September 18, 2019

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Self-Care: From an Idea to a Priority

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The first few weeks of the school year is full of new opportunities: classes to take, clubs to join and friends to make. With over 1,000 student groups available and even more courses offered, the options seem endless. Students often find their schedules tightly packed as they try to fit as many classes, work opportunities and extracurriculars into their day. As the semester goes on, students can find themselves burning out as they try to stay on top of all of their responsibilities. It’s therefore not surprising that, in recent years, more and more orientation events encourage students to practice self-care to try and avoid burning out.

Since coming to Cornell, I’ve heard students, staff and administrators speak to the importance of self-care. Defined simply as the purposeful commitment to taking care of one’s physical, mental and emotional needs, self-care strongly appeals to students trying to juggle academic, social and personal responsibilities. Learning to practice self-care seems as ubiquitous as learning to land an internship nowadays. Despite logically knowing all of the reasons to practice self-care, I’m still pretty terrible at it. I’ve honestly found figuring out what works best for me and committing to it to be surprisingly difficult. Practicing self-care sometimes means unlearning unhealthy behaviors, behaviors that may have contributed to one’s success. For example, when talking about self-care, we often mention the importance of getting enough sleep, but, for me, sleep is one of the first things to go when I’m short on time. Trying to develop healthy sleeping habits while simultaneously staying on top of all of my academic and social commitments is something I continue to struggle with.

The general consensus seems to be that practicing self-care is a worthwhile investment, but figuring out how to effectively incorporate it into one’s routine can be difficult. Some students start at Cornell with a strong understanding of what self-care tactics work best for them, while others have never purposefully practiced it before. Taking care of one’s basic needs, such as getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating nutritious food are all foundational to self-care. Some people may find a fifteen-minute walk outside to be rejuvenating, while others would prefer to spend that time meditating. It can sometimes even be as simple as treating yourself to an extra-nice cup of coffee. While it is easy to recognize the value of self-care, it can often be challenging to prioritize taking care of ourselves when there are so many different things vying for our time and attention. We know we need to make time for ourselves but figuring out how to make the most of our limited time is tough.

We talk extensively about the virtues of self-care, but we often gloss over how hard it can be to actually practice it effectively. How do we determine which tactics work best for us? How do we unlearn unhealthy behaviors? How do we make time for ourselves but still stay on top of our responsibilities? How do we ensure that we’re not overshooting and moving from self-care into self-comfort or even self-indulgence? These questions can often be overwhelming, leading people to either forestall starting or even abandon their self-care journey. Practicing self-care is something that is often easier said than done, and some people need more help learning how to incorporate healthy practices, sometimes ones even as foundational as getting enough sleep or stress management, into their routines. 

In recent years, universities have stepped up programming and services available to students to help them figure this out. Cornell Health offers several workshops that try to help students effectively manage stress, develop healthier sleeping habits and figure out what mindfulness really means. More faculty and graduate teaching assistants have brought conversations about self-care and effective time-management into the classroom to help students throughout the semester. Several student groups host events that bring self-care opportunities directly to students, which can be particularly helpful during stressful times of the year (like during finals).

Other institutions are taking it a step further. Several institutions ask incoming students to complete wellness-assessments or online modules on best practices before starting the school year while others are incorporating it directly into the curriculum. The University of Southern California offers a one-credit course, “THRIVE: Foundations of Well-being,” for undergraduate students that incorporates finding “well-being in body, mind and spirit” into the learning objectives. The University of Vermont offers a comprehensive Wellness Environment that incorporates healthy living into the curriculum, residential housing and social atmosphere of interested students.

Each year, more and more students express a need for more institutional support when it comes to tackling problems of physical and mental health and well-being. While self-care is not going to fix every problem, it can be a particularly useful tool at not only tackling these issues but preventing them. Our institutional mission of “educat[ing] the next generation of global citizens” should be holistic, and that means investing resources in helping students develop healthy habits, such as practicing self-care. Throughout my time on the board, student health and wellbeing has always been a primary concern, and there is a strong desire from senior leadership to develop policies and resources that not only best serve the community but are also widely accessible. The comprehensive review of mental health services at Cornell currently underway will hopefully present new opportunities to incorporate self-care programming into both the Cornell Health and student life. As more and more institutions seek to help students develop these skills, Cornell should work diligently to continue being a leader in student health and wellness.

Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. Munasinghe can be reached at [email protected]. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester.