Burning Out: A Look Back on Junior Year
A few weeks ago, I was finishing up my junior year at Cornell. We Cornellians celebrate through Slope Day: an end-of-the-year concert open and free to all students. It’s a day of meeting up with friends and dancing around on Libe Slope (the most steep part of Cornell campus). It’s what almost everyone is looking forward to at the end of the year, despite knowing full well that the day will end with them sunburnt and exhausted.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself on Slope Day (even managed to fit a five hour nap into my day), but that feeling didn’t last long. With Slope Day on a Wednesday and my first final that Saturday, I was bouncing around from one final to the next. At the same time, I was stressing about the other assignments I still had yet to complete, as well as the fact I’d need to pack up my entire apartment in a matter of hours right before I jet-setted off to Seattle.
Over the course of nine days (two days of study period and seven days of finals week), I had four final exams, a final project, a driving exam, and an immediate flight to Washington. It was a total nightmare—I spent my last night studying in Duffield, frantically cramming telecom notes into my head while my mom helped pack up my room, rather than hanging out with my friends or going to bed at a decent time.
In all honesty, however, how I spent my last night was pretty representative of how I spent my entire year.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how I try to prioritize my life, and, in the process, I mentioned several of my obligations. I want this post to be a more in-depth look at how I typically spend my days on campus, so let’s take a quick step back:
I don’t want people to cry me a river, but being an electrical and computer engineer is hard. At Cornell, the equivalent of a credit is approximately 3 hours of work per week.
For the fall semester, I took 16 credits in the form of:
Analog Integrated Circuits (ECE 4530)
Intelligent Physical Systems (ECE 3400)
Discrete Structures (CS 2800)
Financial Accounting Principles (HADM 2230)
Women, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship (AEM 3340)
Boxing (PE 1345)
The two ECE classes were required (3400 specifically, and 4530 as one of my upper electives). I took the CS class for the CS minor, as well as to fulfill an outside tech elective requirement for my major. Financial accounting is for the business minor. The remaining two classes were for my personal enjoyment, to learn about the influence of gender in entrepreneurship/leadership and how to box.
In the spring, I took a whopping 22 credits—two more and I would’ve had to petition to take more classes—through the following courses:
Physics 3 - Oscillating Waves and Quantum Physics (PHYS 2214)
Probability and Inference (ECE 3100)
Computer Networks and Telecommunications (ECE 4450)
Embedded Operating Systems (ECE 5725)
Finance (AEM 2241)
The First American University (AMST 2001)
Blueprint: Product Development & Management (INFO 1998)
Yasaride (PE 1237)
Physics was my final general engineering requirement to fulfill. The three ECE classes were required (3100 for my probability requirement, and the other two for my upper electives). Finance was another class towards the business minor, and the remaining three classes were to teach me more about my school, product management, and the power of cycling+yoga.
The amount of time these courses take can be summarized in the following two stories:
Right before spring break, one of my friends from Qualcomm visited me and another one of my friends at Cornell. She wanted to get to know the campus and see what it was like to be a student in Ithaca. Over the course of the four or five days she was there, she spent a large majority sitting in the engineering quad buildings (specifically Duffield and Upson) as my friend was working on his Operating Systems project. It wasn’t the experience she necessarily wanted, but it was quite similar to how he and I spend our time: constantly studying/working in the same group of buildings.
On another note, later in the year I showed two incoming freshmen around campus. I brought them to the dorms on North campus, walked with them through the academic buildings on Central campus, and talked to them about the various clubs and classes they could find. When one of them asked “Where’s your favorite spot to hang out on campus?”, I struggled to give an answer other than Duffield.
My non-engineering (and even some engineering) friends regularly joke that they don’t see me a lot, but if they ever need to find me they know where to go: Duffield. When I’m not in class, I’m standing at one of the high tables by Mattins Cafe or sitting with a group of people at a larger table in the atrium. On the weekends, I’d get there around 10AM to work on problem sets, type up study sheets, and go to lab. I tried to cut myself off at 1AM and go home, but that deadline slowly eeked towards 2AM as the semester progressed. I started taking occasional 25 minute naps to recharge, trying to offset the 5.5-6 hour sleep schedule I had.
I’ve often said that it’s hard for me to say “no” to an opportunity; I tend to overextend myself, often with good intentions. That means that I typically end up in way too many organizations and off-campus commitments, but I still attempt to put 100% into each of them:
Alpha Omega Epsilon — President, Beta Chi chapter
Women in Computing at Cornell — Vice President of Academic
#BUILTBYGIRLS — Ambassador
Rewriting the Code — Fellow, FB group moderator, Seattle hub leader
ProjectCSGirls — Mentor to two teams
Wavve — Chief Communications Officer
HAX — Member of the Content Creation and Management teams
Some of these commitments are more time-consuming than others. AΩE is at least three hours a week (an hour for Chapter, an hour for board, and an hour for general work on Slack/email/PowerPoints) if I exclude our additional events, decisions, and initiatives that I overlook and check in on regularly across 50 sisters. WICC is a single hour long meeting every other week, but I managed three directorships (Faculty+Alumni Relations, Career development, and Underclassmen Outreach), each with very different agendas and event plans. #BUILTBYGIRLS and Rewriting the Code would ramp up every now and again as initiatives were developed and recruitment material needed to be shared. ProjectCSGirls required regular meetings with two teams of middle school students, meaning I needed to determine both what kind of information I wanted to impart on them about brainstorming, design, presenting, etc. and also how to get that information across in a way that made sense to them without being oversimplified or condescending. Wavve and HAX involve more work on Slack and email, communicating with other organizations in addition to my fellow team members.
