First day of class and I’m overwhelmed

Students walking up the hill at the University of Iowa Pentacrest

When I was in college, the fall semester always started on a Wednesday in late August. Middle of the week — go figure. Maybe it was because someone knew how things would play out:

I went to the first session of the first course. The teacher introduced the subject, talked about what to expect and handed out a booklist and syllabus.

The syllabus contained details about readings for each class session, assignments, when tests would take place and anything else you needed to know. A detailed schedule for the next 16 or so weeks that made up the semester. I felt my free time shrinking rapidly.

And that was before checking the booklist. Some courses had a short list. But short can be deceiving. Because that one textbook might be a balmy 1,600 pages of dense print. With next to no illustrations.

Other courses had long booklists. Sometimes divided into required and optional. (Depending on the teacher, “optional” might really mean “totally required — you will be tested on this” or “here’s more good stuff if you want to dig deeper, but it’s not on the test.”)

Not that I’d have time to ponder much at this point, because the teacher would already have moved into the teaching mode. So whip out pen and paper to take notes like crazy. Because test.

When the bell rang, everyone rushed out. 10 minutes to get to the next class. Where the procedure would be repeated. And so on, until there was a bit of space before the next class, or I’d been through all of them for this day.

Neither meant I could relax. Because now the chase for textbooks was on. Before the internet and online shopping, that meant dashing to one or more of the bookstores. Random guess at which one was most likely to have the needed book. Of course there’d be at least 300 other students, booklist in hand, crammed into the store, each frantically looking for the books on their list.

Having secured books for today’s courses, I schlepped it all home and admired the pile, knowing that I’d do it all over tomorrow. Only saving grace was that by the end of the short week, I had been through the first session of all my courses for the semester. All the syllabi sitting there, along with checked off booklists. And stacks of textbooks. If life was good, I’d been able to get some of them used. Because a dollar saved, is, well, a dollar saved. Which makes a big difference for a student.

But the main thought at that point wasn’t about a dollar saved. It was about how many pages I would have to read and digest before the end of the semester. Yes, it’s exciting to learn new things. But it’s also kind of frightening to look at all the papers to write, assignments to complete and readings to do.

Yes, starting a new semester included a fair amount of overwhelm. At least once for each course.

This repeated each semester, each year of college. Somehow seemed that it never became routine, because each semester start brought fresh challenges.

How to avoid that overwhelm? Easy, don’t take any classes. Just stay where you are. Never change. But that wasn’t an option to me as a student, so I pushed forward. And it’s of course not an option if you want move forward in life in general either.

Once past that initial few days of the semester, things quickly settled into a routine and what was at first so overwhelming, became routine and pretty manageable. At the end of the semester, I might even feel like I was going to miss this or that class, teacher or interaction.

Times of lots going on and overwhelm are not limited to starting a new semester in school. Just think about starting a new job, moving, continuing education, work assignments, work projects, or even life itself, when we move into a new phase of life.

What did help me get through that hectic beginning-of-semester time was a couple of things that came with each new course: Syllabus and booklist. Because they constituted a plan forward. A roadmap.

Faced with many other challenges in life, we don’t get nice roadmaps like that. We have to find a way to make them ourselves or seek guidance from peple who’ve been through the same or similar thing before.

Somewhere in there, I learned that the first step to managing overwhelm is to break it down into chunks and those chunks into smaller tasks. All to eventually come down to one or two things I can do today that will help me towards the ultimate goal. Because I have to start somewhere. And once I’m moving, it gets a little easier to figure out the next step.

Another thing that helped me make it through those days of scurrying and confusion was knowing that this was just the for the first few days of the semester. Things would soon settle down into a more manageable routine.

The same holds true for many other challenges we face in life. A new job will be challenging at first, but we also know that it will become less so as we get used to it and master what’s involved.

It might seem that knowing that the hectic stressful period is going to pass, we should just jump right into a new challenge. Because it will sort itself out and things will be okay.

With classes there’s no choice. Classes start at the given date and time. Other things in life are not so set. Many fall into the “someday” category. As in “someday I will do X.” Just not today, because today I’m busy with other things (or just too scared to take the first step toward X).

We tell ourselves that this new thing is too different, to hard. That I’m too old, or don’t have what it takes to master it. And yet, back in college, I could have claimed any of those things as well (okay, maybe not too old).

For all the uncertainty and overwhelm at the beginning of a semester, I also recall the release and feeling of accomplishment as the semester ended. Another step towards completing the degree I was studying for had been completed. It was good. At that point I felt ready to take on just about anything.

I cycle through the same feelings now going through training to maintain, grow and build skills in my area of expertise. Much of that training is self-directed, so I have to make sure to keep myself on schedule to get the work done. But it’s a great feeling to be able to check off that a particular course is complete.

Looking back at college from many years later, I can honestly say that those few years were the most formative of my life in so many ways. So much happened that it seems like it was a much longer time than it actually was. By far most of that was good, awesome. I grew so much during that time.

I wouldn’t trade that for anything, no matter how hectic and confusing those first days of each semester were.

What’s your go-to reaction when facing a new challenge (such as new job, new work project, life challenge)?
Confidence, overwhelm or some other feeling?
Have you found some ways that help you work through an initially overwhelming situation?