At 6:00 a.m., both my cell phone alarm and my roommate’s alarm clock would go off simultaneously. The idea was that if one didn’t wake us up, then the other surely would. Both of us always hit the snooze button and ended up over-sleeping anyway.
At 6:20 a.m., the dorm mother would stomp down the halls, screaming in Chinese for us to head to class. My roommate and I would both groggily emerge from our comfy sheets with puffy eyes and frightening messes of hair. We’d do our best to dress ourselves in the 10 minutes we had to leave the building before the dorm mother burst through the door, maniacally waving her clipboard in the air and shrieking at us in fast-paced Mandarin.
At 6:45 a.m., after being yelled at for 15 minutes for our “careless lifestyles,” my roommate and I would leave the dorm building, fully dressed in baggy sweatpants and polo shirts. With our eyes still only half-open, we’d do our best to catch up to the rest of the students in the cafeteria for a breakfast usually consisting of hard-boiled eggs and an assortment of greasy breads. I sat at the table in the center of the room with the other Americans. Looking around the dining hall, I’d see all of us were clad in the same unflattering uniforms. The mass of students crowding around tiny tables, hunched over their trays of food, resembled a sea of grey and blue human bean bags.
At 7:00 a.m., the first bell would ring. After the class leader — which happened to be me — had taken attendance and signed a number of forms (their content I had never truly understood), a catchy Chinese jingle sung by what sounded like a highly-caffeinated toddler would echo through the halls, and the first teacher would walk through the door.
At 7:45 a.m., the end of this class would be marked by the same shrill voice, singing away to the tune of various unidentifiable instruments. After a short break, 15 minutes later, the next class would start.
12:30 pm was lunch time, and at 1:30 classes would start again. Every single class was in Chinese.
At 5:00, the jingle would boom throughout the building for the last time, indicating the end of the school day. As much as we all hated that song, it was always welcome at this hour if it meant that our long day of work was over.
At 5:10, after a classroom clean-up session, we were free for a little under two hours of break-time. The problem was that our school was located in a part of Beijing that didn’t allow for us to travel anywhere particularly exciting within the allotted time-frame of two measly hours. Thus, I’d often occupy this window with a half-hearted trip to the gym, where local middle-aged men grunted and thrusted as they lifted their weights in the tiny equipment area.
At 7:00, the dorm mother paced down the hall with her clipboard, signing everyone in and locking our doors for the daily mandatory study session in our rooms. We weren’t allowed to come out for two and a half hours.
After this, we’d mingle a little before getting ready for bed and trying to fall asleep early enough to not feel completely exhausted the next morning, when we’d begin the whole process again.
This schedule delineated each of my weekdays when I studied abroad in Beijing for my gap year. Through a government-sponsored language intensive program, my group of 15 Americans was placed into a Chinese high school, where we spent nine hours a day in a classroom, navigating the complexities of the Chinese language under the guidance of various Chinese teachers who would rotate through our classrooms like the horses on a carousel ride. After nine whole months of this structure drilled into my very existence, my life at Stanford feels strange.
My gap year allowed for me to develop skills with regard to intense focus and the maintaining of stamina for long stretches of studying. It provided me with a greater capacity for thriving and flourishing even in strictly-structured circumstances, especially as I grew more comfortable with enforced routine. However, I realize now that over this nine-month period, I grew somewhat reliant on the security of a schedule that was so clearly set out for me by my program.
Here at Stanford, time management has been placed in my own hands, and very often I find myself not knowing what to do about it. I went from having my showers penciled into my hourly schedule to having entire weekdays without class and a constant pile of work to get done “at some point.” I am just as busy here at school as I was in Beijing, but I lack a predetermined map for what to do and when, and for this reason I often find myself subject to my own terrible tendency to procrastinate. Will my three-hour gap between two classes be occupied by efficient study time or an afternoon spent sitting outside marveling at the sunshine and avoiding any semblance of work-related activity?
I suppose the stark contrast between these two opposing experiences has shown me that I find myself thriving most when embracing a state of balance between a rigorous structure and a calendar that is ambiguous in all aspects other than classes and meetings. It has taught me that sometimes it’s a wonderful thing to count on a routine as a method of getting through rather than superhuman feats of studying that require self-motivation; that setting goals and deadlines for myself in small steps throughout the day does help generate some degree of productivity.
On the other hand, my experience has also made me realize that “going with the flow” and accepting a spontaneous invitation to go get coffee between classes won’t disrupt the course of the rest of my day if I don’t let it; that nights where I drift from the usual study session and instead find myself talking the evening away with others in my hall is so much more than a designated block of free-time, scheduled or otherwise. Rather, these are the instances that parallel work-related efficiency with a sense of growth I couldn’t have developed in a classroom.
For this, I am grateful.
Contact Clara Spars at cspars ‘at’ stanford.edu.