During the past few years of college, I’ve learned to love saying “no.”

 As a high school “yes man,” I stretched myself to the brink with clubs, sports, arts and activities. But the thing about college is that rather than stretching you, it has a tendency to snap you. Therefore, in my time at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I’ve prided myself on my ability to turn away, even when it’s not the most conventional. 

 This is why last week, when asked to complete some interviews during UNL’s fall break as class work, my answer was thus: “No. I will enjoy this break or I will break.”

In hindsight, the response was rather blunt and dramatic, but as a blunt and dramatic person, I don’t regret it. After all, in our modern world, championing our own mental health is necessary and welcome, especially during planned breaks. However, it appears my response was also naive because, unlike my interviews, my instructors didn’t give me a choice when it came to the substantial amount of coursework I was asked to complete during my “break.”

Instead, I ran the gauntlet of discussion boards, readings, assignments and pitches. I had assignments due over the weekend, barring me from going on a trip or spending my weekend with family. I even had a teacher attempt to schedule class conferences on Monday — during the break — before ultimately deciding against it.

After the nonstop academic year of 2020-2021, I especially looked forward to this year’s scheduled time off. With a full academic semester that spans from August to December, we don’t need to rush through breaks. They are meant to be enjoyed.

It is time for UNL to relearn how to embrace breaks.

I have no desire to relive the 2020-2021 school year, a time of online classes and isolation — both socially and literally, locked in the dim depths of isolation housing at Piper Hall for a week in November 2020. The anguish of my sophomore year was further aggravated by a freight train of an academic year that ran from August until Thanksgiving without a single break.  

College is a stressful time. For the first time in your life, you’re off on your own, balancing a teeter-totter of financial, academic, mental and professional responsibilities that are always new and overwhelming.

The 2020-2021 academic year was survivable for me, but it wasn’t pleasant. It will forever stick in my mind for the mental breakdowns it caused me on a monthly basis, and not the cute “haha-I’m-a-college-kid-I’m-so-quirky-and-tired” kind of mental breakdown, the kind normalized to a gross degree in modern college culture. I mean the malnutrition-weight-loss, seeking-professional-help mental breakdowns, caused by a straight semester of work without rest.

I was so excited to see breaks on this year’s calendar. It filled me with a sense of hope, like the calendar contained just enough extra boosts to get me to the finish line. However, that hope was in vain. Struck by constant schoolwork and additional expectations, “break” was an illusion, and after coming out the other side, I was anything but recharged.

In the last few decades, our society has done a fantastic job of uplifting the importance of mental health. We are all aware of the positive effects of spending time to heal ourselves during a break, whether that be catching up on sleep, letting our brains absorb a new TV show or traveling home to visit our family. 

However, strangely enough, we can’t seem to close that gap from envisioning mental health practices and actually putting those practices into use. Nowhere is that exemplified better than the facade of this week’s fall “break,” created by a university that claims to be so invested in our well-being that it has developed nine dimensions of it.

As for the instructors themselves assigning the work, I don’t believe the blame should fall solely on them. I understand that a break can feel like wasting time. After all, instructors are required to get through so much course material in a semester. This becomes especially important in the fall semester when delays like snow days happen later in the year. Furthermore, these instructors are held to greater standards of what students learn, often atop research obligations.

That said, the idea of “break” should be especially applicable to instructors. In a perfect break, the professors of UNL wouldn’t touch a single paper or grade a single assignment. “Break” means exactly that — a time for rest — throughout the hierarchy of our university. 

But herein lies the tricky part: break must be recognized and enforced throughout the hierarchy. Instead of students or teachers, the blame truly falls on the culture sustained by this university and, in all honesty, by the American greed that squeezes rigor from participants so thoroughly that all lower members, both students and faculty included, are crushed to a pulp. 

In my time at UNL, I’ve become astounded by the level at which exhaustion is normalized by the adult working world. In our country’s workforce, a diehard dedication to the office is fused into the culture of highly-educated adults, and this translates to the realm of academia as well. 

College students shouldn’t feel ashamed for wanting their time-off. On the other side of the coin, instructors shouldn’t feel ashamed about allowing students the space to enjoy their break. There may be a gap in the lesson calendar, but that doesn’t mean that blank space isn’t valuable. 

So in the end, what are students supposed to do? Many of us lack the power to make constructive change at our own university, let alone the fabric of American labor culture. 

I suppose the best option we have is to stick up for ourselves. Embrace the selfishness of prioritizing your mental health before your assignments. Remind those who prod at you about your many expectations and responsibilities, and feel free to be blunt and dramatic when you do so. 

More than anything, practice the little word that can start a movement: no.

Emma Krab is a junior English and journalism major. Reach her at emmakrab@dailynebraskan.com.