Attending Minerva is probably not the best decision for your body. You jerk yourself around the globe, mess up your circadian rhythm, eat new and foreign foods, expose yourself to different allergens, and to top it all off, spend a fair amount of time sitting staring at a computer screen. We tend to think we know how to take care of ourselves: “eat fruits and veggies, sleep, drink water, etc.” But it does not hurt to repeat this advice, tailored to the Minerva experience.
The first thing most Minervans will do before arriving in each city is to board a plane and fly anywhere from three to 33 hours to arrive in their next city. Planes are not the cleanest of places. When you enter a one, you essentially enter a giant metal tube of coughing, sneezing, sweating humans who likely didn’t wash their hands before boarding, whose breath is circulating with yours in a swirl of pathogens. A pretty thought, eh?
There are, luckily, some mind-numbingly easy things you can do to prevent the inevitable head cold (or worse) that has afflicted so many Minervans in their first week in a new city.
1. Wash your hands!
Before you board the plane, throughout the trip, and after. This is so simple and it makes you feel good too. It not only will keep your hands clean for when they rub at your tired, traveled eyes, but it can also give you a reason to get up from your seat and move around. The air quality in planes is not as horrible as you may assume – they do pump in filtered air – but often the cleaning done in between flights of all the surfaces isn’t enough to cover the risks of all the pathogens entering the plane (including drug-resistant germs). So wash your hands and don’t lick the tray table.
2. Drink water.
Being in a plane makes you dehydrated, so even if you’re a super-hydrator, drink even more on the plane! Despite what folklore you’ve heard about drinking bubbly stuff on flights to calm your stomach, the sugar in that Mt. Dew will probably make you feel worse and keep you dehydrated. Also, you might not want to completely avoid salty snacks. Contrary to your immediate assumptions regarding salty food and dehydration, salty snacks contain electrolytes that help fluid regulation. So get those salty peanuts, they’ll taste good, make you drink more, and keep you effectively hydrated (or course, if you are drinking enough water at the same time).
3. Just for good measure, take vitamin C.
Though the effectivity of taking vitamin C as a way to boost immunity is debated, there is some evidence of its benefit. There are very few known side effects which then only occur over 2000 mg doses. This will not be a cure for any sickness or a failsafe prevention; it’s mostly a boost before getting on a plane. It is not necessary, but if you have the means to get a bottle of (admittedly yummy) chewable vitamin C tablets, go ahead for good measure.
Food can be a real issue when transitioning to a new city. There is a common (incorrect) belief that stomach issues only happen when going from a place like San Francisco to Hyderabad, but a change in diet in any direction (from bland to spicy, from spicy to bland) can upset your stomach. Same goes for water. Even if you think one place has “safer” water than another, there are different microorganisms and minerals everywhere you go, and this can confuse your gut, causing digestive issues. It is good to keep in mind that students from outside the US had stomach issues going to San Francisco, just as other students had issues going to India. Much of eating will be acclimation and common sense.
1. Take your time.
Attacking your stomach with entirely new food all at once will likely not end well. Just like a vegetarian eating meat for the first time, you want to start small. When you get to your next city try and find foods with which your stomach is familiar, and while eating them, slowly introduce new foods into your diet. Over time, you should acclimate and be able to eat all the food you want (bring on the dosa!).
2. Use common sense.
That being said, places do differ in hygiene. For example, Saigon Sandwich in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District — probably not the most hygienic of places (gloves?). Maybe wait a few days or weeks to check it out. Same goes for the street stands in Hyderabad — there are no gloves there! It’s hot! That food is out in the sun for a while! Locals eat it every day for lunch, so you know it’s possible. But if you’re not from there, your stomach will not be happy. If you’re used to one level of sanitation or preparation, use common sense and avoid the things you think you can’t handle. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of self-knowledge.
Esther Wenger has a whole series on the next few sections, so I will remain brief. You can check them out here.
Wenger’s article on computer health is extensive enough, so I’ll just reiterate the main points:
1. Get a laptop stand if possible.
This is a good option. You can also stack books or put a chair on a table. Be resourceful!
2. Maintain good posture.
I used to have impeccable posture to the point where others would comment on it. This is not the case anymore — every now and then, readjust yourself to sit up straight (Wenger describes what good posture is)
3. Take a break!
Avert your eyes consistently — they will become strained. Use the Pomodoro method for focusing (very effective for me) and walk around, stretch, stand up, look away during your five-minute break.
4. Not before bed.
Looking at screens before bed can mess up your sleep. Don’t do it! It is so hard to keep up this habit, but it is so important. Maybe make a rule where you don’t bring your laptop into your room, or schedule your computer to automatically go to sleep at a certain time. Find a way that works for you. Same goes for phones.
In short, do it and do it often. But the main things to keep in mind are:
1. Set a routine.
If you want to wake up five minutes before class (not recommended), then make that your daily. Routine is important when it comes to sleep because your body works on a rhythmic cycle.
2. Don’t look at screens (See above).
3. Get enough.
If you know you’re going to wake up at 7am, try your best to go to bed at 11pm. This should also be a part of the routine. Lack of sleep is not cool — you do not get a medal for sleeping only three hours, it does not mean you are some productive superhuman, nor does it mean you are more organized or ambitious. It means, frankly, that you are kind of dumb. Literally. Sustained lack of sleep leads to massive decreases in cognitive functionality, productivity, fine motor skills, as well as physical, mental, and emotional health. Don’t try to be cool by sleeping less, it’s not.
Again, read Esther’s series — it’s really good!
No one will say Minerva is not difficult. It can be overwhelming, stressful, and so very hard. But you can work to make it easier on your mental health. The health of your brain and your body are inextricably linked. What you eat, how you sleep, what you do with your body will inevitably affect how you feel and perform. So really, none of these sections are independent, and they should be looked at on a whole as one big lesson in how not to get sick (mentally and physically). Here are some more points which Esther explains with more depth.
1. Sleep (see above).
2. Give yourself a break.
This is the same thing that goes for sleeping enough. Taking a break is not giving up, it is making the smartest choice. Listen to yourself and your body.
3. Find someone to talk to.
If you’re overwhelmed, talk to a friend. If there’s no one you trust, go to one of the mental health counselors (they’re great). If you don’t trust them, Minerva (through an RA, any staff member, or the mental health team), can help find you someone to talk to in the city. Social interaction and talking through things are so important to our emotional health. Don’t downplay this.
How to deal with being sick
Your first time away from home dealing with illness is stressful. Minerva has systems in place to provide help when needed. The main thing you can do if you don’t already know those processes is to go to your residential advisor (RA) or the residential life coordinator (RLC). They will guide you through what to do, taking the load off you. After that, follow the guidelines above with special emphasis on sleeping and drinking water, and relish in the experience of taking care of yourself for the first time – it’s a learning experience. Getting sick is bound to happen. But you do have the power to prevent it and make the experience of sickness easier when it happens.