Column: Stress, Student Life, and Backpacks

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Photo by Gabrielle Crooks.

I felt animosity growing within me every time I put the key in the ignition or hopped on my bike to begin my short commute home. My anger would simmer until I would leave my house the next morning, heading back to school. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I was being weighed down by my obsession for complete and utter independence. The closest I could get to the independence I had felt when I was abroad was every time I set foot on campus.

Subsequently, everything that related to campus was liberating, from the people to the classes, the social life, the work, and even the food. People, activities, and things I used to take interest in outside of this environment had lost their value for me. The sole thing that mattered was academic “success.” The one thing I began to carry with me at all times as an incessant subconscious reminder of this was my backpack.

As a commuter, being able to efficiently transport everything I need in a sac on my back is extremely convenient. I carry my backpack to friends’ rooms on campus—even when I do not intend on doing work—simply to present the illusion that I haven’t stopped thinking about school. My friends are very academically driven, so I feel like I need to be just as academically driven, even if it’s an illusion at times.

Spending time socializing and relaxing in my friends’ rooms, however, meant avoiding returning home, where the possibility of running into my parents and engaging in cordial, monotonous, and tedious conversation depressed me.

This is something I have been trying to grapple with for months, and even more so in counseling after having been diagnosed with moderate depression and anxiety. I know I am not alone in this, and until the beginning of last semester, I had never realized how prevalent mental health issues are, especially on college campuses.I presume that my ignorance prevented me from being perceptive to this subject the way I am now.

Throughout this, my backpack had become a symbol of my constant stress.

Cheris Kramarae, author of The Third Shift: Women Learning Online, developed the term “third shift” to build on what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s coined as the “second shift.” The “second shift” describes women who work and take care of domestic tasks. This indicates the duality of their roles and the toll, mentally; physically; and emotionally, that is taken on them. So, the “third shift” is extended to women who work, take care of domestic duties, and attend school. As this theory suggests, education and it’s time consumptive nature takes on a whole new meaning.

The columnist’s omnipresent backpack. Photo by Diaka Savané.

So the presence of my backpack permeates each environment that I transition into throughout the day. When I am at school, I am a student. When I leave school to go to work, I am an employee working on homework. When I leave work to go home, I am an overwhelmed daughter overly preoccupied with being a student. What a vicious cycle.

The constant in every environment is my backpack. At work, homework, responding to school emails, and scheduling myself for events that I don’t necessarily have room for dominates any other priorities. At home, I have gone so far as to schedule a conversation with my dad on a Sunday and a dinner party my parents were throwing in my Google Calendar, regardless of the fact that I would be home. These interactions became nothing but a carefully selected colored slot with a 10 minute notification attached.

My best friend’s 21st birthday dinner was almost tainted by my overbearing teal sac; I contemplated bringing it along, as I would be joining her after work and didn’t have a place to keep it other than at work, a totally viable and convenient option. Psychologically, I felt that if I had dared to bring my backpack to a sit-down restaurant, I would have ruined the aesthetic because my priorities would have clearly been elsewhere.   

This subliminal compulsion with school work and the onset of stress when I am disconnected from it is visible even while I am at school. When I’m doing homework, I find it hard to separate myself from my phone. Consciously, I tell myself that in the event of an emergency I should be attentive to someone notifying me. But on some level, I know that I’m actually on my phone to send contorted facial snapchats of myself to friends as a means of connecting since I can’t always find time for them.

Now that I’ve unpacked the immaterial contents of my backpack, I will conclude by saying this: these realizations have only made me more capable of dealing with the stress of being a student. I am able to better understand, as I hope other students do as well, that school is just that: school. Yes, it’s been our entire lives up until now, but this time spent on this campus is unique to each of us; the positive and the negative are just symptoms of our individual experiences.

So, instead of allowing the steadily increased weight of my backpack to physically weigh me down, I am able to take it off my shoulders and more importantly off my mind and think about whatever the f*ck I want.