University students are placed under a great amount of stress to meet deadlines and perform well in school, often at the cost of their mental, physical and/or emotional health. Faking illnesses, drinking many cups of coffee, and pulling all-nighters are common practice we all know and hear of, but how far have some people really gone for school?
Meet Brenda Fernandes*, a second-year UTSC student who has several health problems yet is trying hard to achieve in school, at home, and in her own personal life. She has medications for her polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) that doesn’t directly treat the PCOS, but to control any hormonal changes that could increase her chances of developing PCOS later on in life.
The Underground (UG): What do you usually do around final assignments and exam time in order to keep up with work and your grades?
Brenda Fernandes (BF): I usually have about three coffees a day to keep myself going from one class to another. If I’m planning to stay up at night, I’ll have a RedBull.
UG: Do you have any conflicts that arise between doing what you do to get your work done and the PCOS side effects/medications?
BF: Technically, I’m not supposed to take other medications along with my PCOS medications. But sometimes, when you have assignments due or a final, and you have a headache that’s preventing you from working, you do what you have to do.
UG: Knowing the dangers of mixing the medications, why do you do it?
BF: I find that I am expected to perform well in school. If I suffer from pain, I can easily solve it with some Advil. The medication for PCOS also makes me drowsy and that cuts into my study time. You can’t help it; you literally pass out at some point. My personal health means very little to me if it means I can pass. I know I should care more, but everyone puts so much focus on my performance, that it’s now become my focus too.
UG: Do you think the school provides a good environment for your health needs? Why or why not?
BF: The school provides little to no help or support for it’s students. If anything, I find more and more students are stressed out and taking actions that seem more dangerous than taking a painkiller and hormone medications.
Like Fernandes, students often put their own health second in order to achieve the marks needed. While there are no immediate consequences to her choices, others have suffered for the choices they had made in order to achieve the desired result that they felt expected of them. One example of such a person is Sebastian Hossien*. He learned his lesson after the horrifying experience that he had to endure.
UG: Do you feel pressured to do well in school?
Sebastian Hossien (SH): I often feel pressured into performing well, despite struggling to find time to balance everything in this life. The pressure comes from parents, professors and the life you are expected to have after university is over.
UG: What was an experience you want to tell me about that you thought would help you and new students who are studying in university now?
SH: I had three exams booked very close together, not to mention I had already been up a few nights working on those. My body did not want to function.
UG: Did you try to speak to someone at the school?
SH: I did, however my exams were positioned in such a way that the school could not defer one for a later date
UG: What did you do to get through the remaining exams?
SH: I was already in bad shape after the first exam. Both eyes had broken blood vessels and I had some eye drops I got from one of my doctors to soothe the pain. I would also have nine-ten caffeinated beverages just to keep myself awake and focus for classes. Those were not going to keep on working, I could feel it wearing off already.
I ended up panicking and breaking down to an acquaintance about what was happening in my life and how tired I felt. He somehow convinced me that what I needed is exactly what he was selling. I knew it was illegal, I don’t know to this day why I agreed.
That night, despite attempting to avoid the mix I had obtained from my friend, I eventually came to the decision that I was going to do it.
UG: Did you know what you were doing?
SH: No, not a clue, and I was so paranoid to search it up, I ignored it and took it the way you’d take a shot: Mixed in a drink and swallowed before you could taste it.
UG: Did it have the effects you were seeking out?
SH: I have to say, I was very impressed when I actually stayed awake and wrote the second exam. However, I could feel the tired sleepless nights; it was taking a toll on my body. I thought if I went home, I would be able to squeeze in a small nap before the last test. I remember going home and nothing else, until I woke up inside a hospital.
Turns out my housemates found me lying on the ground and when they couldn’t wake me, they called authorities.
UG: What was it that had happened?
SH: Turns out, there had been small tears in my lining and I had bleed internally. I needed a transfusion. The doctors told me I was lucky. Any later and I could have gone into a coma or died. However, despite everything, I did end up missing that exam and had to redo the course.
UG: How has this experience changed you?
SH: To this day, while I’m not supposed to anyways, I will not touch coffee or any other caffeinated beverage. Kids get all this pressure from their families and school to do well. No one wants to fail. But I don’t think they realize how much damage doing something as simple as mixing over-the-counter medication and caffeine can do to their bodies, and chances are even if they do, they live in the present, where the marks come above everything, including their physical health.
When asked about any advice he would like to pass onto students who find themselves in a situation similar to his, he says, “You laugh when you see posters telling you the dangers of drugs because you think you are above that, but yet, you will grab a RedBull when you know you have to stay up all night. Students don’t realize what they’re putting into their bodies– or maybe they don’t care – but when you get as close as I did to death, you realize that university isn’t a race. It isn’t who gets the most marks the fastest. It’s about taking things slowly, at your pace, doing things that suit your lifestyle. Don’t listen to everyone telling you how they tackled six courses a semester. Listen to the needs of your body first. It’s the only thing that will hold you back if you don’t take care of it.”
* Interviewee’s identity held upon request