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ISSUE 120 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/17/2006

The Multi-tasking Ole

By Emelie Heltsley
News Editor

Friday, November 17, 2006

It's “that time of the year” again, isn't it?

Everything that you started at the beginning of school needs your attention. Ever since you decided to change your double major of music and Norwegian to a triple major of music, Norwegian and English with a concentration in women's studies, you have been preoccupied with figuring out how to take all the required classes along with the infamous GEs. Because, you tell yourself, why stick with a double major when you could work yourself to death and triple major? After all, you're an Ole.

Academics aside, you tell yourself to take advantage of every opportunity on the Hill. Therefore, you take a full load of classes and two music lessons, play on intramural Ultimate Frisbee, volleyball and softball teams, participate in Chapel Choir, Philharmonia and Early Music Singers, have a small role in the most recent theater production, edit the college newspaper, volunteer at the senior citizen's center, work 10 hours a week and sing in three lab choirs. In your spare time, you are an RA, an ESL tutor, a TA for a chemistry class and president of both the St. Olaf Chemistry Society and the College Republicans. As if that weren't enough, you are applying for a Fulbright scholarship, medical school and Teach for America – all at the same time. “You can do it!” people tell you with brimming confidence. After all, you're an Ole.

You really should look at the music for the 18 music juries you agreed to accompany before their 18 teachers start asking you to come to 18 lessons. Your mom's birthday is coming up and you should find a card and a t-shirt that says “St. Olaf Mom” so you don't forget her birthday like you did last year. Lest you forget about a social life, you find yourself planning dinner dates weeks in advance… and then forgetting about them. Christmas Fest is approaching at a terrifying rate, which means additional “Mass Choir” rehearsals on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Applications for distinction projects also loom in the near future, and because triple-majoring is not ambitious enough, you want distinction in at least one of your majors. After all, you're an Ole.

You haven't seen your roommate awake for four days, and your parents are beginning to wonder if you are still alive. You have grabbed a bag lunch at every lunch for three weeks in a row. You haven't worked out in a month, you haven't read for your psychology class since the last exam and you can't remember the last time you practiced for your two music lessons. You've forgotten what it feels like to get more than four hours of sleep, read a book for fun, do the crossword puzzle or take a leisurely walk around campus. But you are still optimistic, relatively cheerful and intent on doing it all. After all, you're an Ole.

Oh wait. You are still a student and have homework to do. Did you know that the average class estimates three hours of outside homework for each hour of class? That equals nine hours of work a week for each class, totaling 36 hours of homework a week. You tackle the academic challenges valiantly because, after all, you're an Ole.

You may think I over exaggerate, but I speak the hard truth, friends. While the preceding description does not encompass one person, we can all relate to having too much to do. Most of us are proud to be Oles, but we have to face it sooner or later: We are just too busy.

There seems to be a campus-wide thought that, unless you are maxed out, you aren't doing enough or “living up to your full potential.” The very nature of being an Ole seems to imply a life on the Hill full of activities, academics and hard work.

Double or even triple majoring has become ridiculously common, to the extent that we inquire as to the majors (plural) when meeting new acquaintances.

Since when did majoring in only one area become characteristic of a “slacker?” Most of our parents probably earned one undergraduate major and students at different schools are satisfied with one major, but many hard-working Oles are not.

While different people may define “over-committed” or “over-stressed” in different ways, Steve O'Neill, director of the Counseling Center, offered up a possible definition for the too-stressed student: “If it feels like more often than not you have too much on your plate, and if you always have too much to do and never quite get things done."

“The culture and environment [of St. Olaf] tends to foster multi-tasking,” he said, addressing the pressure for students to do many things, be involved in many activities and place incredible importance on the “stellar resume.” While O'Neill said that many high-achieving students get caught in the multi-tasking trap, some students can handle doing too much and others cannot. How much each student can take on is different for each individual.

Angie Weber `07, co-director of the Wellness Center, a student-run organization that provides health information for students, agrees that individuals handle different levels of stress, and she also sees the nature of St. Olaf contributing to the multi-tasking nature of Oles.

"Oles focus very strongly on being well-rounded. Because of this, we over-exert ourselves in too many areas and tend to wear ourselves thin," she said. "This trend often happens in cycles throughout the year with peaks of intense stress during mid-terms and finals and relatively lower stress levels in between."

Anna Peterson `07, co-director of the Wellness Center, thinks that, while most college students are busy, Oles do try to set themselves apart.

"I think Oles tend to take on more community roles and have higher expectations for themselves than the average college student, which does lead to higher stress levels," Peterson said.

Despite the crazy nature of many lives on the Hill, some students had time to answer a few questions about their experience with stress, multi-tasking and busyness. Ryan Christensen '07 is a music major doing pre-med and a biomedical studies concentration. He sings with the St. Olaf Choir, participates in Student Congregation, is involved with the St. Olaf EMTs and is a TA.

