Thrive on Campus//

Why We Need to Start Talking About the Stress of Academic Competition

By talking about our own struggles, we can open the dialogue surrounding the pressure to succeed on college campuses.

PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/ Getty Images
PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/ Getty Images

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

In the study of engineering, we are taught how to compute stress on a system. We are taught how it affects each component and leads to deformation of a system. But there’s another kind of stress we are never taught to understand, model or quantify — the mental stress we put on ourselves to succeed in the highly competitive classes which are commonplace in today’s education system.

As a junior studying Industrial Engineering at Northwestern University, I have seen how easy it is to get obsessed about personal achievement in such a competitive, academically challenging environment like Northwestern. I have seen this happen to my friends and my classmates. I have seen this happen to myself.  

I pushed myself in high school, both academically as well as extracurricularly. My hard work was rewarded when I got into Northwestern during my senior year. My parents and friends were so proud, reassuring me of my “potential” and how amazing my work ethic was. I became, at this moment, motivated to succeed in a way to prove everyone right, to prove that I was capable for high success like everyone told me I was. This became a driving factor for me to work as hard as I could my freshman and sophomore years in college. Anytime I did not spend studying or working on homework, I would feel guilty. Guilty that I was not taking every opportunity to reach “my highest potential.” I was striving for perfection. To be the perfect student with the perfect grades. To be the perfect daughter and make my parents incredibly proud. But this goal was unattainable; every time I was not perfect, every time I would not do my best on an exam or make a mistake on my homework, I would feel defeated and let this failure take control of me and my emotions.

The unhealthiest part of this cycle was I did not realize the detrimental effects of this and kept pushing myself for unattainable levels of achievement again and again. I felt mentally and emotionally defeated each time I experienced any sort of “failure.” The academic success that I did achieve in my classes, actually made this realization about my unhealthy behavior more difficult to understand. It was the successes in my classes that continued to validate this mentality. A vicious circle was created.  The unbelievable levels of stress and anxiety seemed worth it because of the grades. The grades seemed to be my goal, not personal learning or improvement.

I have realized, through talking with my peers both in Northwestern Engineering as well in other competitive undergraduate engineering programs, that this addiction for high achievement is a massive problem that affects mental health as well as students’ confidence in the classroom. The more pressing issue, however, is that this success syndrome is not openly discussed in the classroom or even student to student. With help of my professor, Kevin Murnane, I started to investigate his Organizational Behavior class, a management elective for Northwestern Industrial Engineers, to start to understand other students’ struggles with this highly prevalent and important condition.

Initially, I surveyed the class and was completely moved by the results; over 65 percent of the class claimed that their anxiety holds them back from participating in class. Specifically, over 18 percent of the participants noted that they feared that by answering a question wrong in class, their peers would think less of them or view them differently. I held one-on-one interviews with students from the class as well. They opened up to me about how they feel pressure to prove their self-worth and prove that they deserved their spot here at Northwestern. Specifically, one student mentioned how one can feel even amplified feelings of this as an international student since it is that much more competitive for admission. Of the people I spoke with, each mentioned how this internal struggle is not openly discussed.

Now we cannot control the difficulty of our engineering classes or complexity of exams or time-consuming problem sets because challenging ourselves to solve interesting and often undefined problems is an important exercise for our training as engineers. But we can change this stigma about always striving for perfection. During an interview with Arianna Huffington for this article, she mentioned how imposter syndrome is “’the obnoxious roommate living in our head’ — the one that feeds on putting us down and strengthening our insecurities and doubts.” This desire of high achievement at the cost of deprioritizing one’s mental wellness, I believe, is ratified by one’s trembling fear of failing. We have been conditioned to think that high-achievement is the only marker of success, but we need to redefine this definition of “success” together. It is not about the 4.0s. The goal of university study should be about one’s personal journey through college, learning, discovering, maturing, and, also commonly, failing, all in pursuit of discovering one’s passions.

It was hard for me personally to try and implement this new mentality. I have found that using mindfulness to understand the importance of the journey of education has helped me immensely. As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, claims, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Once I was in the “present moment,” I was able to see how my emotions would take control of me when I would mess up in any way and how counterproductive this was. One homework or one exam does not and should not define how smart I may be or if I will succeed later on, and, while this seems trivial, it was difficult for me to come to this conclusion. The exams and grades are a mere step in the learning process, nothing more.

I hope that being honest about the issues I have faced, as an undergraduate engineer driven by success, will encourage more students to come forward and be open about similar issues that they struggle with. Let’s make this a conversation and talk about ways we have tried to combat this issue and ways to change our focus and priorities. Let’s change the discussion about stress inside and outside of the engineering classroom together. Let’s start the discourse.

External information- https://www.institute-for-mindfulness.org/Mindfulness

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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