I really resisted joining Spec.
After being burnt out by my high school newspaper, I sought out entirely new extracurriculars here. I joined the Atheist and Agnostic Students Society for a hot sec. I played rugby for a hot sec. I performed with the flute choir for a hot sec. I even rushed a sorority for a hot sec (a hot sec I try hard to forget about). Basically, I tried everything to delay the inevitable.
But early my sophomore year, my NSOP day one, OG, ride-or-die friend (and eventually my Spec work spouse) Octavio asked me to write an op-ed that proved to be a gateway drug to the seedy underbelly of campus journalism that is Spec. High off the likes and positive DMs I was getting after sharing my piece on Facebook, I asked Octavio how I could keep the good times going. They recommended I apply to be an opinion columnist, which I did. Though writing kept me rolling in sweet, sweet serotonin for a time, I needed a bigger fix, which led me to join Spec and eventually become an opinion deputy. By junior spring I had become exactly what I despised: a journalism junkie.
There was something addictive to me about Spec. I’ve always loved reading and writing, and Spec allowed me to practice these skills outside the classroom where I felt stifled by the rules of academia. I got to hear people’s stories and help them spark meaningful conversations about a wide range of topics, which got me to think about campus and world issues in new ways. They pushed me to be a more thoughtful writer, editor, and (I hope) person.
But eventually the high wore off. Once I started managing authors and editors I found myself prioritizing their needs often over my own. I frequently sacrificed sleep, exercise, and healthy eating to make sure pieces were published on time. Many of my staffers lovingly referred to me as “mom”—a title that still warms my heart even in my Spec retirement—because they knew they could always count on me. I wore this tireless dependability like a badge of honor, even as my mental and physical health declined. Adding in that many of the pieces I edited dealt in heavy themes like financial insecurity, mental health, and white supremacy, I struggled to figure out what meaningful self-care (read: not face masks) looked like for me.
Still, the fact that pieces I worked on were consistently among the most read, and my writers and editors felt so good about their work kept me from rethinking my work habits. It felt like I was doing my best work despite not taking care of myself, and since every other senior staffer was operating the same way, I kept on going, business as usual.
The thing is, Spec is just a microcosm of the unhealthy behaviors prevalent across campus. We sustain ourselves on Yerba Mate and Duke Ellington Deli. We skimp on sleep. We have Spotify, Slack, Google Docs, Trello, and 20 other tabs open at once, ensuring that no one thing gets our full attention. And why? Because we don’t know any other way. It’s how our peers operate now and how our predecessors probably operated for decades. I only fully grasped how unhealthy my Spec work habits were when I finished my tenure, just like I only fully grasped how unhealthy my Columbia habits were once I could see graduation.
Perspective is funny like that.
It’s hard not to just do what everyone else is doing. Whatever differences we may have, we’re all insecure, and we all want to be successful. In any high-pressure environment, whether it’s Spec or Columbia writ large, whether we acknowledge it or not, we all compete, if not to be number one then at least not to be last. So when you see your friends trading eight hours of sleep in bed for 20-minute twitchy caffeine power naps in Butler; eating irregular meals of Adderall, JJ’s mozzarella sticks, and celery (because #balance); and hydrating exclusively with Diet Coke and Red Bull, it makes you think that’s what success at this school demands. If you get an A on that Contemporary Civilization essay you wrote in a caffeine chocolate fever dream the night before, then it’s obviously because of your unhealthy habits and not by some fluke, and if you don’t, then it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. Not because you haven’t had a solid meal or eight hours of sleep in a week.
I don’t know what self-care looks like at Spec or at Columbia because I can’t say I’ve seen it practiced very well. I think we tend to conflate self-care with different unhealthy behaviors that are “fun” like binge drinking and doing drugs, and then we wonder why we’re exhausted and sad. It’s easy to succumb to that stuff, but real self-care isn’t supposed to be easy. At its best, self-care is kind of boring and difficult and looks more like drinking plenty of water, exercising daily, eating regular, healthy meals, and—perhaps the one I neglected the most—setting personal and professional boundaries (!!!!). It’s basically doing what you need to do to keep your body and mind operating at their best. Maybe instead of “self-care,” we should call it “being alive” so we’ll take it more seriously.
As I look back on the past four years, my one regret is that it took me this long to figure out I haven’t been looking after myself, which I thought made me successful in the short term but really all it did was burn me out in the long term. I want to believe that Spec/Columbia and self-care aren’t mutually exclusive, but I’ve seen people in power fumble the mental health issue countless times. Until they take our concerns seriously, we owe it to our community to take care of ourselves and each other. If Columbia and Spec taught me anything, it’s that you can’t wait until you reach the breaking point to prioritize yourself.
After all, I’m a mom. We tend to be right about these things.
Laura Salgado is a senior at Columbia College studying political science. She’s a former columnist, deputy editorial page editor, and opinion section mom. She’s really grateful for all the incredible people she worked with at Spec, but especially for her NSOP day one friend Octavio.
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