With dogged determination, we pursue, as students, our warped interpretation of the American dream and strive for excellence.
Some students may not take their education seriously, but the vast majority push themselves to the limit. Some seek to reach their limit by exceeding the expectations set by society or their families. Such determination is admirable, but the stress that these students experience on a constant basis endangers their emotional and physical health.
Pushed to excel in all areas, overachieving students take on more responsibilities than they can handle: nineteen-credit semesters, one or even two jobs, leadership positions in various organizations and participating in other academic and service commitments. This is in addition to the active social and personal lives that most young adults enjoy. Seeing peers maintain a heavy course load and apparently thrive under pressure increase the pressure on other students to do the same.
Young adults push themselves to accomplish more than what is humanly possible in pursuit of landing a “good” job. These demands may be sustainable in the short term, but the student will feel stressed and overworked by the middle of any given semester. At this point, students are left with a handful of undesirable options:
One choice is to sacrifice social and personal pleasures for the sake of their other commitments. From the moment the student wakes until the moment they sleep, this group of students work themselves to the bone, trying to meet a long list of deadlines and responsibilities that never seem to end. These students are able to meet their commitments and take care of personal health, but they are unable to develop a social network or enjoy opportunities to decrease stress.
A more popular option is to sacrifice sleep and health in order to cope with academic, work and personal demands. Maintaining an active social life and a very loaded schedule leads to multiple all-nighters in a row. Mealtimes are more of an afterthought, with little attention paid to maintaining a healthy diet. Sleep becomes a luxury instead of a basic physiological need, and a student’s performance and mental health deteriorates as a result. Caffeine and energy drinks become extremely popular. Even addictive substances like unprescribed Adderall are in abundance, with researchers from the University of Kentucky finding that thirty percent of students have illegally used cognitive stimulants.
Another path is to stretch oneself across so many commitments that they fail to fulfill them adequately. Writing a term paper takes time away from studying for another class’s midterm. Student organizations become inactive for weeks at a time due to school demands. Students call in sick from work or volunteer shifts because they have no time to study for a test. Some even violate the Honor Code, using online services to get answers to homework questions or outright cheat on exams and quizzes.
It is easy to blame students for overloading themselves and that kind of attitude is prevalent in our society. College students are expected to “have it all,” a concept that is defined differently by employers, graduate schools and colleges. Some call the millennial generation weak and pampered, and say students simply need to cope with the stresses of adulthood. Others claim poor time management and lacking basic skills is the culprit.
These responses may have some merit, but do not address the severity of this situation. Students today face more demands than ever before.
Those who wish to attend professional schools face enormous competition from their fellow applicants and there is a pressure to lengthen one’s resume and create a perfect application.
According to data published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, less than half of all medical school applicants matriculate to medical school in any given year. For students who wish to become a physician, their postgraduate plans are filled with uncertainty and dread.
Student loan debt is at an all-time high as many graduates face uncertainty in their future employment and economic prospects. In addition, more students are now coming from non-traditional backgrounds. These individuals may have taken a significant break in their education, work full-time, or have families to support.
The National Center for Education Statistics has determined that three-fourths of undergraduates demonstrate these qualities, and all of them must handle a dizzying amount of responsibilities. The stress of balancing schoolwork with other aspects of life can feel insurmountable.
Another change seen in the last couple decades is more students must secure employment in order to pay their tuition and living expenses. Higher education has become more accessible to all regardless of socioeconomic status, but a lack of affordability and the increasing cost of living have forced students to balance work a grueling amount of hours.
According to the American Association of University Professors, 8 percent of college students work at least 35 hours per week. A climate that fails to accommodate these students or appreciate their efforts can cause them to feel disillusioned or even hopeless.
Attitudes of perfection and competition create cultures of stress, causing mental health to deteriorate among many students. This contributes to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
Overachieving students are also unable to develop adequate social networks. The absence of time and energy causes students to lose passion, and they cannot devote themselves fully to their academic and personal pursuits. By expecting students to be superhuman, we hurt them in many different ways.
Even when students recognize that they need help, they are often hesitant to reach out to others due to a widespread belief in the “bootstrap” myth.
Many Americans believe the most successful individuals created their own success without assistance from anyone. This narrative has become an important part of our culture and is also used to support the existence of social mobility and the American Dream.
This belief is blatantly false, but students still absorb that true success can only come when they do it on their own. Even when support and resources are plentiful, universities must help remove the stigmas from receiving assistance and using resources.
Colleges and universities must fight against stress cultures and encourage students to pursue the opportunities they deserve to enjoy. Young adults are entering an important period of transition, and providing them with a few accommodations can be extremely beneficial.
We must encourage students to take ownership of their personal and leisure time, giving them the confidence to turn down opportunities and responsibilities if time does not permit. Most importantly, students must be comfortable seeking help and assistance when needed. Seeking support from friends, family or mental health professionals is not a sign of weakness — it shows both strength and courage.
Justin Joseph, Contributing Columnist