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.
I went back to Hopkins for Young Alumni Weekend at the end of September, one month into a full-time job and four months into a postgraduate world of mild confusion, loss and sadness. The summer had been interesting–I spent half the time traveling and laughing and the other half convinced I’d be returning to school–but October brings realization, and loneliness.
“Hopkins still exists, it’s still here,” one of my best friends said as we ambled through our old buildings, sun-dappled quads. “But it exists without us.”
The truth, it turns out, can make you want to cry. My friend’s words were impossible to ignore or process, but they were also said after four months of longing to be back in our familiar place, a place that had felt more like home than the small towns we grew up in. Towns that never seemed to welcome us, even in a season like fall, when the leaves start deepening and dying.
Really, even though our towns feel less like home now that we’re adults, they operate at a welcomed quiet pace. I feel no pressure to walk fast down Main Street, and am excited to go apple picking on a weekend without planning my homework schedule around the six hours I’ll be taking off. I can’t say the same for when I was in college.
Talking about Hopkins when all you want to do is go back makes it easy to ignore what school was really like.
The real truth is that Hopkins was great–but it was also devastatingly non-conducive to mental health.
People might warn you that Hopkins is cutthroat. It’s not, at least not within my major or in my friend groups, but it is incredibly competitive. It’s a pressure cooker. It’s an environment that asks students who are already inclined to be masochistic and uber-focused on success to prioritize schoolwork over health, friends, hobbies, even family.
This type of environment is not unusual at schools like Hopkins. But it manifests itself here in bizarre ways. When you place a certain type of student in a certain type of environment, stress and anxiety feed on each other like rabid dogs. The Hopkins administration also often mishandles student anxiety–but that’s a story for a different day.
At other schools, expectations don’t seem so high. At other schools, the library closes at a certain time and students have to go home. They might continue studying when they get back to dorms and apartments, but they are nonetheless…home. At Hopkins, one of our libraries never closes. Kids sleep there regularly. Walk into Brody at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday and you’ll hear many people brushing their teeth in the gleaming public bathrooms, like a symphony.
That’s not normal. It never has been, and it never will be. And while everyone is free to study and sleep however they want, during my time at Hopkins as an Opinions Editor I took to The News-Letter to examine how and why our school has created the kind of environment where students feel like sleeping in the library and getting up to work is what they need to do to succeed.
At Hopkins anxiety is a competition. Tap into any conversation between people–anywhere on campus–and you’ll hear friends almost subconsciously competing for higher stress levels. You have an exam tomorrow? Your friend has three. You have a hell week? Your friend has hell week in school and in extracurriculars. (You have to be a little insane to survive weekly production nights at The News-Letter.)
After four months, I miss my school. I miss my friends, my apartment, my chairs on the quad, my parties, my classes. I miss learning for the sake of learning. I was lucky to go to Hopkins. It was home.
But examining the school’s toxic culture of competitive stress begins with acknowledging that good and bad can exist in the same place. I love Hopkins, but four months after graduation the insanity and malevolence of its culture is more apparent than when I attended. I may be a masochist–I participated in the stress competition like everyone else–but that’s not a healthy way to live, especially now that school is over.
Libraries that never close, professors that expect too much and frantic students trying to prove they’re doing more and doing better only create…unhappy students. The student body at Hopkins can’t afford any more pressure from the cooker.
Hopkins doesn’t belong to me anymore, but its culture is alive and well. This is an opportunity to examine it further from a different angle–to get the conversation started among current students, to start making the perspective changes I couldn’t make at school.
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