Pressures of university unnecessary

(Lena Yang)

The university system has become a pressure cooker. Students are pressured to be admitted, to be academically competitive and to take the right courses. Students face the pressures of tuition hikes, stress of living in student ghettos and experience parental pressures.

They might appear jovial while hurrying to the library or weight room, sipping their double espressos, or planning their weekends, but it is only after class, when I meet with students that I hear their doubts and sense their depression.

One man spoke of being torn between a life of service and a life of his own choosing. He felt pressure to emulate his father and grandfather; top business executives. He actively dated but was disappointed that none morphed into a serious relationship.  He complained about the game of romance and confessed to being lonely.

He went to Counseling Services and was given a referral to an off-campus therapist. In taking that step, he and many other students have forced Counseling Services to re-evaluate their mission and expand their offerings. Such counseling personnel agree there has been a 40-50 per cent increase in the use of such services, compared to such use in the mid-to-late 90s.

To explain such an increase, counselors say a complex blend of socio-cultural forces create new levels of student anxiety. Approximately 30 per cent of students suffer panic attacks while about 12 per cent are clinically depressed. One of my students, the quintessential achiever said, “It has become a compulsion for me to do well.”

Though he suffered panic attacks during exams, he did do well. He had sought help from counseling and decided to put less pressure on himself. He has now been accepted into the medical school of his choice.

According to this student, the most difficult things about adjusting to campus life are eating and sleeping. He admitted that these bordered on the trivial, but in high school everything was regimented and home represented a safety net.

Here, students must create their own schedules and balance meals, classes, sports, extra-curricular activities and all of this can be “destabilizing.”

Revealed in campus surveys, academic stress experienced by university students may be at an all-time high. Results suggest that 90 per cent of the students surveyed say they are “occasionally overwhelmed by their assigned work.”

I remember while I was chair of WLU’s Psychology Department, asking all faculty members to bring their monthly assignments to the next faculty meeting so that we might better grasp what our students faced ( tests, essays, seminar presentations, etc).

We found such obligations very heavy. One student told me that she was on the verge of tears most of the day, feeling that things were so complex and difficult to sort out.

Many have tried to help with time management seminars, study habits, analyses, programs dealing with examination anxiety, stress inoculation programs and more.

While such programs are noteworthy I often wonder whether or not the problems facing students are really systemic ones.

Systemic issues, such as the focus on a high GPA, emphasis on performance measures as opposed to measures of learning, the fragmented approach to their education and counting course credits, all making learning a commodity rather than a liberating education.

Other counselors have tried many approaches offering programs devoted to cognitive-behavioural therapy, teaching students the deleterious effects of negative thoughts and chronic low self-esteem.

Data suggests students with the most self-confidence and a sense of humor are significantly less stressed.

What is necessary, if we are to understand current student suffering, is for us to adopt a widespread reflective stance; reflecting on the whats, whys and hows of our many campus obligations or responsibilities.

Surely this does not mean a softening of intellectual rigor. Or a reducing of high standards within a given faculty, department or class.

This merely means some thought should be given to the general atmosphere here in our university like the prevailing ethos, the intellectual climate and the academic demands as we devote ourselves to the total fulfillment of the lives of our students – intellectually, socially and spiritually.

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