We often talk about stress at Columbia. The topic comes up when speaking with students and is overheard in campus conversations, and is of great interest among fellow administrators, both within Columbia and at other universities, as we attempt to better understand its causes, what resources we can offer to help our students cope, and what we need to do as an institution to change our culture.
Why is there so much discussion around stress? Research shows that today’s students are decidedly more stressed, but the reasons for this are complex. It has become more difficult to gain admission to college due to increased competition, especially among the Ivy League schools. Once admitted, students must navigate more complicated university structures and policies, or “red tape,” that may signal to them a lack of caring and compassion. Students face the challenge of bonding with their peers, even as the advancements in technology that have made us more connected than ever detract from personal interaction. Students must also manage concerns over finding and keeping employment in our lagging economy, and these thoughts make paying off the increased cost of education even more daunting.
A contributing factor is that some students lack the life experience necessary to handle setbacks. Parents feel the same societal pressures that the students do and, naturally, want what is best for their children. They are told through a variety of sources that there is a specific path to happiness and success. It involves being admitted to a “good school” and finding the “right job.” From a parent’s perspective, this also includes attending the right preschool, elementary, and middle school, which leads to the high test scores needed to get into the best college. To meet each of these milestones, a number of parents are pressured into taking an overly active role in the life of their child. Those young adults who are continuously protected from adversity have been unable to develop the coping skills they will need in order to navigate when things veer off course a bit.
For those who have well-developed strategies for coping and those just beginning to find their way, it does not help that at Columbia and many other schools, students sometimes view stress as a badge of honor, speaking proudly of the volume of work they get done in a short amount of time, on very little sleep. Stress is discussed as “the norm,” meaning that if a student is not stressed, there must be something wrong. The point of acknowledging stress should not be to make boastful statements, but to learn to ask for and receive needed help. This may require setting aside the tendency to determine our self-worth solely by our successes and achievements, and by letting ourselves experience some vulnerability as we accept that we are not invincible.
A significant part of developing resilience is giving oneself permission to take risks and to learn from failure, something the academic culture and its push toward perfectionism do not embrace. What is often missing from the conversations about stress in academia is that making mistakes, and even failing sometimes, is an integral part of becoming successful. Our history is written by struggle, by countless inventors, entrepreneurs, and political leaders who worked toward their goals for years. Each bump in the road, whether an unsuccessful experiment, failed business, or absence of constituency buy-in, taught them something new. Persevering, moving forward inch by inch, they changed the world.
Stress will always be a part of the college experience. College is the beginning of a new phase in life—an exciting journey of discovery, learning, and growth—and it begins with stress and adaptation. Students move to a new home, possibly away from parents for the first time, leaving familiar faces and routines behind. They may struggle with their coursework or time management. They may even experience failure for the first time, whether in the form of a low grade on a paper or project, or failing a class. Working through these obstacles takes much determination, builds character, and ultimately produces a stronger individual. Overcoming setbacks and forgiving oneself for imperfection is far from easy. Challenges are a part of our education that help us become resilient and able to adapt over time to setbacks, disappointments, and other stressful conditions.
What changes can we make to support each other better in stressful times? We need to do our best as a community to show that we care about one another by listening, being open to new ideas, supporting one another’s growth and development, and setting aside time to celebrate together. We need to acknowledge our need for help and ask for it when it is warranted. In a collegiate community with thousands of super achievers, a student can feel very alone. However, stress is not unique. It is something that everyone experiences, and it can be overwhelming at times. This happens especially when so many feel this way but so few ask for help. It perpetuates the myth that everybody else is doing just fine. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help and recognize that you are not perfect in everything that you do.
We must also ask ourselves what the role of the modern university has become, especially now that education is a 360-degree experience, encompassing learning inside and outside of the classroom. However, there is no set curriculum for helping our students develop resiliency, as it is a by-product of an individual pressing through very specific, personal situations. It may be that the most impactful way that we can help our students prepare for the ups and downs of life may be in changing the general discourse from the topic of stress to coping, acknowledging, and accepting that our futures hold mistakes to be made and obstacles to overcome. These are as important to our learning and growth as successes and accomplishment are—perhaps even more so.
Columbia is very fortunate to have the Student Wellness Project, a student initiative established to promote a campus culture of wellbeing. I would like to recognize the tremendous efforts of the group for all that it has done to bring this subject into the campus dialogue and for its work toward changing misconceptions surrounding stress and seeking help. This Sunday afternoon, it will be hosting a community conversation on wellness. Let’s continue this dialogue.
The author is the dean of student affairs for Columbia College and SEAS, and the associate vice president for undergraduate student life.
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