Columbia's campus is known to be a very high-pressure environment in which students often have to deal with difficult course loads and demanding extracurricular activities. In many demanding majors and pre-professional tracks, students use "study drugs" like Adderall to keep them going in preparation for rigorous assignments. Is the misuse of study drugs the future of intensive education or is their presence indicative of deeper faults in our education? What might those faults be?
A 2005 New York Times article tells a familiar story in its opening line: “It was finals week at Columbia University and Angela needed a miracle.” The article, titled The Adderall Advantage, does a thorough job of representing the “types” of study drugs users. Barack Ben-Ezer, a computer science and economics major, claims that “the culture [at Columbia] actually encourages people to use stimulants.” Libby, a writing major described as a “drug dealer,” uses them to “pull through the occasional paper.” Finally, Angelica Gonzales, a civil engineering major and SEAS martyr, believes that “it’s cheating...everyone here is smart. They should be able to get by without extra help.” Whether the profile is of a follow-the-culture student or a casual drug user, the fact of the matter is that all the above individuals can be classified as users.
What’s more important to note, however, is that this article was published in 2005. For those like me who consider 2005 to be closer than 2030, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that is no longer true. Study drugs have been a pervasive part of Columbia society for years and will continue to advance into the future of intensive education.
Reading this article as a junior in high school, I could not believe that this level of desperation would be possible. Even more alarming is the juxtaposition between my past and current stance on this issue. In high school, my opinion was simple—these students were accepted into rigorous schools for being competitive candidates, and it is inconsistent to claim that drugs are used to increase their potentiality of competing with other students. My updated philosophy is even simpler: at least it’s not a coke addiction.
This proclivity to use study drugs is indicative of not only structural flaws within our education system, but faults within ourselves. Along with stress culture, usage of study drugs can also be attributed to procrastination and our obsession with finding humor in struggle. An obvious example of the latter is meme culture, where one cannot scroll through their Instagram feed without seeing an “Oops! All Adderall” Captain Crunch Barstool Columbia meme, or logging onto Facebook and seeing the memes on Columbia Buy Sell Memes.
This sadistic humor is a side effect of the fact that Columbia thrives on stress culture. It’s a part of our identity and a form of self-validation. When we are stressed and overwhelmed, we have something to excuse the mediocrity of our results. Please do not underestimate a Columbia student’s ability to craft an excuse as to why they received a 21 percent on their last physics exam. It’s because I left it until the night before and pulled an all-nighter with some Adderall, you reassure yourself, knowing very well that the situation was avoidable.
This is the Columbia student’s paradox. We procrastinate to create stress, and stress over our procrastination, only to excuse our results with our procrastination and stress. It’s effective! It works! And that’s why it’s our status quo.
Our procrastination and dependency on study drugs point to a greater flaw—a faulty admissions system, complemented by a faulty concept of Ivy rigor. We’re accepted into this school through the portrayal of the most idealized versions of ourselves. Upon arrival, we’re so consumed with hanging onto this idealized portrait that we do anything to mask our struggles. Instead of creating honest conversation around the unmanageable amount of work assigned, we turn to Chegg. We turn to Sparknotes. We turn to Adderall. For these reasons, the administration and faculty don’t see that we’re struggling. More importantly, we’re cheating none other than ourselves.
This paradigm cannot be broken until we adopt a more honest approach with ourselves, our peers, and our professors and faculty. It’s not cool to be on the 24th hour without sleep, nor is it cool to develop lifelong addictions. And the hardest pill to swallow? It’s not cool to be content with our dishonesty.
The author is a sophomore who uses Columbia Barstool and Buy-Sell Memes to fuel her procrastination. Feel free to share any worthy (or unworthy) posts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Study drugs used recreationally most definitely are not the future of intensive education. Much like professional athletes doping, misusing study drugs constitutes cheating. As a pre-med student, I understand that Columbia can be a high-pressure environment, and I do think that many people at this University would take a pill that makes their lives better. Unfortunately, no such pill actually exists.
Many people want an easy out—just take a pill like Adderall and it’ll improve intelligence and attention. Sure, that may seem to be the short-term effect but that mentality is also short-sighted. Adderall and other study drugs can cause a myriad of problems, even when the person it’s prescribed to uses it correctly. Some of the symptoms of using Adderall include loss of appetite, insomnia, anxiety, and others. Abusing these drugs can cause addiction and can have the psychological effect of believing there’s no way to succeed without them.
The way the drug works is through affecting the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Neurons—colloquially known as ‘brain cells’ although they are present throughout the body—release chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Adderall causes an increase in the activity of the three neurotransmitters mentioned above.
Dopamine is involved in the reward system of the brain and basically causes people to repeat behaviors that activate the reward system. Excesses of dopamine have been linked to one of the potential causes of schizophrenia. Don’t misunderstand me, however: Abusing Adderall and other study drugs will not cause schizophrenia. But, if someone is already predisposed to the condition, it may allow it to manifest. The second transmitter, serotonin, is a neurotransmitter associated with happiness and good feelings. With excessive levels of serotonin, as well as other neurotransmitters, the receptors in the brain are less likely to respond to the neurotransmitter when it’s produced naturally. The last neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, is involved in the fight or flight response. This response causes the human body to go into survival mode: The heart beats faster, pupils dilate, breathing quickens, etc. Knowing these facts, it’s easy to see why Adderall can be addictive at psychological and physiological levels.
