Sunday, October 17, 2010

The stress that university students endure

(University students are under stress that is more or less constant, but so much of it is self-imposed.)

The pattern was the same nearly every year that I taught.  Classes started in late August, students were full of vim and vigor, and mostly tan.  The honeymoon lasted about two weeks, and then the work load began to take its toll.  My field biology course was not difficult, but it included a hell of a lot of material, weekend field trips, tons of memorization, an outside research project, and keeping a field notebook of every walk in the outdoor environment the student took.   By late September, students were noticeably fatigued, as they stayed up later and later to do the work from all their courses.  Less sleep, colder and rainier weather, more stress from getting behind, even less sleep to try to catch up, and then the viruses.  By mid-October, my class looked and sounded like a tuberculosis ward of the 1920s---sneezing, coughing, hacking, tissues everywhere.  I could almost see the germs in the air.  Most years, at least one student contracted mononucleosis at this time, missed two weeks of class, and found themselves in one heck of a hole.  Some missed so much school that they had to drop out and lose the entire semester.

This process is probably repeated across the country at universities and colleges everywhere.  Generally, students inherently want to do well, and there is often tremendous social pressure, real or imagined, on them to succeed.  Their families are paying a huge sum of money to send them to the school and they have worked hard to get there.  Students believe that their entire future depends on their academic accomplishments; in short, they believe that life will be miserable if success is not attained in the hallowed classrooms of America's institutions of higher learning.

The following paragraph is an email message, reproduced here verbatim, sent to one of my Teaching Assistants near the end of the fall semester a few years ago.   The student was taking my field biology course, and the Monday deadline was due for handing in their field notebook, which was worth 15% of their entire grade for the course.  To get the full effect and tone of the message, you have to read it as though you were this student: female, slight Puerto Rican accent, high-pitched voice, and read extremely rapidly:

"Hi Viviana,
I recently emailed Emily and Florian about this but didn't get a reply.  I'm really freaking out right now because I woke up at 10pm tonight....I got back to Ithaca around 4am Monday and started doing work the minute I got back because I have a lot due this week, and then I decided to take a quick nap before field bio.  I don't know how I did this but I must have been so tired that I turned the alarm off in my sleep and just woke up at 10pm Monday night.  Needless to say, I am freaking out about the field notebook.  I've been trying to get in touch with a TA to see if I can hand it to one of you tomorrow morning/tomorrow sometime.  I will seriously walk over to your place tomorrow anytime or whatever it takes even if you live in the boonies---I'm just freaking out and Gavin's going to kill me.   And I worked so hard on this thing--it took so long to put together.  I don't have the species accounts from the project since those were collected with out project but I think you graded my project, so perhaps you have them already.  I understand if I lose points on the journal because it's technically late by several hours, but I don't want to lose 150 points!  Omg, let me know what I should do...Thanks so much."

Although this is a somewhat humorous message, you can hear the panic in this student's voice.  She must have been exhausted, because the "quick nap" turned out to be 10-12 hours long.  Needless to say, I was reasonably lenient on her missed deadline, and this student is now in vet school at Cornell.

I have told the following anecdote many times before, but it is worth repeating, in brief, because it is relevant to this blog  I was an undergrad at Ohio State University in the 1960s during the Vietnam War.  If you were not in college, you were almost certainly drafted into the military by Uncle Sam, barring some kind of serious physical affliction.  In those years, the probability was very high that you would be sent to Vietnam, where there was risk of death or serious injury.  Also, state universities like OSU actually flunked out students who did not maintain the published minimum GPA.  I believe that nearly 1/3 of all freshmen left the university due to poor grades in those days.  I can distinctly remember going into a final exam with males whose GPA was on the borderline.  If they got a D on the final exam of that particular course, their GPA would fall below the minimum needed to stay in school, they would be drafted into the Army, sent to the war, and possibly killed.  In other words, for some students, their performance on a test was literally a matter of life or death.  Can you even imagine that kind of pressure?

I used to repeat this story to my field bio class every year, about the time I thought the stress was getting thick.  I asked them what is the worst thing that could happen to you IF you were not successful at this place?  You would be embarrassed?  Your parents would be disappointed? You would be physically separated from your boy friend or girl friend?  You would no longer get to play on the basketball team?  Or, you would never get a good-paying job and, therefore, not live happily ever after?  All of those things may be true, but compare that to having your arm or leg blown off, or being a parapalegic, or having mental trauma that lasts the rest of your life. I'm not a psychologist or a guidance counselor, although I often played one at the university.  But it is apparent that each of us tends to let our current fears and concerns become as large as all outdoors.  They can consume us as though we were the only human on earth who was feeling stressed.  But it is all relative, and a modicum of stress is probably adaptive.  Stress keeps us somewhat sharp, alert, and ready.  It is just a matter of balance, I suppose.

So, if you are a university student reading this, and you tend to let the work and the expectations get you down, ask yourself this question.  What is the worst that could happen?  An even more interesting question is this.  What is the best that could happen, even if I left school?  Remember that Steve Jobs dropped out of college during his freshman year, and he seems to know a thing or two about success.