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  • Writer's pictureVeronique Couttee

Balancing Self-expectations & Self-care

Graduation 2020 during a pandemic.

Completing my master’s program in the U.S. through a fully-funded Fulbright scholarship was a major milestone accomplished for me. Yet, this achievement has also been one of the most challenging times of my life. The thrill of this amazing opportunity was undeniably often tainted by a strong feeling of loss and mental struggle as I left my old life behind to adjust to life on the other side of the planet.

As I am now embarking on a new chapter, I felt like it was an opportune moment for me to reflect on the challenges and growth of my journey but also to share some key things that tremendously helped me as a graduate and international student in the United States.

A key theme of this blog and probably my biggest struggle as a student is the incredibly harsh judgment that we place upon ourselves when navigating new and rough situations. Failure was a daunting thought because of the unspoken agreement that comes with such a scholarship: you shall not fail! I pushed my stress levels to it's all-time high striving to maintain high academic standards. Add to that mix, the stress of adjusting to a new life, and you get the perfect combo for an emotionally taxing environment.

By my last semester, I acquired a lot of experience in stress management and self-care, while setting out to reach my professional goals. I want to share four things I did that made my graduate student life healthier while maintaining high academic standards.

1. Understand your workload

To balance a workload, especially for someone starting a new program in a new environment, you need to understand what the workload entails. Most schools or new jobs offer the opportunity to have an orientation session. This is the ideal opportunity to ask questions to current students or professors about the work

For example, I started my first semester with 15 credits without realizing that I would have to commute between three different campuses across the city without a car. Even though I loved each one of these classes, this first semester was incredibly tough, and too much time was spent on the bus.

Looking into the syllabus and reaching out to the professors prior to the start of the semester can really help you plan out your workload. Understanding your priorities is also key to completing your program with maximum knowledge and maximum gains. I purposefully chose to dedicate my last semester of school to my thesis because I knew that I would academically gain the most from focusing on that.

2. Give time to personal development

How do you take time for yourself when everything on your professional calendar looks like a priority? Nevertheless, allocating time for your personal development is crucial - especially if you are far away from home. As an international student, you cannot only experience your education from an academic perspective: Getting out there, meeting people, doing activities, and traveling created the best memories for me in the United States.

You will not remember sleepless nights of studying as fond memories, and they all tend to blur into one experience anyways. So during your time as a student create bonds

and memories that you will cherish for a lifetime. As a full-time student not working, I had the luxury to do extra-curricular activities so I took swimming lessons, started this blog, and started to learn Spanish. So find something that you really want to do for yourself and dedicate some time to it.

3. Be kind to yourself

Throughout my career, I have worked long hours on the rugged terrain and tropical heat of Mauritius. Yet, my graduate student life felt 100 times more stressful than my fieldwork. The reason for that is that I was self-accountable and I was an incredibly demanding boss judging my own daily performance.

So much so, that any dip in my productivity was received with anxiety, anger, and panic attacks. I was so harsh on myself all the time. My advice to you is to be kind and patient with yourself like you would be with a friend. I am still learning how not to be my worst enemy when it comes to self-management and self-discipline which for me is the key to limiting procrastination but has also been the cause of serious burnouts.

4. Celebrate your achievements.

When you constantly seek achievements, you can easily become desensitized from the joy of achievements. Learning how to celebrate small victories is so important in maintaining your drive. As kids, we are rewarded by parents or teachers for our small victories such as our first word, the first time we walk, etc. As we grow up, we forget to celebrate and be happy about our efforts put into achieving those baby steps.

For example, if you spent the whole week on a report and finally submitted it, your first thought should not be on the next task you need to complete. A celebration can come in the form of small things like taking a deep breath or sharing your achievement with a friend. You may not be able to celebrate right away but try to make the celebration an integral part of your workflow. This will be your best incentive and will give you the surge of dopamine needed to make you feel good about your effort.

The reality of achievements…

Lastly, I want to emphasize that your achievements do not define who you are, you define what your achievements are. If all my achievements were stripped away from me, I want to know that i still have deeper values to relate to. As I continue on this journey of personal and professional development, I want to really evaluate how I will define my future achievements. As part of this process, I concluded that no achievements should come at the expense of my mental and physical wellbeing.

On this note, congratulations to me!!! I completed my master’s degree and I am now starting a new chapter - more on this in coming blog posts!

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