"It has been hard, but not impossible,” Christensen said about his full class schedule, involvement in extra-curricular activities and choice in majors. “My first-year advisor called me crazy and never predicted I'd get through it, but I have proved her wrong.”

While Christensen feels content with his choices at St. Olaf, he admits that there is a competitive atmosphere and a general expectation to do well at many things.

“I don't feel like a slacker, but putting together a résumé makes it look like you always could have done more,” he said. “I think we strive hard here to achieve, and we are very competitive. I also think we shouldn't feel like slackers if we cut back, but I think most of us would.”

Adam Burman '08, a double major in biology and music, doesn't consider himself any busier than other Oles and considers his double major a workable option. "Especially in the music department, in my experience I feel it's pretty feasible to double major, because the scheduling is so flexible," he said. "The departments on campus work well with one another."

Burman doesn't see the St. Olaf image as pressuring students to be busy.

"I wouldn't say it promotes being over-committed, but I could definitely see how somebody might feel that way looking around campus," he said. "Because it is so easy to get involved here, a lot of people think they have to be in a million organizations to keep up."

All-nighters and general stress are just part of the college life for Burman.

"There's really no such thing as being completely overwhelmed," he said. "You might have to pull an all-nighter or two or drink an extra cup of coffee in the morning, but if you don't let it get to you, it's really not a big deal when things stack up."

Laura Wilde ‘08 is content with her major choice: a BM in Vocal Performance.

“I know what I want to do,” she said. “It’s not a contest to see who can be the busiest.”

Meredith Sorenson ‘07 doesn’t think she is busier than other Oles, but does admit that her life can reach hectic levels. As a music and chemistry major, homework and classes take up a majority of her time.

“I have definitely had to make significant sacrifices in order to graduate in four years and to give my best efforts to both majors, but I wouldn’t trade a single one of those for the incredible experiences I have had in continuing to pursue my passions for science and music,” Sorenson said.

Despite her love for all things relating to chemistry and music, she does not deny that her life can reach hectic levels. She mentions the time during her junior year when she was a Junior Counsellor in Mohn Hall, a member of the St. Olaf Choir and a full-time student. She was also preparing to take the MCATs in April.

“I think my roommate wanted to kill me,” she said with a laugh.

Unlike Burman, Sorenson does feel overwhelmed with her to-do lists.

“I don’t think a day goes by in which I don’t feel completely overwhelmed by everything that populates my to-do list,” she said.

Being busy at times during the year is by no means a bad thing. As students who value "lives of worth and service," we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did nothing but the bare minimum.

"Being busy can attribute to positive stress through healthy tension, which provides pressure to stay motivated without going beyond our capacity to deal with stress," Weber said.

Peterson agreed. "A lot of people thrive on stress, stress can be motivating, stress is natural and it can be healthy," she said, but warned students against being under too much stress over a prolonged period of time. "Your body needs time to recover," she said, urging students to know their own limits and listen to their bodies.

Too much multi-tasking, however, can lead to more than just homework-filled weekends and all-nighters. High, constant levels of stress and busyness can lead to detrimental mental health effects, the most common being edginess, irritability and sleep-deprivation. More extreme effects can be break downs, depression, panic attacks and generally addictive behavior, such as cutting or drug and alcohol abuse.

"Sleep tends to be one of those things that falls by the wayside," O'Neill said, stressing the need for regular sleep schedules and a balance of work and downtime.

Christensen agrees, though he admits that he doesn't always follow his own advice.

"We don't put enough value on recreation and rest here, and are always driving to do more,” Christensen said. “Sometimes it’s healthier to realize we don't have to be superheroes.”

Sorenson had a similar comment.

“When the exhaustion, stress and scatter-brained mentality caused by the sheer number of activities we are involved in ... does not allow us to give our best efforts ... we have to reevaluate our decisions and how we prioritize our lives,” she said.

As a stereotypical multi-tasking Ole senior, it has taken me three very full years to realize that multi-tasking does not equal motivated, busy does not mean blessed and full loads do not lead directly to fulfillment. There is a time to work hard (after all, we're Oles), and there is also a time to let yourself laugh. There is a time to fill your plate with activities, and there is also a time to stop over-committing yourself. As important as it is to improve your résumé, doing so should not promote detrimental health habits or unnecessary craziness.

Activities and academics play huge roles in our lives as college students, and being involved in them should add to our time at college, not make them into a whirlwind of frantic activity that you would rather not remember.

"I couldn't imagine not being a part of the organizations that I treasure," Christensen said. "I really love what I've accomplished here, and in the end that satisfaction is what is most important."

Make sure to keep to regular sleep schedules, learn to say “no” and know when you are doing too much. Give your multi-tasking self time to recharge throughout the week. Enjoy your short time on the Hill and don’t spend your entire college career trying to build the “most impressive” resumé. Believe it or not, life will continue after St. Olaf. So while you’re here, make it a point to sled down Old Main Hill, take pictures of fall foliage, spend time with friends, take a trip to the site of the tubine and explore the natural lands.

After all, we're Oles.

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