In the Shadow of a Student Life

In the Shadow of a Student Life

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Year after year, Lund’s student life trudges along in its usual rut. The choice of entertainment is vast and cheap, but nothing comes free. Behind the scenes, there are those paying the price of sleepless nights, toil, and anxiety.

What’s an AF ball? If you’re invited, I suppose it could be festive, dull, or utterly and completely wonderful. But have you ever considered what a ball might be like to those working behind the scenes? For those serving the bubble and squeak and wipe it off the floor when you have gone home?

It’s just after 2 AM, and I am standing at the entrance to Lilla salen in the AF-building together with a few other ball workers. Everything turns more and more chaotic since many of the ball guests seem to be so drunk already that they don’t have any sense left. Our task is to serve food, beer, and snaps to those attending sexan – a sort of late night supper after the ball.

After a while, a cocky guy comes up demanding two additional snapses: one for his sister and one for his mum. We answer that there is a one-per-person limit and that if they want their snaps, they will have to come get it themselves. This aggravates him.

“Don’t you know who I am?” he asks, a quizzical look on his face.

“Sadly not,” I answer, “I haven’t a clue as to who you are…?”

“I am the restauranteur of this nation; in other words, this snaps is per definition my property – I can have as many as I want!”

I look at him, saying that we have not been told about this and can therefore not give him more snaps. He is not the first one asking, and we have no way of ascertaining if what he says is true, since none of us is an active member of the specific nation. The restauranteur picks up his phone and calls the head-of-party – he’s there within a minute. She apologises to the restauranteur and tells us that yes, this is the restauranteur and he may have as many snapses as he likes.

“Why are we doing this?” asks worker Mitch Ramirez.

He says that he has had enough and is thinking about going home. He changes his mind, though, feeling that walking away would mean deserting and letting down other workers, who would then have even more on their plate. I agree with him that the whole situation feels rather tragicomical and hopeless. Although our instructions have been scarce, we are declared as fools time and again, as soon as anything “glitches”.

Mitch Ramirez is one of many exchange students working during the ball night, and when we talk about the experience afterwards, the ball night and what happened in sexan is his worst memories from his time in Lund.

“Sure, it was tough working through the night. But the worst thing was that I did not get the gratitude and respect I had expected to get – something I genuinely felt I deserved.”

Mitch’s hopes were low before the ball night, and he was prepared to work through the bone; in spite of this, though, he was not prepared for how bad it would actually turn out. He remembers the bad attitude from both förmän and guests.

“Standing there taking care of drunk people who are trying to steal booze from their own nation, that just frustrated and angered me,” Mitch Ramirez says.

Just after 3 AM, sexan is over and we workers are ushered into Lilla salen. It’s time for us to clean up. It looks as though all 160 plates of bubble and squeak we had served earlier have been frisbeed around the room, said dish covering parts of the floor completely. Floor areas not covered in food are instead laden with the 160 bottles of beer and 160 snapses; despite the pestering, most people seem to have poured the booze out. About ten chairs are wet from what we’re hoping is beer – one chair has been crushed by jumping.

“Alright, you can start by clearing this mess,” the förman says.

The music has been turned off and the workers all look very dejected; I ask the förman if it is possible to arrange some trash-bags? For some reason, he just snorts at me and disappears. It takes the seven of us about an hour’s hard toil to get the room in reasonable order. Before enlisting, we had been told that we would be able to take a few breaks in the course of the night.

But the reality is that none of us has had the time to go to the bathroom even. We work for free all through the night making other people feel like royalty from the dark ages, but we hardly get a ‘thank you’*. Instead, we get malicious remarks from people who try to push us down in different ways, clearly signalling that we are lesser than them.

Not even ‘friends’ seem to recognise you when wearing a worker’s shirt, and many people look surprised when I greet them. At one time, there’s this bloke in a tailcoat who turns a plate of bubble and squeak upside-down right in front of me. This reminds me of the type of ‘slave and conqueror’-game you might trick your younger siblings to play; the one where you pour out a deck of cards on the floor, demanding your brother to pick it up.

