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Monday, May 23, 2022

Student Stress, Anxiety Sparks Conversation

A faculty meeting was held on Tuesday, April 28 to address heightened student stress as the semester comes to a close. Out of what some have called an “emergency meeting” emerged a community-wide conversation on short-term methods to mitigate anxiety and the acknowledgement that long-term goals and sustained conversation should be had on better supporting student mental health.

Though academic stress is acute this time of year, the meeting came as a reaction to what has been an extremely difficult semester as the College community mourns the loss of student Nathan Alexander ’17, staff member Kelly Boe and faculty members Robert Prasch and Young Hie Kim.

“Members of the faculty, administration and staff were recognizing that this has become a very stressful semester on campus...but also reflecting that state of the world right now. There are events happening in the United States that are stressful; there are earthquakes in Nepal that are stressful and tragic...And then we had Nathan’s death which I think really focused energy on that fact that people are feeling overwhelmed, which only heightened that anxiety and stress,” said Executive Director of Health and Counseling Services Gus Jordan.

“Every spring semester has an energy to it, a crescendo of stress towards finals, but this year is distinct. It feels different and it feels urgent. We have talked about it a lot in smaller groups. I spend a lot of time talking to Commons deans, counseling staff, Scott center staff, others student life members about the fact that the number of students who are seeking support from Commons deans or counseling staff is at an all time high,” said Dean of the College Katy Smith Abbott.  

A Strain on Resources: Vermont’s Psychiatric Care Crisis

Students have been seeking support from Parton counseling services and the Counseling Services of Addison County (CSAC) at higher levels than ever before. Jordan estimates that five more students each week, all year, have come in for counseling support compared to last year. Higher demand has put a tangible strain on resources.

“There is currently a psychiatric care crisis in Vermont,” said Jordan, referring to the limited number of trained psychiatrists in the state.

College students are currently given priority for CSAC appointments and psychiatric evaluations,  thanks to a contract between the College and CSAC that goes back many years. Students are typically offered appointments within a week to ten days, though wait times can be longer depending on student class times and schedules.

Hannah Quinn ’16, co-founder of the Resilience Project, a project aimed at bringing conversation and awareness to mental health issues on campus, shared her own story on struggling with depression earlier this year.

“I posted a story on Facebook when I felt like there was a complete lack of conversation about mental health issues on campus and it’s something I have always felt the need to hide,” said Quinn.

“I wanted to open up the dialogue and see if there was a better way to address these issues,” she added.

“What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” reads the Resilience Project homepage and encourages students to share their own stories of triumph and trauma and to engage in a much-needed conversation on how we process mental health and stress as a community.

As Quinn reflects on institutional changes she would like to see in order to better support students, she points to a lack of resources and to culture.

“It’s frustrating. Parton is always strapped and so is CSAC in town. There is a much higher demand than there are resources right now,” says Quinn.

However, though the faculty meeting last Tuesday only looked at short-term solutions for getting through April and May, the importance of having an ongoing conversation on the community culture was emphasized.

“The meeting was an opportunity for those of us who had been considering this question to propose some changes faculty could make during the rest of the semester. It wasn’t meant to be prescriptive and it wasn’t meant to be all or nothing. It was like, ‘Here’s a menu of things you could consider,’” said  Smith Abbott.

Some options the faculty considered are dropping a final assignment, making an assignment optional or opening up their classrooms for conversations about student stress.

“We sometimes forget how impactful a single conversation between a student and a faculty member can be. I think faculty know that, but we are awash in the busyness of teaching, of publishing, of committee work and to just stop collectively and say, ‘Don’t forget the power of a conversation,’” added Smith Abbott.

Busyness: The Trademark of this Generation

However, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz pointed out at the meeting that this isn’t a new issue. In 2007 he convened a forum between students and faculty members about student stress to reflect on the busyness of student lives, a trademark on this generation.

“Students come to us masterful in being busy all the time. Some of that is amazing dedication to academics, which was true in high school and remains true here, but I think almost every student I know was incredibly busy in high school and probably before that...So students are experts at filling every hour and I think some students, certainly not all, feel at sea when they are not busy all the time,” said Smith Abbott.

What differentiates this semester from any other spring, when finals can lure even the calmest of students into disarray, is the sentiment of loss and grief.

“The thing I have felt most acutely this spring is that when you are really good at being busy, it can be true that you are not good at making space to take in the magnitude of an event like a suicide or a tragic death or an earthquake in Nepal or astonishingly discouraging outbreak of rioting and racial tension sweeping the country. That you just don’t have the space to step back and say, ‘This is really affecting me.’ I think the inability to make that space is a stressor as well,” concluded Smith Abbott.

As the semester wraps up and the sentiment of sadness sits heavy on us all, the faculty, staff and students seem more engaged, willing and energized than ever to make this issue a priority.

“I think there is enough energy and conversation among all of Middlebury’s constituencies, including, students, staff and faculty, that this will be an ongoing conversation about what we are seeing on campus and what we can do about it,” said Jordan.

Looking to the Future

Any conversations about student mental health will likely extend into the next academic year, given that the conversation has only begun toward the end of this semester.

