For the entirety of my academic career, I have been a die-hard nerd. When I was little, I used to petition my dad to borrow extensive encyclopedias on animal biology for me from the library. In elementary and middle school, I took enrichment classes to plan my own independent research projects. Up until freshman year of high school, my interest in learning was just that – my own. Sadly, this changed drastically in high school when impending SAT exams and college applications began to loom. Suddenly, my interests were reduced to single items on resumes that could be cruelly analyzed by administrators; the devotion to academic toil limited to one deceivingly innocent GPA. During junior and senior year, I struggled with mental health issues and sleep deprivation, both of which were driven by the insane level of academic competitiveness of my peers and the ever-present terror of colleges that had yet to accept me. I wish that starting as a freshman at Temple helped to alleviate this ridiculous push to be a “perfect” student, but it really only worsened the situation. Immediately after accepting a position in Temple Honors, I began browsing the multitudes of courses available, challenging myself to cram a schedule with advanced material. The quest for “academic perfection” was (thankfully) thwarted spring semester of my sophomore year after suffering for weeks from study-induced anxiety attacks.
Prior to moving to New Zealand, I assumed that this crippling need for academic perfection was just the way of life for all hardworking college students. Most of my American friends at home are also guilty of over-pressuring themselves academically, so my study-induced mental health issues seemed like the norm. After two months of being a student at the University of Otago, I can confidently say that I was completely wrong. The method of study in New Zealand universities is completely different than in the United States. Rather than spending my entire day in class, rushing to extracurricular activities, and then drowning myself in studies at the library, my average day at Otago consists of one or two classes with the occasional evening or weekend extracurricular excursion. I am not expected to produce a constant supply of essays, assignments, or homeworks; my final grades for my classes are based on one or two major essays and a final exam. Instead of freaking out about what marks I’m getting on assignments, I actually enjoy the material that is presented in class and can engage in discussion. In fact, the limited length and frequency of classes encourage me to pursue course topics on my own outside of class and start essays/assignments way ahead of their due dates. Apart from attending courses and completing independent work, I have copious amounts of time for developing the types of interests that I had as a child – ones cultivated purely for the sake of enjoying something new. So far, I have taken up painting (pointilist-style, and inspired by photos from incredible hikes I’ve done on the South Island) and bikram yoga, two things that I’ve always wanted to improve at but never had the time. This relaxed schedule has essentially eliminated the mental health issues that I struggle with in the United States, as well as produced a sub-conscious motivation for me to stabilize my new found sense of inner peace and good health. Rather than scarfing down quick lunches from food trucks (no matter how tasty they are), I cook all of my own meals and spend at least a half hour eating with my flatmates. Although I ran regularly in the United States, I could never exceed past a certain level physically due to time constraints or stress. Now, I’ve been able to improve my running times and conquer farther distances.
In New Zealand, the pace of life is much slower. The “city” where I live, Dunedin, is much smaller than Philadelphia. The entire “city center” of Dunners could probably fit within Rittenhouse Square. People aren’t breaking their necks to walk to their next appointments. Shops close by 4 or 5 at the latest, and there is no threat of danger for a young person walking around alone at night. Most oddly, there is a sense of quiet throughout Dunedin – not a literal absence of sound, but lack of chaos – the type that permeates North Philadelphia so intensely. New Zealanders value mental health, personal wellbeing, and leisure time. I am a city-lover at heart, and in the United States, this seems to require a certain degree of neuroticism that is not present in New Zealand. I miss jay-walking in Center City with a piping hot La Colombe coffee in tow. I miss stuffing my face with Halal before hopping on the subway to show up mid-opener to a concert at the TLA. I oddly miss opening my windows to honking horns, shouting, and chattering neighbors- I miss the ever-pulsing heartbeat of huge East Coast cities that refuse to sleep. What I don’t miss is crying in my bedroom at 3 am because I still have a French paper to write, or hyperventilating to my mom on the phone because my anxiety is out of control. Or sleep deprivation. Or feeling like my life is completely out of control because I have stretched myself too thin.
When I leave New Zealand, I am determined to carry this newfound peace and mental stability back to the United States. Now that I am living the Kiwi lifestyle – one of increased attention to happiness, health, and peace – I refuse to let my own fixations on academic perfection and overcommitment take over my life. My new mantra is as follows: breathe deeply, sleep well, do what you love, and stay happy.