In defiance of ‘the opposite of ordinary’

A few weeks ago I attended every involved Ohio Wesleyan student’s favorite spring-semester reason to complain – OWU Summit.

The three-and-a-half-hour conference is, in theory, a good idea. It seeks to unite all campus leaders (a fairly dubious term) to create greater synergy and collaboration within and between organizations. It’s an admirable goal, but a difficult one to achieve. Because all the people who attend, either by choice or by supreme edict of OrgSync, could be doing something else that afternoon in pursuit of fulfilling our many obligations, we inevitably complain about how it’s a waste of our time.

I kept an open mind. I thought a session about “well-being at OWU” could be particularly fruitful.

I, along with so many of my friends, are involved so heavily in so many things that we often have trouble taking care of ourselves. I thought this session might perhaps address the culture of overinvolvement among the students of this university, how it can be detrimental to us, and offer some advice for mitigating it.

I sure was wrong.

The presenters were engaging. The information made sense, and certainly wasn’t useless. And I’ll admit there was an entire book on which the presentation was based to cover in 40 minutes.

But instead of addressing an elephant in the room – a silently enforced standard of being the “opposite of ordinary” that all our Admissions marketing so boldly purports – the session offered simple solutions to complex problems.

For financial well-being, get a job, save money and spend wisely. As if differing economic circumstances don’t prevent any OWU students from doing so. For social well-being, attend events and talk to people or join a club. As if social anxiety doesn’t often preclude that, or other factors besides the size of one’s social networks – like an over-packed schedule that requires penciling in of time with friends – don’t make social well-being difficult.

I think the Ohio Wesleyan administration proffers simple solutions to complex problems quite often (the $50 million in deferred maintenance to residential buildings, for example). But the simplest solution to something is to not talk about it.

That is the solution posited by the Offices of Student Involvement and Admissions to the aforementioned culture of overinvolvement, enforced by the loaded standard of “the opposite of ordinary” that Ohio Wesleyan students seem to have internalized.

As I interpret the slogan’s dogma, the goal of student life at OWU is to do as many things as humanly possible. That’s it. Fill your planner with a rainbow of color-coded obligations. Spend your evenings in meetings, rehearsals and lectures and your nights and early mornings immersed in homework. Don’t forget to go to class and maintain a high GPA so our average statistics look good next to Denison’s in all the college guidebooks.

This lifestyle is not sustainable. So many people I know run around all day, stay up into the night working and sleep between three and six hours a night for weeks at a time. There is a point when time management becomes impossible because there are too many things to manage and not enough time in which one can manage them. Concessions must sometimes be made, but when they are the standard of perfection “the opposite of ordinary” invokes replaces that skipped meeting or unfinished paper with a burden of guilt – at least for me.

I know this was not the intent of the slogan’s clever authors. It is certainly a reflection of OWU’s extraordinary qualities – its dedication to community, service and broadening worldviews on the part of faculty, staff, administrators and students – and I appreicate it for that. But the egg laid by the hen has hatched a dangerous cock. The tag line is no longer just a reflection of the positive bits, but an engine of the culture of overinvolvement that exhausts me and so many other students.

I don’t think Student Invovlement or Admissions are bad at what they do. They are incredibly successful at getting motivated students to attend OWU and get involved once they arrive. They help students find their niche and a larger sense of purpose, and that is entirely commendable.

But what is missing is any sort of conversation about moderation, self-care and the healthiness of saying no. Being busy isn’t a bad thing. It can create a lot of fulfillment and lay the foundations for important life skills. But it has a point of diminishing returns. Overcommitment leads to unhealthy habits, and sometimes the answer is to withdraw from those commitments. But the culture of our university doesn’t even present that as an option, because if we did we wouldn’t be “the opposite of ordinary.”

The slogan holds us to a standard we can’t reach. We are ordinary people. Everyone is. We need rest. We need resources for when we’re overwhelmed. We need reassurance that it’s okay that we can’t do everything, and that sometimes it’s good to say no or drop out. We need a culture of healthy student involvement, not overinvolvement. And sometimes we need an ordinary day.

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  1. Thank you, Noah, for raising this important concern. I see this a lot in my involvement with the Spring Break Mission program, in my student workers, and in organizing Earthdance Delaware. Hopefully your editorial will stimulate some serious conversation on the topic around campus.

  2. Noah, you did a fantastic job laying out the concerns that I believe many current students (and former ones) have or had about our campus involvement. Being involved and engaged and taking action in the campus community is all well and good, but there is something to be said for mindful occupation over simply being busy. I hope that the campus culture will adapt to reflect the need for every student to have an “ordinary day” (and a full night of sleep once in awhile!) – it would be a great improvement.

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