Opinion | Columns

The education of overcoming

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.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Paul posted on

They hypocrisy of this article is astounding. As a student at Columbia, I was harassed by another student. I brought this matter to the attention of Kevin Shollenberger, who refused to follow school policy as delineated under F.A.C.E.T.S.. Moreover, Mr. Shollenberger threatened and harassed me to the point where I was forced to leave school for three semesters, while my harasser was coddled and protected until he graduated. Fortunately, the NYPD took my valid concerns seriously and a police report was filed. Additionally, I was forced to obtain legal counsel in protecting my rights as a student and human being. While my harasser should have been expelled, Mr. Shollenberger should have been arrested for being complicit in his crimes and his contract terminated. He needlessly created untold amounts of stress in my life, ruining my college experience. As of Fall 2013, Mr. Shollenberger will be assuming a position at Johns Hopkins. While Columbia will be all the better without him, I extend my sympathy to all those who will suffer under his pernicious incompetence.

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You voted '+1'.
Anonymous posted on

They gave you 300 words over the normal word limit and you still managed to not say anything except only that its not Columbia's fault, and its mostly self-imposed. No wonder Valentini wants you out.

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Anonymous posted on

Much of this column was thoughtful and accurate in its assessment of Columbia's "stress culture," it is disappointing that Kevin doesn't talk about the ways Student Affairs could begin to help change that culture, instead of just asking students to change it themselves. The use of "we" and "our" may show that he feels students and administrators are united in facing that culture and are part of a community, but it doesn't acknowledge that the administration must take leadership in helping combat the unrealistic expectations students have for themselves or about their frustrations of feeling like they're just a UNI to many parts of Student Affairs. A good, positive example might be finding ways to talk about how the Center for Student Advising has become a much more involved and attentive organization under Monique Rinere, with advisers frequently knowing their advisees better and perhaps being able to say "do you really need to take 21 credits every semester in addition to your 4 extracurricular activities? That seems like a bad idea and an unhealthy decision." More personal connections to students like those aimed for by CSA would go a long way towards facilitating real discussion about stress and realistic expectations.

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dushinco posted on

the page you provided is a null. that's a pretty sarcastic circumstance, even if by mistake..

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Anonymous posted on

There's something inherently harsh and assuming about the premise that stress = failure to cope with struggle and setbacks by sheltered students (re: your third paragraph). I think you begin to dismantle this idea later in your piece when you mention "stress is not unique. It is something that everyone experiences." That is significantly more accurate. Be careful about blaming students and their parents -- mental health is a complex beast, and to truly understand it, it can't be dismissed as just being ill-prepared while growing up.

I ask that you bring Columbia to the forefront of this discussion, since part of the duty of an academic institution is to inform, educate, and provide meaningful experiences that equip students with the tools to handle stressors. If you truly believe incoming students are not prepared to handle stress, what can Student Affairs do to help them? It's too simple to say that the "community" needs to shift their attitude and make "changes." Dean Shollenberger, you have the power to make decisions that directly affect students lives -- what resources can YOU provide that offer support not just when it's needed, but before it's needed? How can YOU catalyze this shift in the community that you aspire for?

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Anonymous posted on

Very good article that helps us to understand "stress"; not to point out who is at "fault". It helps to start conversation how to deal w/ stress and helps to establish resources by CU that will be there before needed. Good start Dean Shollenberger.

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Anonymous posted on

"Academic culture" is not perfectionist--curiosity means risk. preprofessional culture is perfectionist.

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dushinco posted on

Brilliant point.

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jaylemeux posted on

Snap!

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The Dark Hand posted on

wow...even administrators contribute to the general terribleness of this publication.

This article effectively said nothing. Congrats on perpetuating the general uncaring facelessness of the bureaucratic nightmare that is Columbia by shifting the blame to the students themselves.

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Anonymous posted on

cool, more SWP cirlejerkin

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