Handling the stresses of returning to school after a “gap year” (or more)

I enrolled at St Lawrence College in Kingston, Ont., to study community and criminal justice services after taking a year off following my high school graduation in 2019. I was excited to be back in school and making progress towards a career I thought I wanted. Halfway through my first year, I realized that it […]
Photo: "Reaching out for help made me feel less alone and gave me a bit of hope to keep going."
Journalism student Alyx Ewing on the stresses of returning to school after time away

I enrolled at St Lawrence College in Kingston, Ont., to study community and criminal justice services after taking a year off following my high school graduation in 2019. I was excited to be back in school and making progress towards a career I thought I wanted.

Halfway through my first year, I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was no longer enjoying the program. I waited until the school year ended before withdrawing. Nine months later, I enrolled in the journalism program at Algonquin College, feeling a lot of stress about whether I was making the right choice. I put pressure on myself to do well. I felt like I had to prove to myself that I could do it. I questioned if I was doing the right thing and even wondered if I was going to start feeling the same way towards this program as I had the previous one.

Stress is common among students, but for those of us coming back and trying school again, there can be extra pressures. Starting my new program, I went into a depressed mindset and struggled a lot interacting with my classmates. I developed a habit of second-guessing myself with all of my work, regardless of how well I was doing in my classes. I lost many nights of sleep overthinking everything, doubting myself and the skills I was working to improve. I compared myself to those I was learning with, and seeing their potential made me feel like I wasn’t ever going to do as well as they were. This was particularly the case with learning to conduct journalistic interviews, which made me feel more pressured than ever.

In her 2009 article, “Mature Students – Stress and Challenges of Returning to School,” psychologist Susan Meindl writes, “Returning to study as an adult, be it after a hiatus of a few years or several decades is a wonderful opportunity for personal growth and development. Sometimes, however, it poses particular personal and interpersonal challenges which lead to stress and may interfere with the achievement of academic or skill acquisition goals.”

While some challenges are expected in adulthood, “a return to study may intensify the experiences to the point where they feel overwhelming or bring them to light unexpectedly,” she writes.

Another observation of Meindl’s that strikes a chord with me is the “sandwich generation” impact, which she describes as a sense of responsibilities to the generation before and after you, as well as to yourself. I have two younger siblings and three older siblings. I have a very close relationship with my family and this is something I constantly deal with. I always feel like I have to play a special role when it comes to my younger siblings, to be a good influence they can look up to, someone they can rely on to help them get through their own hardships.

In the other direction, I want to live up to what my older siblings and my parents have done. At my age, they had already started to settle down, finished school and found stable jobs. For me, that isn’t the case. I work part-time and it is usually fairly short shifts. I took a year off from school and switched schools and programs. It’s a feeling of not being enough that I battle internally when I compare myself to them.

I know I have the responsibility to look after my own health and safety, but I toss them aside more than I should to focus on my work, to show that I can do it.

Today’s educational counsellors agree that mature students can face different pressures from those of younger students. “It is worth recognizing that there are typical stresses which may sometimes feel threatening or overwhelming and may prompt a mature student to seek help or advice,” said Doug Stringer, manager of the counselling services and the spiritual centre at Algonquin College.

He points to practical habits that can help a student feel more in control and on top of their work. “Develop a weekly plan with breaks. Schedule in some down time, whatever the fun is. Schedule it in. Then, find the help that is needed and available and take advantage of it.”

Talking to someone you trust and seeking help from other sources can also really help. “Speaking about these matters with a thoughtful friend, a therapist or a counsellor may help to normalize the experience and may permit you to find realistic and practical ways to solve the problems as they arise,” writes Meindl.

That advice, and Stringer’s, worked for me. There are multiple resources on campus to help students who are dealing with stress and pressure. During my hardest times of self-doubt, I reached out to the Kids Help Phone organization and Crisis Line. They were able to help me a lot. Reaching out made me feel less alone and gave me a bit of hope to keep going.

When you feel alone, everything can seem impossible to overcome, and finding motivation becomes a struggle. Over time, I was able to realize and understand that I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone and that it was okay for me to be studying journalism and to be doing what I love to do. Negative thoughts and stress do still reappear at times, but I know how I can deal with it. Having the support I need from the friends I have made along the way has helped me to a great extent. I am more confident with my work and as a person.

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