How Burnout Feels When You're Black at Vanderbilt

Maia Thornton

Vanderbilt is known for having students who “work hard, play hard.” If I’m being honest with myself, that was a huge selling point when I picked this university. I wanted a place where I could continue to be studious, but somewhere I could also have fun. If you ask a Vandy student about what they’re involved in, you’ll probably hear two different majors, a minor, a handful of student organizations, a job, and three executive board positions. As Vanderbilt students, we strive for perfection and excellence, but at what cost? The cost is ourselves. Our personal health and wellbeing. Our friends. Our family. And I promise you, this burden is not sustainable. Everyone has a breaking point. It manifests itself through loss of appetite, panic attacks, depression, and anxiety. We sacrifice ourselves to fulfill an idealized superhuman role. Yet, we don’t have superpowers. We are humans with essential needs of sleep, food, relaxation, and affection. “Stressed” is not meant to be our constant state of being.

When I’m on campus, the work never seems to end. I find myself constantly crossing out items on my to-do list just to add five more. My Google calendar dictates my life by telling me when and where to go. My weekly cardio consists of running across campus to one meeting to another. “Free” days mean catching up on homework or scheduling essential appointments that otherwise would not fit into my schedule. Admittedly, some weeks it feels like I’m like drowning. During every weekly Sunday phone call with my mother, she suggests that I “give something up.” And every time, I reply, “Sure, Mom, I’ll think about it.” Then I hang up the phone, continue working on my to-do list, and plan out the rest of my hectic week.

And this is where being burnt out at Vanderbilt is just different when you’re Black. I acknowledge that all students experience this phenomenon. We all work hard and “grind” 24/7. But not every Vanderbilt student has to “work twice as hard to get half as much.” When someone tells me that I should “give something up,” that computes in my head as giving up my entire future. In my mind, if I rest, even for a second, I’m forfeiting the future that my ancestors dreamed for me. So, I keep running around campus. I involve myself in every endeavor that seems like it would secure or advance my future plans. I overcommit myself to various obligations. I do this because I am told that I am “Black Girl Magic”. I should strive to be exceptional because that’s what being Black is. What no one ever told me is that I don’t always have to be magical. I don’t have to leave a mystical, glitter-coated trail everywhere I go. I can fail. I can fall short of expectations. I can give myself grace. My parents recently told me that no matter what happens in my future, they are already proud of me, and I cried. Those tears rolling down my face represented the pure relief pouring out of my body.

I’m not writing for sympathy or pity. I’m revealing my own struggles to bring light to an issue and display it as a reality for so many Black Vanderbilt students that needs to be addressed. I’m still currently struggling through this phase in my life, but luckily I’ve found some coping mechanisms. I’ve learned that at times abandoning my responsibilities is okay. Sometimes I’m purposely unreachable because my phone and computer are on ‘Do Not Disturb’. I promise you that I’m probably just in my room, laughing to myself while watching The Office for the ninth time. It is okay to not want to be constantly flooded with obligations or requests from other people. It’s not selfish nor irresponsible, you’re simply taking care of yourself so that you can be your best. You can’t give to others if you’re empty inside.

So, here are my final thoughts. Close your eyes. Breathe. Take a break. Ignore your responsibilities for an hour or a day. I’m asking you to be irresponsible. Don’t look at your emails. Stop responding to GroupMe messages. Minimize the window that has thirty internship and job applications open. Just be with yourself in that moment. In this instance, you’re not a managing editor, a president, a secretary, or a treasurer. In this moment, you do not have to be extraordinary or exceptional. In this moment, you are just yourself.

This article is inspired by “This is What Black Burnout Looks Like,” a Buzzfeed News article written by Tianna Clark, a Vanderbilt alumna in the MFA program.

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