The Pressure Cooker


Ah, the end of the semester has arrived. In less than a month, final exams will be over and this school year will be past. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

This past week, New York State became the first state in the nation to offer free tuition to 2-year and 4-year state colleges. Dubbed the “Excelsior” Scholarship, it is hoped that this effort will attract more students to New York for educational opportunities AND that some of those better-educated individuals will decide to stay and make New York their permanent address. It’s a brilliant idea.

I love it and hope it is massively successful. No one who is willing to work for a degree (and maintain a B average or higher) should have to be burdened with student loans for the rest of their natural lives just to be able to get a decent-paying job.

That said… hahaha… now that I’m enrolled in a private college for the fall, the change isn’t likely to help me much at all.

The pressure to succeed has built to its crescendo. Yes, for those whom much is given, much is expected, and this pressure from this expectation is showing. I think that is true of many college students, particularly about this time of the semester when things are winding down and approaching final exams. And for some who face certain additional life challenges, the pressure is compounded.

Free tuition doesn’t help much with pressure-related stress, that’s for sure.

And even with college costs, free tuition is only part of the equation. I’ve actually been pretty fortunate so far in that 99% of my education costs (including books) have been covered by various scholarships and grants.

Books — make no mistake about it — can be almost as costly as the tuition itself (at least at the community-college level). In medicine, book costs are outrageous. No shit. I mean it. Outrageous. I am taking associate’s level courses, and I can expect to pay $350-$400 per book for an average 3-credit class; sometimes a bit less, sometimes more. The Anatomy & Physiology class I’m taking now required a $400 book plus another $79 for the school-exclusive lab manual.

And buying used books isn’t an option like it used to be in the olden-molden days, since much of the classwork is heavily dependent on online quizzes and assignments, only available via an online key and password, usable by one person only, and exclusively accessible with the new edition of any book (new editions come out about once a semester). Hence, no cheap used books.

People don’t comprehend the actual costs of returning to college. Even if you get the free tuition, the book costs alone will kill you. And then there are all the other fees they don’t warn you about. The lab fees. The equipment fees. The testing fees. The this-and-that fees. Every time you turn around, the college has their hand out saying you owe them for this-or-that and — like any good loan shark — if you don’t pay up now, very bad shit will happen. You don’t graduate. You don’t pass. You don’t get an A.

I was recently accepted to a fancy foo-foo private college for the fall for Nursing. Included with my acceptance letter was a request for a $50 matriculation fee deposit and a notice that I was expected to attend a uniform fitting next week (no cost listed).

Okay, first of all, if $50 is the matriculation deposit, how much is the actual matriculation? Are they aware that I am poor? Are they aware that I am dependent on financial aid for this? So yeah, I’ll have to come up with the fifty bucks or risk losing my spot. As for the uniform fitting, all I can say is, they can fit me, but I can’t pay for it until all the financial aid stuff is arranged.

And so it begins.

Some people say that when you’re young, going to college is easier. And to a certain extent, they’re right. There is a reason that MOST people attend college when they’re kids straight out of high school. Most will have the advantage of parental support (both financial and otherwise), many will have few responsibilities, means of housing and transport, most don’t work or have familial responsibilities yet, and many are young and foolish and have yet to learn to appreciate the sweet, sweet glory of 8 hours of sleep each night. In other words, they adapt well because don’t know any better.

But as a returning student, an adult with many years of experience doing various things under her belt, this shit is hard. Way hard. Maintaining a job and going to school? Oh my God, so hard. I can tell you that I know now — better than at any other time in my life — what I’m capable of and what I’m not. I happily push the envelope, but I recognize my limits (not that I always abide by them).

I have a healthy respect for sleep deprivation. I know the value of a buck, and I know first hand how important it is to keep the lights on. I know what it takes to study for an exam and pass. I also know when I can’t. When it’s too much. I can skate by, but I know the consequences that entails.

Moreover, I am at an age where I am prescient enough to see the low dark clouds of trouble on the horizon. And know what that means.