All of these are commitments that I enjoy; in fact, I sometimes would rather handle Slack messages or respond to emails instead of solving problem sets.
More factually, when I said “sometimes”, it was more like “almost all of the time”.
I like to be independent. I like the feeling of knowing I can pay for my own tuition and rent bills without asking my parents for help. It’s not just a pride thing; my parents have to take care of my younger siblings, from feeding and clothing and housing them to making sure they have a solid educational and financial foundation for college. My tuition bill ate up my college fund by sophomore year, and I want neither myself nor my family to have to take out loans to pay for a degree that’s becoming almost standard. We’re privileged to have enough means to handle games, trips, and electronics in addition to necessities like an apartment, food, and clothes, but it means a lot to me to not have to put as much financial pressure on the rest of my family.
To be able to pay my bills, I work. I’m a teachers’ assistant for the ECE department, as well as a technical assistant for the Language Resource Center. Every week, I racked up around six hours as a TA (through running office hours, answering questions on Piazza, and grading) and ten hours as a technical assistant. Seeing that direct deposit coming into my account every week was a gift—I knew I’d be able to buy more groceries, pay for electricity, print my lab reports, and maybe buy some clothes or campus event tickets if I felt like it.
After looking at the above, let’s do the math:
Academics: ~48 hours a week (Fall 2018), ~66 hours a week (Spring 2019)
Extracurriculars: ~15 hours a week
Work: 16 hours a week
Add those all up and you get 79 hours a week for Fall 2018 and 97 hours a week for Spring 2019. In comparison, there are 168 hours in a week, and with around 6 hours a night for sleep and 2 hours a day for eating, that’s another 56 hours out of my week simply for being human. That means 70-80% of my time not sleeping or eating was spent doing work, whether for classes, clubs, or actual work.
Was I always productive? Hell no, and I’m straight up about that. I try to be productive, with “try” being the keyword. I keep lists and calendars and planners, but I get distracted, unmotivated, and stuck, just like anyone else. I spend time messing around instead of doing work, but that should be okay. I shouldn’t have to plan out every hour of my day in order to get everything done. I shouldn’t end up sleeping less or not eating as healthy in order to save time for studying. i shouldn’t have to put aside my hobbies and interests in favor of classes I’m not passionate about.
Some of the nasty side effects of this year were caused by me. As I mentioned before, I have a tendency to overextend myself and say “yes” to a ton of opportunities. I love getting involved with diversity in tech initiatives, mentoring other students, and working to ideate ways to improve the world. It’s led me to amazing offers—being a TEDx speaker in Cupertino, giving a workshop at IgniteSTEM, working for Microsoft this summer—but it’s also caused me a ton of stress and exhaustion—taking five flights over the course of one day to go to Cupertino, bussing from Ithaca to NYC and back for an hour-long session at IgniteSTEM, taking a 4AM flight to Seattle and coming back to immediately take a midterm when interviewing for Microsoft.
On the other hand, some of my work couldn’t be avoided. Junior year is the time where most students take major-related courses to secure spots in the upper-level electives they need for senior year. The responsibilities of each of my organizations needed to be handled, and if not by me they needed to be passed off with care to someone in a timely fashion. My jobs made sure I didn’t buy mac n’ cheese from Mattins every day for dinner and that my required textbooks could be paid for.
Looking back, I’m overwhelmed. The memories of sleepless nights, mental breakdowns, and brain-numbing anxiety make me wonder how I could’ve survived such a jam-packed year. I’m grateful for everything I was able to accomplish and everyone who helped me along the way, but I’m also disappointed that I wasn’t able to teach myself the piano, that I can’t remember most concepts from the classes I slaved over, that I had to literally schedule in time to hang out with my friends. There are two sides to every coin: on one hand, I was able to do so much, but on the other, it cost me a lot in other aspects of my life.
I don’t want to be a subtle flex; I want this to be a warning sign. I want everyone, especially college students and new grads, to know that people who appear confident and healthy and accomplished on the outside can be physically, mentally, and emotionally spent. I want to emphasize that no grade, award, or event is worth your health and happiness. These are lessons that I’ve been able to recognize, but I now have to put into practice.
My final project for AMST 2001: The First American University was a scrapbook of my Cornell career. I split this scrapbook into time periods, one for every year I’d been in Ithaca, and wrote a list at the end of each: freshman year was a checklist of the ways I oriented myself in Ithaca, sophomore year was a list of everything my busy schedule didn’t allow me to do, and junior year was a bucket list for my last year of undergrad. I want to see the sunset over Libe Slope, throw fish on the ice at a Harvard hockey game, and lay on the Arts Quad with my friends. I want to have time to enjoy the details, and I won’t be able to do that if I burn the candle at both ends yet again.