Pre-meds who know (or should know) this information might still abuse study drugs. Why? Because they feel like they need them, both to keep up with all the demands of being at this Ivy League university and choosing one of the hardest tracks. In my experience as pre-med, some professors don’t care about their students’ workload. They don’t care that you also need time to take care of yourself. They don’t care that you’re having a rough time. That’s a you problem, deal with it or drop their class. Your choice.
This may sound harsh, but it’s a truth that I’ve seen at various points in my time at Columbia. I don’t agree with how these professors treat students. It’s these professors that make students feel like taking substances is the only way to perform like circus monkeys. There’s an implication that students are supposed to be students and nothing else.
Fuck self-care. The Bio test in two days is more important. Need to maximize study time. Pop a few Addys and don’t sleep for a few days. It’s fine.
This toxic thought process is the beating heart of the stress culture at this University, a culture I absolutely refuse to take part in. Users might trust their dealers, but do they really know what’s in the pill they’re taking? Generally, no. There have been fatal cases where individuals have taken what they thought was a study drug and died. Or, they take it long-term and become addicted. Study drugs are never the answer. Just try and get some sleep instead. Your neurons will thank you later and encode the information in your long-term memory.
The author realizes that this contribution is science heavy but, as a pre-med, cannot resist relating everything back to science. She also recognizes that science is a work in progress, not a be-all and end-all. If you’re down to discuss the Holographic Universe and the (possible) existence of electrons but not Newtonian physics, she can be reached at email@example.com.
I spent the last week asking people if they took Adderall or other study drugs. Maybe it’s because I’m a history major or maybe I’m oblivious, but I haven’t noticed people using them that much. So, I decided to live out all my Nancy Drew childhood dreams and investigate.
Are there parts of Columbia’s education such as the Core or bell-curved science classes that influence students to use study drugs? Most students who kindly withstood my questioning explained they used study drugs when they felt truly overwhelmed—not simply stressed, but the “this amount of work is not possible for any human to complete” mood.
Enter chemical enhancement.
I get that feeling. As previously mentioned, I am a history major, meaning I have forsaken any career assurance for the option of reading through documents describing the daily hygiene habits of medieval knights. And, despite the fact that this Reddit stream argues that I have already limited the size of my future family because I will be too busy trying to survive with my worthless degree to procreate, I really do love it.
However, like everyone at this University I still sometimes get overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to complete. Many of my professors will consistently assign around 100 pages of reading per class, then get mad when the class does not show an in-depth knowledge of it. I asked one of my professors if he even expected us to complete all the assigned readings, and he answered, “No as that would be unmanageable.” Impossible expectations like these lay the groundwork for a culture that embraces study drugs.
Although professors, for the most part, are pretty good at listening to students and addressing concerns, I don’t think professors fully realize the role they can take in fighting study drug culture. Every professor I’ve ever had links Columbia’s “health resources” at the end of their syllabus. They list the number for Columbia/Barnard Health, CPS/Furman, and Barnard/Columbia Disability Services and, in a short and sweet speech, encourage us to reach out to them if we are struggling, which, for the record, I do appreciate. However, this is clearly not enough.
Departments can do much more than this to fight stress culture and study drug usage. How about creating syllabi that realistically evaluate amounts of work, and assign work accordingly? How about spacing out midterms? How about not offering weekend classes? How about mandating that the week after any school break cannot have any major assignments? Columbia administrators continually extoll how they want students to have a work/life balance, so, maybe they should actually make the necessary structural changes and create an academic culture which does not depend on chemical reliance.
However, this is not just an administrative problem. The student body must also stop fetishizing stress, and instead endorse regularly sleeping, eating, and, occasionally, socializing. Because it is actually okay to sometimes not complete all your homework, I promise.
The history major is not known to be the most rigorous major at Columbia, so if I sometimes feel overwhelmed, what does that mean about the students in other areas of study that are far more intensive? The ones with the four-hour labs consistently ending past 10 p.m.? The ones where you have to take an unreasonable amount of classes a semester to graduate? The ones which count on some students failing so they can be “weeded out”?
Why, at a place that claims to be dedicated to learning, are we proud of how many students fail? That should be a red flag, not a badge of honor. It is this very culture of over assigning, under structuring, and normalizing academic failure that incentivizes the use of study drugs.
I’m not saying using study drugs is okay. I actually think they only increase stress culture by giving other students an unrealistic assessment of the amount of studying that is naturally possible. However, we can’t be surprised that they are so prominent. Columbia sets up all the structural incentives to promote an Adderall-addicted student body, and we’re smart, so we follow them.
Kayla Abrams is a sophomore who highly regrets ever putting “history major” and “Reddit” into her Google search after her major declaration. Some things are better left unread. On that note, she would like to take this moment to apologize to her parents for limiting the number of their future grandchildren but she promises she’ll share some “really cool historical facts” to make up for it. If you have any historical facts you would like to contribute, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.