For instance, I know that this fall, should attending the foo-foo private nursing college come to pass as planned, I will be in over my head. No question about it.

It’s all about support though. Getting myself prepared for the onslaught. Will my life be set up well enough by then that I can survive it?

Let me just say — I don’t worry because school is hard. (Shit, I know that.) And I’m not worried because I’m not smart enough. (I know I am.) I’m worried because of the pressure of everything else. All those loose ends are the problem. They can do me in.

My depression has returned full-blast now. I suddenly started to cry uncontrollably on the way to class the other day and had to take a few moments to collect myself before I walked through the door. It almost blew into a full-on panic attack. That’s a very bad sign. I know it because I’ve seen it happen before. It just comes out of the blue like a rogue wave on the ocean — and like that tsunami, it is a sign of seismic activity deep under the surface. A low rumbling of real danger.

Compound that with the pressure of work, an end-of-semester project that I cannot complete, final exams in two difficult subjects, a total lack of transportation and support, unresponsiveness from my doctor regarding my depression, my best friend is in jail, no time, maintaining my sobriety, and no money at all to correct any of it — I know I’m in trouble. Any one of those things on their own would be difficult, but, yes, this is as overwhelming as it appears.

(Does anyone ever hear me, I wonder, when I ask for help?)

I see it happening, yet I can’t stop it. It’s as if I’m tied to the railroad tracks watching the train approach from a distance while Snidely Whiplash twists his mustache and cackles in cruel delight. Only for me, Dudley Do-Right isn’t coming. I’m lying on the train tracks wondering whether or not you feel your organs crush under the train’s wheels or do you black out before that kills you?

For many people in college, this kind of scenario can happen. MIT recently asked for feedback on college burnout and received several really interesting replies particularly from their overachieving A-students. One remark sums up my sentiments exactly: “Nothing ever feels like enough. I feel like I’m in the most amazing place in the world with the most amazing people in the world but all I can think about are shortcomings.” Yep. Most of the time, I feel like a disappointment, so success isn’t always felt nor enjoyed as it should be.

I was offered an invitation-only opportunity for a summer class that any med/nursing student would kill get in on, but I’ll probably have to turn it down. Why? Because I can’t get there. I don’t have a working car right now, and that’s not likely to change in the next three weeks. So, I can’t go, not because I’m not smart enough. Not because I won’t put forth the time and effort. Not because I’m unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to do it. But because of something as simple as not being able to get there. It’s killing me that I won’t be able to go.

In an AMA article titled, “Students Under Pressure”, almost half of students questioned claimed to have sought help for mental health related issues (namely, anxiety and depression) during the course of their school year. 30% seriously thought of suicide. So it isn’t like this situation is new.

You could certainly argue that much of the pressure is caused by personal expectations, and that’s certainly true of me. Students under pressure want to find an escape valve. For some, that’s exercise. They run, punch, lift weights, or kick their way to mental health. For others, they just need to take some time off. Hell, I could just take a year off and wait, trying to get my life together before going back. And many young people could use that option.

But for me, what would that really achieve? And wouldn’t I be sacrificing the momentum built from all I’ve been able to do so far? Not to mention my age. Dudes, I don’t want to be retirement age when I graduate. The time is now.

The most important thing, all experts agree, is to maintain a healthy lifestyle that is supportive of the pressures of school and home. That’s difficult in the real world. You have to have a tremendous amount of support and love from the people around you to make that work. Being proactive about health concerns helps too. Staying on top of homework assignments (not procrastinating) is another assist. Eating well. Drinking enough water. Stuff like that.

The one thing I can tell you for sure is, going back to school as an adult isn’t easy. In fact, the bigger your dream, the harder it’s going to be. Wanna return to be a plumber? Okay. Wanna return to be a doctor? Good luck (HA!) The bigger the dream, the bigger the laugh from God.

It seems one has to survive the hard parts to make the good parts possible. So I press on.

Good luck.

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” — Theodore Roosevelt


About madmargaret

Nursing student, Mac nerd, medical 'genius', recovering addict, singer, ex-actor, and all-around swell egg. Really!
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