Because of the steps that some faculty have taken in their courses in recent weeks to mitigate stress around finals, many are contemplating what long-term pedagogical adjustments might aid in creating a healthier environment.

To some, it means reevaluating what ‘rigor’ means when assigning coursework.

“A fruitful conversation [to have] is our definition of rigor and our definition of academic excellence,” said Tara Affolter, assistant professor of Education Studies.

“I think it’s lazy thinking to say that rigor means, ‘I’m going to pile on as much work as I can.’ Rigor is in the craft of, ‘What are you looking at? How deeply are you looking at this? How are you making connections across texts, across classes?’” she said.

Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Murray Dry thought that what is required of students is fair.

“I don’t think the expectations are unreasonably excessive here, and my sense is that most students know how to balance a set of courses,” Dry said. “I know I’m on one extreme in terms of expectations but I don’t think I’m unreasonable and I think that the students who take the courses are able to do it. Students don’t flunk out, and they’re doing good work, and fortunately, I guess, no one’s required to take my course.”

Professor of Psychology Barbara Hofer stated that she did not believe courses have become more demanding. She suggested constant social connectivity as a recent development that not only takes up a student’s time but also contributes to their stress, as they are “always on,” with little time for reflection.

“To a person, I haven’t met a faculty member who says they’re assigning more work than they did ten years ago. Most people have had a fairly steady sense of what is appropriate here and what their syllabi look like, but students are reacting much more strongly [to the workload],” Hofer said.  

Multiple professors in interviews with the Campus spoke about junior faculty sometimes feeling their syllabi are scrutinized for rigor during the tenure process.

“If senior faculty feel as if you’re not serious enough, not hard enough, not difficult enough, there is a tendency to dismiss you as not a good teacher,” said Laurie Essig, associate professor of Sociology and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. She sees the pressures on junior faculty from senior faculty as systematic in higher education and not unique to the College.

“I definitely know from my conversations with junior faculty that they’ve felt pressured to cover a great deal of material,” said Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies Rebecca Gould. Gould also emphasized that students can get more intellectual rewards out of a seemingly less voluminous workload even though the perception might be that a professor is reducing a course’s rigor.

Stress is not only a product of class work — extracurricular activities, home life, financial burdens and the search for employment after graduation are common sources of anxiety for many students at the College.

“It’s clear to me that this is a tough time to think about jobs after college. You’ve got pressures now, you’re anticipating pressures of the future, and for a number of students anticipating significant amounts of college debt,” said Larry Yarbrough, Pardon Tillinghast professor of Religion and director of the Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life.

Improving mental health will be the responsibility of many constituencies across the College community. Pedagogical adjustments are in focus now because of the faculty meeting, but a student culture of overwork and the spectra of the indomitable “MiddKid” is perceived by many as areas where social and academic pressures overlap.

“I think the ideal MiddKid is someone who doesn’t struggle academically, doesn’t struggle socially…and the only sort of weakness they’ll show is saying, ‘Oh I have a ton of work’,” Drew Jenkins ’15 said.

Julia Shumlin ’17.5 expressed a similar sentiment, and believed that change would have to come from within the student body.

“I think a lot of it falls on the students and the atmosphere that we have here and the fact that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” Shumlin said. “I do think a lot of it is on the students to create a less competitive atmosphere and to value ourselves for more than just our academic selves.”

It is not only academic pressure that weighs on students. Many are heavily involved in one or more extracurricular activities that demand their time and energy. Nevertheless, Katy Svec ’15 sees her involvement as valuable.

“For me [stage managing] is more rewarding because I know that’s exactly what I want to do when I graduate. I really enjoy the change of pace that I get from [doing] theatre. It is simultaneously more rewarding and more stressful than any of my classes. I spend more hours in one week stage managing a show than I will for any other class for the rest of the semester,” she said.

Some faculty called into question how the demands of student’s extracurricular activities compete with time for class work. Dry suggested that non-academic over-involvement was a habit learned in high school.

“We have encouraged it by the weight that we as an institution give to extracurriculars in high school,” Dry said. Others, like Gould, called into question their perceived importance.

“What pressures are [students] putting on themselves that they could change? I see it mostly in extracurriculars where students feel like they have to take a ton of extracurriculars because somehow that matters for their future. It often does not matter at all to employers,” Gould said.

Nevertheless, Gould said that neither students nor faculty can solve the problem on their own, emphasizing that it is a community concern.

Gould is currently engaged in a new book project entitled Spacious. She is insistent on the need to find mental relief from the demands of modern life, while being critical of an American culture of busyness.

Many would contend that a culture of overwork is observable at the College. It is difficult to discern how much of that culture is driven by student exceptionalism and how much of it is a product of pedagogy. That culture is built on a network of expectations — those of parents, professors, coaches, peers and potential employers.

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty Andi Lloyd emphasized improving student mental health an as opportunity to pose sweeping questions to our community.

“What does it means to live life at the pace at which we’re all living life? What does it mean to not have time to reflect?” she said.

Additional reporting by Henry Burnett