A donkey and his stone

| Niels ter Meer

The saying goes that a donkey never trips over the same stone twice. Student columnist Niels ter Meer wonders to what extent that applies to students. Will we ever learn how to say no to things?


Student life is, in some sense, a time of opportunities. Next to your studies, you can partake in extracurricular activities such as sport at a student sport association, activism-which-isn’t-activism, becoming a Teaching Assistant, et cetera. As a corollary, your time as a student is also the time to learn how to say ‘no, thank you’.

Let’s take being a TA as the example. First of all, it’s great study-avoidant-behaviour. But it’s also fulfilling: you finally get some use out of your freshly acquired knowledge, helping the people with the things you may-or-may not have been struggling with years before. The best acknowledgment of that is of course being paid to do it. (and pretty well at that.) This usually starts small: answering a couple of questions in some tutorials, tutoring some project groups, et cetera; but this can quickly expand to tens of hours of grading work per week, or coordinating whole module projects.

I take it association-activism has a similar set of traps; you start small, and then more and more responsibilities are piled upon you. The only difference is, instead of being paid a flat rate for your work, you don’t get paid — but, if you do it enough, there is a prize at the end. The prize may not be the end goal for most or all, but it establishes the pattern of behaviour as something positive and admirable, and especially as something to be encouraged. By tying that prize to it, ‘more than a degree’ is explicitly promoting a culture of overwork; adding to the ever increasing pile of unreasonable expectations.

Regardless of what exactly you do, at some point, the realization of ‘oh yeah, I had courses I wanted to pass’ will sink in. Or worse, you see your mental health slide off to the deep end. Depending on how deep you are, this is as easy as unsubscribing from the activities, lowering your availability, or transferring some responsibilities.

But for some, this can be next to impossible. Either you’re stuck in a board position you cannot really resign from, you’re knee deep/in the middle of a project you’re coordinating, or worst: you’re taking all the TA jobs you can get to support both yourself and your parents. Being able to distance yourself from your extracurricular work is, at times, a privilege.

If you’re able to, once you called off some of your obligations, you finally have some time off. Off to go study for those courses you meant to pass, or to drag your mental health back, naturally. But when all the tests, reports, orals, meetings — what have you — are finally behind you, you suddenly have actual free time. If you’re not careful and don’t say ‘no’, the whole cycle starts over again.

A donkey doesn’t trip over the same stone twice. Will a student?

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