Burning Out while Abroad

Burnout. Why is it so hard to admit to others and to yourself that you’re experiencing burnout? I guess it’s because we have been raised to pretend that things just come naturally to us. “Oh, my A on last week’s exam? I totally didn’t even study for it!” “Yeah, I got the summer internship, but it’s whatever, I didn’t even apply until the night before.” For a lot of people in my generation, we struggle and work hard for every opportunity, but we present the façade that success comes effortlessly to us. We must never, ever show the actual amount of sweat, blood, and tears that we poured into the end result. Because what if you care so much and work so hard…but still fail? Clearly, then, it’s an innate problem with YOU. So it’s better to pretend that you didn’t even try. That way, if you fail, then it’s fine because you never cared anyway; but if you succeed, then it’s just another thing you’re naturally gifted at, how great.

My home university in America has a reputation of everyone humble-bragging their successes—internships at Microsoft, independent research with professors, executive positions in student government—without admitting the physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that comes with the constant pressure to succeed. The competitive undercurrent among students doesn’t let them admit to each other that they’re experiencing burnout. Because if you’re burning out then that means you’re weaker and dumber than the rest who are so clearly succeeding effortlessly. And if you’re struggling, then do you even belong here?

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never humble-bragged or downplayed my hard work. I’m definitely as guilty as the rest. But this is the chance for me to admit that studying abroad in New Zealand hasn’t been one zany adventure after another; the image of me off doing amazing things and getting amazing grades and having amazing friends and going on amazing adventures is a half-truth. I have the chance to be honest about the newfound insomnia and stress, the falling grades, the frustration that comes with adapting to a new university and new professors. And if I admit the real truth about burnout today, then maybe a future study abroad student will feel less alone or guilty about burnout.

So what finally brought forth this admission of truth? My Genetics mid-course test. Now, if you haven’t been reading my posts from week 1, a quick summary—I got an A- on my pre-requisite test, have been averaging B to As on the semester’s assignments, and made attending the weekly labs a priority over CVOC. I thought my strategy for studying was going to be fine—I took 5 days off from CVOC to revise, I printed off all the lecture notes and wrote them out, I completed the mock quizzes the professor put online, etc. I buckled down and prepared and studied my hardest for Genetic’s mid-course lecture and lab tests on May 22. On the day of the tests, I woke up at 7 am and revised until the exam at 6 pm. In the test room, the professor said that the first 30 minutes was going to be the lab test (9 result interpretation questions) and the remaining 1.5 hours was the lecture test (3 work problems with subquestions). As I was working through the tests, my brain just—stopped. Everything was just processing slower, a headache developed, my mood dropped. And I realized… I was going to fail.  And I did. Both tests, I failed. I got a 42 on my lab test and a 57 on my lecture test.

Now, it might be because I stretched myself too thinly this semester. It might be because I straight-up didn’t understand anything on the exam. It might be because having two tests on the same day was too overwhelming. It might be because not knowing the test formats was too off-putting. Honestly, probably a combination of all of these factors resulted in those grades. But it doesn’t change the fact that I had been performing alright throughout the semester while working at CVOC, so why did I perform so badly on these two exams after I specifically set aside the days to prepare? My conclusion: burnout.

I had been denying how tough it’s been to juggle school and CVOC work, both to my supervisors/professors and myself. I waved away suggestions that interactions with victims would emotionally burden me in any way. I ignored the physical toll that the semester has had on me—insomnia, loss of appetite, lack of concentration. But burnout doesn’t always happen immediately in one major destructive instance. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as a mental breakdown with crying and screaming. Burnout results from a build-up of stress and can simply look like more and more frequent headaches; more and more bouts of irritability; more and more periods of apathy.

When I was still young and fresh my second day on the job all those long weeks ago

What can you do? You can admit that you’re burnt out. Once you’re no longer in denial, you can speak to your professors and supervisors to see how you can solve this together. You can work through the periods of irritability and apathy by changing your environment or doing something creative and unrelated to work. Studying abroad can be as, if not more, stressful as attending your home university. Believe me, I know how strange and guilty it feels to admit that you’re not having the best moment of your life every single second abroad. Not everyone gets the privilege to study abroad, and here you are, complaining about how much harder it is than what you thought it would be. And yes, you have had the promised whimsical adventures, but it’s still okay to admit that it’s not all fun and games. Living in a new country will always have unforeseen stresses and obstacles. Therefore, be prepared to work hard, and address any feelings of homesickness or burnout before it’s too late.

So what is my battle plan now? Well, finishing CVOC duties as soon as possible in order to focus solely on my exams in the upcoming weeks. Being honest about my availability to work. Saying yes to an activity as completely random as “Painting with Bob Ross” to turn my brain off for a while. And acing my final Genetics exam in a few weeks’ time, of course. Wish me luck!

What I’ve learned:

  1. It’s okay to admit the challenges of studying abroad.
  2. I am not good at following Bob Ross’ painting instructions

What I need to learn:

  1. All Genetics’ course material for the upcoming final in three weeks
  2. How to seek help from professors
Free canvas and paints? Sign me up!
Until the very last package is made