writer, but I do need a degree to serve in the Peace Corps (my #1 dream since 2010!!!). So I looked around. I’d always been taught that online schools were scams and not “real” college, but commercials bombarded me. Not just facebook ads but actual commercials on the TV hitting me in the face with “GET YOUR CREATIVE WRITING DEGREE ONLINE NOW!” Meh… I’ll just google it. Laugh at how many people fall for the scam… How can you even learn things without going to a class or having a teacher… K’s reply, “Just do it.” So here I am, getting my degree online and I am so grateful for it.
Online Degree + Mental Health
I haven’t really explained my mental health here, yet. I’m a severely anxious person with extreme irrational fears. I have panic attacks, bouts of serious depression, and bouts of borderline-dangerous mania. Over the years, and with the help of K (Thanks again…) I’ve learned how to monitor my own mental state and develop coping mechanism. One of the things I’ve done in the past when I feel my mental state slipping is to dive headfirst into any and everything I can think of. Go big or Go home. Being a traditional college/university atmosphere, that’s what everyone is doing. Joining clubs, organizing events, taking on more classes, study groups, the whole nine yards. And that works, for a lot of people. For me, it only works in moderation and I have a problem with moderation. My online college lets me get my degree on my own terms. I can arrange to meet up with local friends for study sessions, which I do on occasion, or I can stay home and get things done in the comfort of my robe. If I have a migraine, I don’t have to still push through and go to class, I can do my work from bed or even just wait until the migraine has passed. I’ve scheduled my work around my school due dates and I schedule my school around my work. For me, it’s important to be able to work at my own pace, on my own terms. I don’t feel pressured to do what anyone else is doing or even impressing a teacher. I get to feel like I’m doing this for myself with the support of classmates, the professors, my husband, and my friends. I’m so grateful for the convoluted path I’ve taken to get to where I am. I think I needed to have the different college experiences I had to learn how to cope with my mental health and how to prioritize. It’s made me who I need to be to get to where I feel in my heart I need to go.
The Take Away
This has been long and drawn out, probably far more than needed. So here’s the wrap-up. It’s becoming more clear to people every day that the traditional American college path isn’t for everyone. Sometimes you have to try it all to figure out exactly what you need to get where you want to go. This is especially true when you have issues controlling your mental health. Do you need structure and physical classes and someone to push you? Then maybe you need a traditional college experience. Do you need to do things your own way on your own time? Consider going online. Whichever you choose, don’t be afraid to make a change.