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Advice From A Van Dwelling Student

Challenge yourself and don’t stop yourself from asking for help. Your brain is a muscle and the more frequently you are in tough situations that you can develop creative solutions to, the more likely you are to be able to come up with the solutions quicker and more creatively in the future. And that is what life’s all about, isn’t it?

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I was walking around New Student Orientation last week when I came across a group of first year students introducing themselves to one another. They were outlining their various one-, two-, and four-year degrees to each other and talking about all their plans for after university. I chuckled and kept walking, thinking about the gap between my expectations when I first walked into this place four years ago, and how I’m still here for at least another year and a half. As a student, you have probably experienced waitlists, course withdrawals due to stress, and sat in line on the fee payment deadline to pay the remaining balance with your freshly deposited student loans.

Many students choose to extend their degree by taking a reduced course load in order to manage the stress of being a student. With that comes more expenses and loans while postponing getting a job that will help you pay off those loans. Because of this, entertainment, stress relief, and relaxation ironically often become sources of stress themselves. We are part of an economic system that uses rest and vacation as a reward for working hard instead of defining time off as a component of normal mental health in a work / life balance.

As a student, this makes finding relaxation a challenge because taking time off means that: first, you won’t be at work generating income, and second, you will likely be spending your resources to lower your stress and level up your brain to deal with work and school once more. When money is tight, this exchange of resources for a more competent and calmed mind can lead to a dangerous spiral of guilt. A 2016 survey of Canadian university students done by the American College Health Association studied the factors that affect the academic performance of students. Forty-two per cent of all Canadian students reported that stress has caused them to receive a lower grade, drop a course, or experience a severe disruption in their work. Thirty-two per cent said the same of anxiety and 20 per cent for depression. That same study calculates that 90 per cent of Canadian university students felt overwhelmed at least once in a period of 12 months by all they had to do.

Fortunately, there is help for whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed. UFV has free counselling resources for students which are great to check out for anyone, even if you don’t think you need it. There is a stigma around mental health and around pursuing counselling, but the process can only benefit you. It helps you to develop tactics and processes that aid you in dealing with your stress, and it can be instrumental in helping you work out issues you don’t know how to (or don’t want to) deal with on your own.

However, if you are in a place where you don’t feel you need to pursue counselling there are plenty of informal ways to deal with stress. In an interview with National Geographic Magazine David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Utah, talked about his hypothesis of how nature affects the brain. He figures that spending time in nature allows the prefrontal cortex to chill out and rest just like any muscle in your body. I would advocate that you head out and spend time in nature. But Mother Nature isn’t everyone’s best friend. If you can find something along the same lines that allows you to step out of “getting shit done” mode, and into a “this is okay for now” mode, then latch onto it and use that time to recuperate and prep yourself for when you need to bring your A-game.

For me, cost-cutting and balancing personal time with school came in the form of living in a van. Because of the confined space of a van I have had to hone my ability to focus in on what I really need to survive, eschewing extra luxuries and possessions that I don’t have the space or need for. By analyzing what I need to make it by, I have been able to pay more attention to what helps me to thrive.

HAVE YOUR OWN SPACE

Being able to walk three minutes to the parking lot and spend time in my own space has helped me realize how valuable it is to have a place that I call my own and that I can let down my guard in. You may not have a van, but you likely have a car, a bedroom, or some other space that is important to you. Try to determine what that space is for you and then do your best to keep your work away from it. In order to relax there, you need to separate your workspace from your living space. Mixing the two will confuse your brain and make it difficult to separate them psychologically. Going to sleep in the bed that you just laid on to do homework doesn’t allow your brain to move into sleep mode because the only way you have differentiated between working and relaxing is putting your books away. Location, location, location, you know? We are a pretty bright species, and throughout history work and play have usually been separated geographically. Pay attention to history and try working somewhere other than where you sleep.

OTHER HUMANS

No matter how busy you are, it’s also critical to make time for other humans. Having a van for a home base allows me to park in my friend’s driveways and spend time with them without having to commute back home to sort out myself before I finish up for the day. Granted, this assumes you have friends that will let you sleep in their driveway, and this is possibly the key. Develop relationships with people that are meaningful and where there is a healthy give-and-take. Close friends allow you to vent to them, help you in tough times, and are often essential to recreation time. I identify as an extrovert, so social time comes naturally to me. For the more introverted types out there, I am not telling you to spend every night out, that would be hell for you, I get it. Instead, spend quality time with a friend at a coffee shop, or doing homework together. If no one is down for that, try connecting with a sibling, an uncle / aunt, or a parent. We are built to connect with other humans, it makes our lives easier.

TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

Perhaps the most essential thing I have come to know through van dwelling is that you need to be able to take responsibility for your decisions. I bought an $800, 42-year-old van that didn’t run and was faced with having to make it work or not have a home. If you choose to postpone homework to work on your state of mind, that is okay. Just keep in mind you still need to save a realistic amount of time to finish your work. Relax intentionally, and then work intentionally. But don’t fall into the trap of blaming other situations for you not having enough time to work. It was your decision to postpone: take responsibility for it. Making lists and keeping an internet-synced schedule is my key to staying sane. I am the worst procrastinator of them all, so I understand how terrible it makes you feel when the deadline is so close it is actually unrealistic for you to finish in time. Sometimes anxiety gets the better of you and you are incapable of starting, but with a plan of attack that breaks the work down into manageable chunks and allows you recreation time or that has a built-in reward system, 12-page papers can become reality.

MAKE SURE YOUR TOOLS ARE SHARP

Regardless of what your workload is, it is key to make sure that the tools you use to get the job done are in good condition. Instead of spending an hour and a half frustratedly working on an essay, intentionally chill for 20 minutes, get your head straight, and then spend an hour and 10 on the essay with your head in the right place. It is common in our society to just push through instead of stopping, focusing, and then re-attempting. Don’t fall victim to this. It is not cool, macho, strong, or anything like that. Care for yourself first, get ready to work, then take a shot at it.

I don’t want to go on with being “self-help-y” for too much longer, so I’ll wrap up with this: Challenge yourself and don’t stop yourself from asking for help. Your brain is a muscle and the more frequently you are in tough situations that you can develop creative solutions to, the more likely you are to be able to come up with the solutions quicker and more creatively in the future. And that is what life’s all about, isn’t it? Getting better at what it is you are doing, enjoying it, and sharing it with others. For me, van life has been the most significant challenge I have faced yet. That time when I was in a tough spot washroom-wise because the building I was parked by was closed, I simply relocated. Don’t get too attached to one particular place or phase of life, because nothing lasts forever. Change keeps you on your toes and the better you are at dealing with it, the simpler life becomes. Enjoy where you are for now and keep in mind you can always look back on how excellent it was here, but you never know if the grass is greener over there till you get there.

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