But even though Mitch and I both think that the ball night represents the worst from our time in Lund, it was not more than just one night. When our shift ended, we could throw our workers’ shirts off and go home. A luxury available only to a fraction of those in charge.

Emil Widell is in his fourth year at Lund University and has been active in a nation almost constantly. He started out as a worker in a club, and after one and a half year, he was promoted to förman. But after an additional two and a half years, Emil decided to drop the position, seeing that it interfered too much with his studies.

“I often felt that if I flunk in courses, the only one hurt is me, but bad results in nation life affect others as well. Consequently, I prioritised nation life over school, which did not work out in the long run.”

At this point, he was asked instead if he would consider being head of evening activities for the nations in the Torna area and their big Novisch-party.

“At first, I was happy and felt rather safe because I had been in charge of similar things before. In retrospect, however, I can see that I had no idea about what I took on.”

Information from earlier years was very scarce and it was hard knowing what might go wrong beforehand. When the festive evening started, everything made a summersault and Emil quickly realised that he had underestimated the task at hand. The Novisch-party had around 1,000 guests and only 24 workers. Those 24 were to put up, work in, and keep the bars clean, man the entrance, and clean up after the party.

“The worst thing was that I felt so bad thinking of the workers. It really felt like I let them down. For example, before the party, I had told them that they would be able to switch stations; in practice however, this was virtually impossible. Additionally, everyone were stressed and worked through the bone.”

After the party, Emil’s conscience was so heavy that he wrote a personal Facebook-message to all förmän in which he apologised for how the party had turned out. For him, that night developed into a lengthy nightmare.

“I don’t think I have ever been that stressed in all my life, and I have certainly not felt as insufficient as I did then. A lot was overseen at the planning stage, and we had to come up with several emergency solutions. Every problem solved generated three more.”

He remembers how he stood with the brave little crew that was to clean the whole of the AF-building. How more and more problems kept creeping up, and how he, at the time, felt far too exhausted to even try to solve them.

“I longed for going to bed, but when I finally got there, I couldn’t even fall asleep. I just felt anxiety about everything that had gone wrong.”

Although Emil Widell had strived harder during the Novisch-party than he had for anything in all of his life, he still had a huge feeling of failure. A feeling soothed only partly by the many positive comments he received the following days.

But Lund’s student life is more than just parties, and in the other organisations, there are people who struggle behind the scenes. Anton Tallhage is former director of Toddyspexarna and for him, active student life ended with burning out and having to take a break from studying for a while. Now, he would like to see a more solidary distribution of responsibility within Lund’s student life.

“Today, I do wish that those who were director before me would have warned me and said ‘be careful – before you say yes, remember that taking that position comes with a whole lot of responsibilities’”.

Anton started his active student life career in Toddyspexarna already in his first year at the University. The engagement grew into a passion, and then crushed him on a psychological level. First, he was part of the sound crew and succeeded in getting a spot among those on stage. Later, when he was asked if he would like to be part of the script group, he saw it as a great honour.

“Leading up to the spex of 2014, I was asked to take over the director’s seat. I did not deliberate for long but said yes almost instantly – in spite of having seen how the position had affected previous directors.”

The position proved to be extremely stressful and during rehearsals, I put in about ten hours’ work a day on the spex.

“But in my mind, I never took a break, and it kept me awake at night, which made me unfocused in school.”

Even though he felt extremely stressed, he always felt the pressure of being ’the funny and excited one’, something that became harder and harder. The last month before the premiere, it went as far has him losing all drive for working with the spex. Even so, the spex was very successful, and afterwards, Anton felt proud.

For the coming year’s spex, he was the only one with any experience left in the script group, which made him feel once again that he had to be director, even though his whole body screamed ‘don’t do this again!’. Even so, he accepted the position.

