Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Of all the reasons that college excited me, I was most taken by the fact that, for the first time, it appeared that my life was a blank slate. I no longer had a high school reputation, could pursue unexplored interests, and ultimately learn new things about who I was as a student as well as a young adult. The idea of a fresh start sounded great in theory, but I was left with one pressing question the day I arrived on campus: Where do I start?
That is when I discovered it was a perfect time to pursue a passion project — something I never had the bandwidth to do before. Pursuing something I love (in my case, photography and working with international students) has amplified my sense of self-discovery.
Despite the time constraints of college — as well as growing pressure to select a career path before you’ve graduated — your undergraduate years are the perfect time to pursue a passion you were intimidated by in the past, or perhaps never even realized you had. Not only can a passion project make you more resilient in the face of challenges, but it can also make a positive impact on your health and well-being.
Develop, don’t identify, a passion
In 2018, Stanford University researchers found several problems in urging students to simply “find their passion”: That statement narrowed their focus and led to the misconception that they could only be successful in one thing, whereas the biggest advances in science and business often happen when different fields are brought together. Rather than “finding” a passion, the researchers suggest that students “develop” their passion. This simple yet powerful change in phrasing and perspective is more realistic, and indicates that challenges, as well as failure, should be expected, accepted, and taken in stride. “You take some time to do it, you encounter challenges, over time you build that commitment,” says Gregory Walton, one of the study’s co-authors, in Inc.
Focus on the benefits of trying something new
Attempting something you’ve never done before, whether that’s learning a new language or trying a new sport, can be intimidating. As a first-year student, I joined a multicultural club focused on recruiting and welcoming international students to our university. Although I was enthusiastic about the opportunity, I was anxious, too. I had never done something like this before. I worried about language barriers and my ability to communicate effectively with my peers. What’s more, I felt immense pressure — as a member of the club, I conducted interviews with prospective international students and answered any questions they had about college life. Because I was still a freshman, I questioned my ability to be a representative of my university, and wanted to be forthcoming while sharing my experiences in the best light possible.
Little did I know that participating in this club would be one of the most fulfilling experiences I’d have as an undergrad. I was introduced to new and diverse perspectives, and developed a deeper connection to my school. Instead of letting my fears hold me back, I worked hard and recognized the value in trying something completely new. Science confirms this value, too. We can make new neural connections in our brains by acquiring new skills and engaging in new social activities. This type of cognitive and social engagement can protect against cognitive decline, which often leads to depression and isolation.
Taking time for you can decrease stress
Engaging in a passion project is actually a method of self-care. Dedicating time each day or week to a leisure activity of your choosing can spark your sense of wonder and ultimately have a positive impact on your overall health. One study found that individuals who more frequently engaged in activities they enjoyed reported greater life satisfaction, social support, and physical activity, as well as decreased signs of depression. These are benefits every college student needs — with a growing number of students struggling with their mental health, engaging in an activity or project you are passionate about can provide solace in the midst of stress.
My college experience has consisted of passion projects both big and small. From experimenting with photography in my free time to joining clubs that encouraged me to develop new skills, I was able to channel my passions to have a more meaningful college experience and heighten my sense of well-being. I encourage you to try this, too.
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