College students are sometimes too ambitious

Education Guide

While some students intentionally avoid joining campus organizations in college, others gain much satisfaction from their deep involvement.By the end of freshman year, they seem to be a member of every club. They are often referred to as “overachievers” or “freaking annoying.” Regardless, they can be seen walking swiftly — and yes, sometimes running — to their next class or meeting. Don’t ask them to hang out; they’re probably too busy.

click to enlargeJason Falsetto

  • Jason Falsetto

Jason Falsetto, a civil engineering major at Colorado State University-Pueblo, stands as the perfect example of a student/community-involvement junkie. He’s secretary of the Pueblo South High School Alumni Association, an organization that raises money for Pueblo South students. At 21, he’s the youngest board member.

The Kane Scholar also is the treasurer of the General Contractors Association at CSU-Pueblo, a member of the university’s President’s Leadership Program and a teaching assistant in an intro-level civil engineering class. At one point, he was also a member of the student government. Not to mention, he has a full-time course load.

Falsetto says his drive stems from wanting to make Pueblo a better place.

“I’m sixth-generation in this community and so the ties here, the roots in this portion of Colorado are very important to me,” he says, dressed in a neatly ironed suit and tie, his usual attire. “I started doing history research and it made me realize that we’ve become stagnant in many instances but we have the potential to move forward — really far forward.”

Falsetto says his parents also put some pressure on him. From a young age, he was taught to pay attention to his studies and receive high marks, saying his parents only cared about As.

His commitment comes with a price, though. He says he spends over 70 hours a week on campus activities alone. When the alumni association increased its meetings for the year, Falsetto quickly became stress-ridden and anxious.

“I wasn’t sleeping,” he says. “Instead of being effective for one or two groups I was doing horribly in all the groups.”

Other college students have found themselves in similar predicaments. Savannah Waggoner, a senior sports management major at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says she felt she was in over her head during the fall semester of her junior year.

click to enlargeSavannah Waggoner

  • Savannah Waggoner

At the time, Waggoner was working two part-time jobs, interning with the campus communications office and helping with USA Basketball, in addition to taking 18 credit hours. Waggoner says neither her parents nor her friends pushed her to join so many activities; she just wanted to get involved.

“That semester was definitely a rough one, but I made it,” she says.

Colleges and universities stress student involvement because it provides opportunities for education outside the classroom. In clubs and organizations, students build friendships, learn how to problem-solve and develop leadership qualities. Sure, some students join clubs out of a desire to help the community or to satisfy parents, but others join out of fear that they won’t be successful after graduation, and use extracurricular activities as a resumé-booster.

Either way, according to Brad Bayer, senior executive director of Student Life and Leadership at UCCS, student involvement “builds a sense of place and community on campus.”

He notes that in the 2015 UCCS freshman class, those who joined a club had an 80 percent retention rate, whereas those who did not had only a 62 percent retention rate. However, too many activities can take a toll on students and cause them to burn out quickly.

According the Marla Lucero, a professional counselor who works closely with college students at CSU-Pueblo’s Student Counseling Center, an unbalanced lifestyle can cause students to develop negative coping skills to relieve stress.

“A lot of people turn to numbing things — alcohol, drugs, video games, social media, shopping, gambling, sex, porn,” she says.

For her part, Waggoner says there have been times when tension overwhelmed her: “It’s definitely easy to get stressed out and just come home and want to just go to sleep after a long day.”

Stress can also worsen preexisting anxiety and depression. For Falsetto, bouts of depression have been common since his senior year of high school.

“I become ineffective on everything, including school,” he says. “Thankfully, knock on wood, things are pretty under control, but there have been times every year that I crash for a week or two.”

Aside from parental pressure, Lucero says part of the reason why it’s so difficult for students to maintain a balanced lifestyle is because over working has become a normal part of American society.

“We live in a culture where everything is fast-paced, and ‘do it now,'” she says. “It’s almost like there’s a badge of honor with being exhausted and working until you collapse — it’s very detrimental to your brain.”

Universities in Colorado provide resources for students struggling to keep up with demands. UCCS has a mental health services program, where students can seek professional help from a counselor at $15 per session. Student employee supervisors are also coached on how to help students through difficult times.

Colorado College offers students six free counseling appointments per year. More than 30 percent of students use the counseling center, says Heather Horton, director of the campus’s Wellness Resource Center. The WRC also conducts campus programming that teaches the community to identify mental health challenges to prevent suicide.

At CSU-Pueblo, the counseling center gives students eight free counseling sessions a semester in addition to optional acupuncture treatment.

Benek Altayli, UCCS mental health services director, says that students must maintain a balanced lifestyle and find time for rest and play. Altayli says lack of sleep can cause cognitive processes to slow down and a poor diet can contribute to difficulties in concentration.

“A lot of the time, students think they don’t have enough time for one or more of these, but the consequences of neglecting important needs prevents them from accomplishing their priorities,” she says.

In a 2009 study in the Journal of College Counseling, more than 22 percent of college students reported poor sleep habits, and more than 65 percent said they experienced occasional sleep problems. Other studies suggest college is a period of critical risk for weight gain.

Lucero says students need to practice mindfulness when they are feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes this means prioritizing and even quitting a few activities to make room for a more balanced lifestyle. She says taking on too many tasks will not necessarily guarantee a student access to a top-notch graduate school or job.

Although Falsetto and Waggoner are heavily involved on campus, both have scaled back a bit. Waggoner is no longer working two jobs and, as noted, Falsetto resigned from his position with the student government. While neither regret joining so many clubs, they have some advice for students entering college. Waggoner, who was able to maintain a 4.0 during her hectic semester, recommends writing in a planner and finding a support system.

“If somebody is wondering if they’re going to be too stressed out by being involved, my advice to them is just to try it out and see how it is,” Waggoner says.

Falsetto says there’s no magic number of clubs that every student should join: “Some people can invest all of their time into one organization, and they do a great job in that organization. And some people can do two or three, and do very well in those three organizations. It depends on the person and how well they can handle the work given to them.”