It’s hard to keep being thankful and grateful as you travel back to Penn after spending four blissful days at home. 

Personally, the long car or train ride back to Penn after any break is one that is bittersweet — a part of me is excited to be with friends again, but most of me just dreads the impending responsibilities waiting for me. Coming back to Penn doesn’t just mean classes begin again, it also means the never-ending cycle of obligations — from meetings to office hours to the first warnings of finals — coming back to Penn, after Thanksgiving especially, with the inevitable doom of finishing the semester—comes with understated apprehension. 

As we step back onto campus for the last few weeks of our semester, we are immediately consumed by our exams and burdens, so much so that we forget to be human beings and members of a collective community. We lock ourselves in our dorm rooms, complain to anyone who will listen about the things we have to do, and lament to ourselves, why me?

However, we often forget that our return to Penn at this time also means there’s just under a month left of our first semester. Our year is nearly halfway done; our time at Penn sometimes seems frighteningly quick to leave us. As we keep ourselves busy as we always do and our hysteria kicks in for finals, here’s a gentle reminder to keep the thanks flowing for our lives here and what they mean to us.

There are so many ways to do this, but perhaps the most important way is to be present. Being present in every face-to-face conversation with a friend, every call back home to parents, every interaction with a human being, instead of thinking about what’s the next thing on a checklist to do — it’s harder to do this than we think. Consciously being aware of the little things every day makes gratitude easier to come by and life easier to live.

Come every finals season, we only just get by — making meaningful connections or making our lives better in some way is barely in the back of our minds, let alone our first or second priorities. Instead of trying to scrape through, we should strive to make this month special in some way everyday — whether that’s appreciating how the lights on Locust sparkle a little brighter in the cold December evenings, or taking a spontaneous study break in the LOVE Park Christmas Village. These are all things we have the ability to do as Penn students, but forget we can take advantage of.

Another way to keep our gratitude alive on campus in our dwindling last weeks is to actively take care of ourselves and each other. We don’t need to busy ourselves with large gestures or full-day pamperings, but making sure we’re eating properly and drinking enough water, even while we pull all-nighters in Van Pelt, are small things that go a long way. Asking a stressed-out friend if they’re okay means more than we think, and being conscious that we’re all in the same boat of anxiety can keep the isolation of the winter at bay.

I have my own personal struggles with the passage of time and the inevitable pressure of finals — we all do. Last year during this same time in freshman year, I hit my peak of stress, drowning in a sea of papers, finals, and final projects. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make those three weeks out alive, but somehow, I did — by taking the time to take care of myself when I had to and talking to people whom I cared about, I found myself rising a little above the mental distress I had created, and reminded myself what’s really important in my life.

Ultimately, our thankfulness shouldn’t begin and end on the last Thursday of November, sitting at the dining table stuffing our faces. Our inherent gratitude for our lives and the people in them should extend beyond a day and should carry into our day-to-day, even if we have to consciously remind ourselves to do so. The benefits of keeping our hearts wide, even in the midst of finals season, far outweigh any grade we could ever receive.

JESSICA LI is a College sophomore from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is "Road Jess Travelled" usually appears every other Monday. 

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