But this time, Anton describes the position as being a burden from day one. The darkness and anxiety were back and simultaneously with studying the hardest semester at the medicine programme, Anton lay awake at night and had nightmares about what the other directors would say about him, after having seen his spex. A few months before rehearsals were due to start, pressure got to him, and he collapsed in the middle of a script group-meeting – and he just cried.

“I got sick. I could lie awake at night, brooding over a joke for hours. I tried to direct not having slept a wink, and was ashamed about what to me was sure to be the worst ever spex in Lund.”

It all ended with the script group putting their foot down, forcing Anton to take a break. Two days later, the panic attacks started coming, which made him leave everything, fleeing the spex and school alike.

“It got to the point where my mother had to put herself on the sick-list because she did not dare to leave me by myself.”

During this time, he was also on several prescriptions, and Anton himself describes it as a dark time of his life. He fought hard just to get through each day. A month later, it was time for the premiere of the spex and he and his family went to Lund to watch it.

“I was prepared for it to be the words spex ever given in Lund, but to my surprise, it was good, even though I had no hand in it,” he says.

After the meltdown, it took Anton Tallhage a while to work himself up again, and almost a year after he had left everything, fleeing from Lund, he managed to get his degree.

repslutbild-300x169
In the AF-building, party after party is held. But behind many of these, there are hundreds of voluntary working hours. Photo: Claudio Gandra.

“In retrospect, I don’t regret being part of student life, I do love my Toddyspex, but I wish that I had settled with only being on stage, instead of burning the candle at both ends for three years and then going out,” Anton Tallhage says.

He is not alone. It is not uncommon for people active in Lund’s student life to suffer from stress-related symptoms and exhaustion. According to Richard Wastenson, a doctor at Studenthälsan, this is especially true for those working full time and as nation qurators.

“Those who get involved in union activities or those working full time do not always understand how much work their position actually takes. There are so many people wanting them for all sorts of things, and that is oftentimes a very stressful position. Many people have a hard time saying no, and to distribute responsibility,” Richard Wastenson says.

According to him, it is not uncommon for people working full time in nations having to take a break from studying after half their working period. But the problem lies with other active students as well.

“People who are very active in student life often find it hard to make everything add up, time-wise, and they might struggle with getting their course points. In the time closest to the Lund carnival, you can see a clear correlation that students who take part also get fewer course points.”

Another problem that Richard Wastenson sees is the exaggerated alcohol consumption, especially among nation qurators. He believes this consumption level also has to do with stress and that alcohol is necessary for some to relax. If you want to avoid breaking down, you should review your drinking and sleeping habits, according to him.

“Sleep is a clear warning sign; when you are having trouble sleeping, it could be a sign that you are too stressed out,” Richard Wastenson says.

Although Mitch, Emil, and Anton all felt that the worst sides of student life demanded more from them than what they could cope with, they all feel affection for Lund’s student life. Although they regret having taken on certain duties, none of them regret choosing to become active.

“Through working within student life, I have learnt an incredible amount about daring to take responsibility and working together. I have also gained insight in how much fun it can be when you cooperate with other people. But I do think that it is important to remember that everything does not have to be perfect or run smoothly all the time. The point, really, is just to have fun,” Emil Widell says.

Anton Tallhage also believes that you probably should lower expectations on yourself as well as others. But he also thinks that it would be a good thing to make inter-organisation cooperation clearer – it would mean that you can learn from each other’s mistakes, since many struggle with the same problems.

“When all is said and done, it is bleeding awesome for us acknowledgement-seeking fools to get an honourable position within student life; you are seen and heard, and you become a ‘someone’. The question is, at what price?,” Anton Tallhage says.

*After the ball, a ‘thank-you’ sittning was arranged where the workers were thanked by all festmästare. This paragraph concerns the ball night specifically, where appreciation was conspicuously absent.

What is your experience of student life in Lund? Do you recognise what has been described about the work behind the scenes? Do get in touch and tell us your story – send an e-mail to lundagard@lundagard.se          

Translation: Richard Helander    

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