The Last Six Weeks of College: The Survival Instinct and The College Student’s Hierarchy of Needs

March 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Long before our ancestors transitioned to being farmers, they were hunters and gatherers who moved throughout the land as they followed their migrating food. The wild was a dangerous place, and living to see the following day was considered an accomplishment. Typically, surviving the elements, disease, and predators was a feat only achieved by relying on a powerful instinct that has lived within all living things since the dawn of time: the instinct of survival.

Today this primitive instinct still rests within the core of our beings. It still emerges even though today we are surrounded by the comforts of walls, roofs, and easy access to food and medicine. The fight or flight reaction emerges when we are in a life or death situation. The instinct for survival emerges when women give birth. It emerges when we are stranded in the desert, or on an island, or with a group of people that have voted us to be the first to be eaten if all else fails. And it emerges for exhausted, worn out, used up, nearly defeated, nearly hopeless college students who are six weeks shy of getting their degrees.

The survival instinct. At this point, it is my only explanation for how in the hell I managed to get to this point in my college career.

For those of you who are new here, let me prelude this by saying I am currently finishing up my degree in sustainability (one of the most complicated degrees in the history of man) at Arizona State University. That’s not all I’ve gotten myself into, but I’ll get to that later. Like all worthy causes, obtaining this degree has required a great deal of sacrifice and a great deal of sanity. Because the end of the semester is near, all of the homework and the projects and the papers are starting to pile up. But because I also graduate in just 47 days, the portfolios and mock interview and the capstone presentation and the job searching and the involvement in many cool opportunities are starting to pile up, too.

Enter the survival instinct.

To give you some perspective of how much sanity I’ve lost by now, the other night I was standing in my kitchen staring into space, trying to remember what I had eaten earlier in the afternoon. My mom came in, took one long look at me, and asked me if I was okay. Forming coherent sentences is not my strong point these days, so I babbled something about having no idea how I was going to make it through the next six weeks of school.

My mom, as all mommies do, knew what to say.

“If you could survive a disease at birth that killed 99% of all other babies,” she told me firmly, “you can survive this. Fight on.”

Background: I did almost die at birth (and in fact only had a 1% chance of survival), but most of the time I think that it was merely a lucky coincidence that Phoenix Children’s Hospital was able to save my life. The other times, when I’m in one of my philosophical moods, I wonder if that primal survival instinct kicked in for my newborn self and forced me to keep fighting.

For all I know, it could have happened way back then. If it did, it is very well happening for me again.

My course load is pretty standard for a college senior: right now I am balancing 17 credit hours and an internship that includes lesson planning and teaching. I’ve also gotten involved in quite a few projects that are saving my sanity yet undeniably eating into my time: the Total Transformation Sustainable Showcase in New River and growing my own little garden. The other project is something I’m really excited about: SmartRoots Global – a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating children in international communities about sustainability. It’s still in the development stages, and I have been asked by its founder to help plan sustainability curriculum.

The biggest, most important thing that I’ve undertaken is studying for the LEED Green Associate exam – an enormously complicated, comprehensive test facilitated through the U.S. Green Building Council about the LEED certification process. Because I want to work for the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools one day, passing this exam is my first step into securing a job there in the future. The problem? It requires between 40 – 60 hours of study, and I’m taking it on May 10th.

Have you heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Basically, it’s a theory that categorizes human wants and needs into a pyramid, with things like the ability to be creative on the very top and basic human necessities like food and water on the bottom.

Now, translate that into the wants and needs of the average college student, and you’d get something like new clothes and healthy but expensive food on top and coffee and the occasional full night of sleep at the bottom. Human interaction falls somewhere in the middle, and alcohol can be cast aside or the number one priority based on your preference.

I feel like throughout my time in college, the typical wants and needs within all those top layers are melting away. I mentioned before how obtaining this degree required sacrifices. I think I speak for all college students when I say those sacrifices are making my instinct to survive come through to save me.

My social life was the first thing to go. This last semester of college has absolutely killed – destroyed – whatever social life I managed to carry on with me from freshman year. The last time I saw any of my friends in person was some time in January. I talk to one or two of my closest circle on Facebook every now and then. But for the most part? The two living beings I talk to the most in person outside of anyone in my classes or my internship are my cat and my boyfriend. And even then they hear mostly of my stress or my insane dreams to move to Washington, D.C. Although sometimes – if I didn’t sleep well the night before – I narrate my day to my cat. And she judges me.

Next went my organization. I look around my room now and see piled clothes everywhere, dust collecting on my bookshelves and piano, textbooks, papers, documents, notebooks, and pens strewn absolutely everywhere, kitty litter tracked in all over the carpet, and the occasional cup or plate on any flat surface that will support its weight. My car looks like I live out of it (which is half-true). My bathroom could probably win an award at a science fair if I ripped it out of my house and plopped it onto some elementary school’s stage.

Then went my job. I lasted my second to last semester and two months into this final semester before I heard about the LEED Green Associate exam and knew in order to study for it I would have to quit. Quitting was devastating. Hallmark was the first retail job I had worked that I actually liked.

Then – and yes, I fully admit this – went myself. Exercise? Eating full meals and healthy food? Doing anything more than washing my face and throwing my hair up in a ponytail every morning? Ain’t nobody got time for that! The only thing I give myself credit for is that most days I make myself put on makeup for the sole intent of hiding the dark circles under my eyes and convincing people I am not a zombie. It’s also a good thing I am hypoglycemic, otherwise I would probably never eat, though I’m pretty sure I don’t have any blood left and that there is just coffee running through my veins instead.

But dammit, I’m surviving. I’m doing this somehow. I may not be battling saber-tooth tigers or trying to find food in the dead of winter to feed my family, but I’m keeping up with all the work that needs to be done in order for me to walk across that stage. Yes, those layers in the hierarchy have been stripped away. But I do have one thing left, and that is the instinct to keep going. The crazy voice in my head that tells me to keep pushing myself, to study for just another ten minutes, to organize another group meeting, to modify another lesson, to try and get up a little earlier to work on another paper.

I know this won’t last. I know I could have it much worse. I know graduating from college is a privilege I should be thankful for. And most importantly, I know that every part of me is going to want to give everything to be back in school the moment I’m done. But this balancing act is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.

Like a starving man clutching scraps of food, I am clinging to anything and everything that reminds me of my upcoming graduation. A few days ago my graduation announcements came in, and I nearly cried upon seeing them. They were a shining light at the end of this huge, difficult tunnel for me. A glimpse at what is yet to come.

I have no conclusion to this, because this is far from over. 47 more days before I can be a normal human being again. 47 more days of relying on this instinct to keep me from saying to hell with it and jumping on a plane to Paris so I can live a Bohemian lifestyle for the rest of my life.

That actually doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

But anyway.

I survived as an infant when there was no logical reason for me to make it past my first 12 hours.

And I will survive now.

[She sums it up nicely, don’t you think? I’m thinking I need a pair of those red pants. And roller-skates.]


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