“Have you taken care of yourself recently?”
My professor asked me this question a few weeks ago after noticing how enervated I was. As midterms were rolling in, I needed to sacrifice several hours of sleep every day to catch up with all of the homework and revise what I had learned. Such habits a took a toll on my body — the more sleep-deprived I was during the weekdays, the more sleep I had to compensate for over the weekends. Even though I chose to attend Swarthmore because of its rigor, I sometimes anguish over my decision and wonder how my life would have been had I studied elsewhere. Many friends of mine are suffering from similar anguish as well. We are all burnt out. Why do some Swarthmore students overwork themselves so much that they neglect their physical and mental health?
To answer these questions, I reflected on my Swarthmore experience. To begin with, Swarthmore stresses me out because of its relatively small student body. Although such size allows students to frequently see each other and thus foster tight-knit, meaningful relationships, it can be troublesome for those who prefer solitude once in a while. Moreover, the more students know one another, the easier it is for them to fall into the trap of comparison.
Speaking from experience, I sometimes feel inadequate after learning the impressive tasks my friends are pursuing. When I hear people claiming they are actively involved in three clubs every semester, for instance, I wonder if I am not pushing myself enough as I only write for The Phoenix and SwatStories. When I hear someone is taking four S.T.E.M. classes, I wonder if I am wasting my time by taking several first-year seminars outside of my major. Even some random Facebook posts, such as “I always take five credits, and I’m doing perfectly fine,” trouble me, especially when I am struggling to complete my normal coursework. What traits that allow others to thrive under such academic intensity do I lack?
The expectation that comes with attending a liberal arts college exacerbates this problem. Recall your experience during the college admission process. How do Swarthmore and other liberal arts college advertise themselves? Inclusion. Diversity. It’s easy to stand out. Professors get to know your name. As liberal arts colleges throw these buzzwords so often, people mistake these buzzwords for necessary and sufficient conditions for them to thrive — they are not. In reality, not every student can stand out. In reality, professors sometimes forget your name. In reality, unless one strives for opportunities, one will not receive them no matter which college one attends. It seems attending a small liberal arts college such as Swarthmore sometimes grooms us into believing we have sufficient resources to succeed and be happy. When we do not, we internalize the blame.
The tendency to play misery poker and mask my true stress is another reason I feel burnt out. When I was a high school senior, such self-deprecating jokes as “Swarthmore — anywhere else it would have been an A” were amusing to me. In fact, grade deflation and the rigorous academics of Swarthmore prompted me to want to study at our institution. However, now that I have become a Swarthmore student, I do not find these jokes to be as amusing as they were. Not only do these jokes prevent us from addressing our stress-related problems, they also prompt us to believe that stress is the norm at Swarthmore.
To elaborate, consider this hypothetical misery poker phrase: “I have been sleeping for three hours every day this past week.” Whenever I hear this phrase or its variations, I do not understand its intention. Severe lack of sleep is nothing praiseworthy: it reflects negligence of physical and mental health as well as an inability to manage one’s life. Every time we play misery poker, we are shaming people who manage their lives well by imploring them to “do more.” Even worse, it cements stress and misery as a part of Swarthmore’s norm. Lack of self-care is neither normal nor acceptable. Instead of accepting it, we should question what leads us to such condition.
The type of students Swarthmore admits may also be the root of this problem. Because Swarthmore is renowned for its rigor, students who choose to attend our institution are probably aware of or prefer this fact. Also, Swarthmore’s acceptance rate is approximately 9 percent, which is extremely competitive. As a result, our institution attracts students who not only are qualified but also are accustomed to their status as top students. However, once they come here, they realize this is not the case. It is simply impossible for more than half of Swarthmore students to be above average. Yet, conceiving themselves as so, many exert tremendous, sometimes excessive effort to maintain such self-image. It Accepting one cannot be the best in everything is the reality with which one must learn to cope.
Swarthmore, as an institution, should strive to solve this problem. There are several steps we should take to address these stress-related problems.
The first and foremost step is to accept that stress-related problems exist on our campus. In the article published on March 6, 2014, by the Daily Gazette, Professor Barry Schwartz — the author of “The Paradox of Choice” — observed Swarthmore students have experienced a “heightening culture of anxiety” over the past decades. He also mentioned that because Swarthmore students have to navigate their increasingly complex lives on top of a Swarthmore workload, Swarthmore has become “more of a pressure cooker than it was [in the past].” Our institution, however, does not sufficiently recognize these problems. For instance, we claim Swarthmore students care less about grades and prefer learning for its own sake, but the sight of students studying so late at night to earn an A is nothing uncommon. Our reality, it seems, does not align with how we portray it.
Swarthmore should strive to change institutional norms. Although Swarthmore is renowned for its rigor, there are other aspects such as clubs and athletics that deserve more attention. These activities help students develop discipline, creativity, and social skills, all of which are formative in their Swarthmore experience. Whereas students may forget what they have learned, they will remember the activities in which they participate and the friendships they create. Every student’s experience at Swarthmore does not, and should not, consist entirely of academics.
Perhaps to help address this problem, professors should be clearer with their objectives and what they expect from students. Some students are stressed because they do not know the purpose of their work and the extent to which they have to work. For instance, if students have to write an essay, they will benefit from knowing whether their professors expect them to closely read and analyze the texts or formulate their personal opinions. Grading rubrics can mitigate this problem. If professors assign a problem set, they should provide prompt feedback on each student’s performance so that students can adjust accordingly to what their professors expect. With prompt feedback and clear expectations for class, students will be less inclined to overwork or commit themselves to too many activities.
The last step is that every member of our community should listen to the experiences of one another. Don’t jump right to conclusions. When students are stressed about work, don’t just tell them to relax. Try to understand the problem and the struggle they are undergoing. Students, for instance, can help their peers who are stressing out academics by asking, “What seems to be the problem?” rather than dismissing their stress as a “common” aspect of college lives. Active listening is also important in developing a sense of care towards others. If people listen to each other more actively and try to understand the problem, we can be less inclined to stress each other out.
Indeed, Swarthmore published a Self-Study Action Committee Report in spring 2016, suggesting some students are stressed and do not feel they belong to our community. As informative as this report is, it does not inform us of how those stresses arise. Some in-depth research and community reflection can shed light on these issues.
We should question what we accept as the norm of Swarthmore. Swarthmore is renowned for many impressive traits, such as its academic rigor, inclusion, commitment to social justice, and so on. Stress is not what we should be renowned for. Moreover, we should research more intensively the stress Swarthmore students experience to pinpoint its root causes and combat them. Should these steps be taken, the level of stress will be less of a problem.