What do we need to stay healthy away from home?

7 mins read

Q: What is Swarthmore without its health center?
A: Worthless (ba-dum-DUH).

It seems to be that time of year again. I say this not with glee in my voice, but with a deep, throaty cough, the kind that disrupts a class and obligates those around to offer up water and throat lozenges. It is inevitable that there is a period in the fall when suddenly everyone at Swarthmore gets sick. The colds pass through dorms capitalizing upon the stress and sleep deprivation that accompany midterms and general Swarthmore academics.

Most of us are privileged to not have to consider health problems when we look at the grand scheme of our lives. Yes, we will all age and experience the slow degradation of our physical and mental well-being. But as of now we are college students, reveling in our lithe bodies, taking for granted our sharp minds, quick wit and ability to eat endless amounts of ice cream. We indulge, but we are not invincible.

Stress is surely a factor in any Swattie’s life. There is no shortage of misery poker or procrastination. Stress is not a big scary carcinoma — it does not come out of the blue and give you a greater appreciation for how precious and tenuous life is — but it should be feared as much, if not more, than other ailments. It has been documented time and time again that chronic stress negatively affects quality of sleep, compromises immune systems and can ultimately shorten a person’s life.

A good portion of my life is going to be spent here at Swarthmore, and I know I want a long and happy life. So, why don’t we have massage chairs in McCabe? Where is the puppy room? Yes, there are facilitated study breaks, and yes my dorm gathers Wednesdays and Sundays to get over hump day and kick off our week. Yet, these events are based around indulgent foods such as brownies, cookies, cake and pie. I’m not complaining — I fully enjoy these sweet treats — but are caffeine and sugar my only options?

In terms of nutrition, we find ourselves tempted with delectable cookies and ice cream daily, often cited as the best-quality food at Sharples. Clubs and activities offer endless free food to entice more people to come to meetings. Many first-years on the 17 meal plan find themselves with leftover meals. Most choose to redeem their meal swipes by stocking up on snacks at Essie Mae’s: chips, Pop-Tarts, popcorn and Oreos sell especially well. Ubiquitous are the chances to fall into unhealthy habits, and they are even unintentionally encouraged for first-years who want to get the full value of the plan they paid for. Such ample chances for indulgence and unlimited agency prove a deadly combination for some, leading to the dreaded freshman 15. This clearly isn’t home.

When I’m sick, my mom isn’t here to make sure I stay in bed and bring me soup. College means independence, but it also means pushing my limits and exploring my boundaries. I want to be able to tell my body to get over itself and go to class, go dance and have fun because this cold is really nothing. I reason that if I drink enough tea and sleep enough on the weekends I’ll be fine.

We have a beautiful, newly renovated health center, but people looking to de-stress are not going to find much help there. Instead, responsibility is placed upon students like RAs to organize fun activities. Especially during freshman year, students may not fully acknowledge their stress, or be in denial about it, and thus will not go out of their way to ameliorate symptoms. Swarthmore strongly emphasizes academic intensity, which is absolutely wonderful and the reason many of us came here, but there needs to be more tangible efforts to aid students in alleviating stressors.

Living mindfully is easier said than done. One can decide to independently engage in yoga or other athletic endeavors in search of endorphins or exercise, but often these activities are put to the side when homework, sleep or other basic needs take precedence. In the hierarchy of tasks, people have a tendency to prioritize those with deadlines. Many will choose to cram for a test or stay up to finish an essay instead of listening to their circadian rhythms and going to sleep.

Where does the fallible notion come from that our consciousness can and should override our biological indicators? Society has given us unattainable role models, superheroes and real life people who seem to have it all. In a very American mindset, we want it all and settle for nothing less. It has been told to us again and again that these small decisions will add up, resulting in poorer execution and eventually a shorter, sadder life.

We are all arrogant in a way. We have high expectations for ourselves, especially as highly successful Swatties. We anticipate that by aiming high, even our worst effort will have fabulous results. We need a reality check. We need organized opportunities on behalf of Swarthmore to relax even when we think we do not need to take a break. We need to be humbled; we need Swarthmore to be the parent foreseeing our unfulfilled needs before we can even recognize them.

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