As students at universities around the country fight through the last few weeks of exams and assignments I felt the urge to write something. Universities are increasingly becoming aware of the impacts of student stress, but I still find myself frustrated with the willing acceptance of ‘stress’ as a necessary part of the university experience. We need to have a much more significant conversation about why stress exists at university instead of merely talking about how to manage the affects of stress. I suspect that very few people would suggest that learning occurs best in stressful environment, so I wonder why we accept it at university. Anyway, instead of writing something brand new I figured that I’d share something that I’d already written. I wrote this post at the beginning of my fourth year at Western. It was intended for a now defunct blog called “Fuss on the Bus” but it never made it to the website. I think that it starts to get at the ideas that I want to talk about, so here it is. 


In this time of exams and midterms it is easy, if not unavoidable, to lose sight of the purpose of our time at Western. Whether it is the result of a busy social life or merely a case of the academic blues, today’s student is put under an extraordinary amount of pressure. We are told that this is all part of the student experience and that feeling stretched to the limit is something that everyone goes through. In a disturbing kind of way, we tend to treat the all-nighter, the study-breakdown and the post-exam crash as marks of the endurance of the student spirit. The ability to make it through these moments of extreme stress is something that we take for granted and tend to wear as a badge of honour. The blind acceptance of the university experience as a fight or a struggle is something that we, as a university community, should question.

We’re all familiar with the responses to student stress: ‘that’s the way it is’ ‘everyone goes through it’ ‘time management, time management, time management’ and ‘it has always been like this’. In my mind, these responses are no longer good enough. We need to question the very construction of the education system that we exist within. Is it set up for student success? Does it allow students to follow their passions? Does it provide students with a holistic learning experience? These questions and more are what we need to be asking about our university education.

The university community is starting to recognize the importance of providing support for students who experience the highest levels of stress. The emergence of the debate on campus mental health services indicates a growing level of awareness about the issues facing the typical student. It is a valid and necessary conversation because students are accessing mental health services at a record level. Connecting students who need help dealing with stress, anxiety or more serious mental health issues should certainly be a high priority for any university. However, the next question we must ask ourselves is why students are accessing mental health services at such an increased rate. There are undoubtedly many factors at play, but it seems reasonable to suggest that one is the structure of university education. 

Are we, as students, satisfied with a university education that forces us to live from assignment, to midterm, to exam? Or is it possible that we truly desire an education that allows us to follow our passions in pursuit of an understanding of ourselves and the world around us? We shouldn’t be afraid to dream about a different kind of evaluation system–maybe even the end of exams altogether–or at the very least about a system that doesn’t create unnecessary pressure. To the credit of the dedicated faculty our current education system does not entirely stifle growth or the development of knowledge and the university campus continues to be a place of excitement and learning. However, I know too many students who have said that they have to make a conscious choice between completing assignments, midterms and exams and actually engaging in the process of learning.

Undoubtedly university should not be easy. It should be a challenge to develop the skills necessary to succeed at an institution of higher education. However, it is our responsibility as members of the university community to listen to the way that students feel. For as long as university has been around, students have had difficulty managing the intense demands made upon their time. It is necessary that we start to listen to these concerns and to work towards addressing them in a concrete manner. It is no one’s place to make a moral judgement on whether students should or should not be stressed by the university experience. If the stress exists than we must find creative solutions to address it, no matter how justified or unjustified we believe it to be.

This post was inspired by a quotation that a friend of mine shared with me the other day. To me, this sums up the great dilemma of the student experience. I hope that you enjoy.

 “My own experience is limited to universities. One of the saddest aspects of the lives of many students is that they always feel pressured. The irony is that those who have the luxury of spending time reading the great books of culture and exploring the intricate beauty of creation find themselves always fighting deadlines. Students complain about the number of pages they have to read and write, and anxiously wonder how they will finish their many assignments on time. The word “school,” which comes from “schola” (meaning: free time), reminds us that schools were originally meant to interrupt a busy existence and create some space to contemplate the mysteries of life. Today they have become the arena for a hectic race to accomplish as much as possible and acquire in a short period the necessary tools to survive the great battle of human life. Books written to be savoured slowly are read hastily to fulfill a requirement, paintings made to be seen with a contemplative eye are taken in as part of a necessary art appreciation course, and music composed to be enjoyed at leisure is listened to in order to identify a period or style. Thus, colleges and universities meant to be places for quiet learning have become places of fierce competition, in which the rewards go to those who produce the most and the best”. (Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective).


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