Stress is an inevitable and familiar presence at Wellesley. Pick any student out of the crowd rushing to the Academic Quad or racing up the Science Center’s steps and they’ll rattle on about the p-set they didn’t finish, the test that they haven’t studied for and that “oh my god, I’m so stressed!” before running off to their class in despair. Ask any of the students sojourning in a private room in Clapp or knocking back late-night Red Bulls in Pendleton Atrium and they’ll tell a similar story and complain about the 4-5 hours of sleep they’ve been averaging.
Talk with more students and a familiar phrase will start to emerge: “stress-culture.” I’m sure every college has its own and while no one can truly define what this phenomenon is, scattered narratives will tell of a pervasive force keeping students dragging sleep-deprived bodies past their limits and going to the bathroom at 4am to have breakdowns about their future and how that one B paper is going to ruin everything that they have every worked for.
In an academic institution like Wellesley, where ambitious students reach for the moon and vow to become the world’s next leaders, the stress gets ramped up to sky-high levels. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with ambition or wanting to be the next world leader but these goals can also seed to unhealthy pressures.
I’ve had my fair share, and more, of stress throughout my tenure as a student. I understand that stress isn’t all bad because it keeps us motivated, productive and off the couch, where we would no doubt spend most of the day binge-watching Netflix. However, I feel that the stress culture Wellesley’s competitive atmosphere breeds and can negatively impact student’s mental wellness. I’m hoping that this subject can be broached in a productive way because at the moment, many students clam up about the stress they are feeling or turn it into a strange contest on who is more stressed by boasting about the 10 p-sets they have to complete within the hour. Regardless of how amusing these pissing contests can be, I think it’s important for colleges, not just Wellesley, to take steps forward to transform this stress culture into a more positive force and for students to open up healthy dialogues about their experiences.
Personally, I feel that Wellesley’s stress culture has definitely impacted my mental health adversely throughout my student career. Throughout the year, I’m bogged down in an endless cycle of p-sets, readings and essays that I can never completely finish. Old assignments merge with new assignments so that I am in a perpetual state of anxiety about projects that I should be completing or preemptively starting. So when the rare break arrives, I should be able to enjoy it and re-energize, right? Wrong. Because I’ve been hardwired to be in a continual state of stress, I feel uneasy with the absence of work and cannot truly enjoy myself. Whether I go to a party or take a trip to Boston, there’s always the thought, “Should you being this right now? What about x, y and z that’s due next month?” I’m stuck thinking about the future and the uncomfortable thought that my only motivation is stress instead of more wholesome emotions.
Along with that, I’ve discovered that I’m actually quite lonely at Wellesley. My affable groups of friends from high school are gone, replaced by one to two students that I can really call friends. Now, this could just be my terrible social skills, but I find it hard to connect with other students through the stressful haze of academia. The few times I manage to make a tentative connection and follow up with offers of dinner and study meetups, they’re cancelled at the last moment with apologies of “I’m so sorry, I have a p-set to finish!” I might sound overly bitter but I’m irritated that we’re given so little breathing room that we can’t even afford to bond with our fellow Wellesley sisters. Instead, the pervasive stress culture keeps most of us locked in our rooms where we begrudge any and all breaks from the mountain of work that never ends. As I go about my daily activities, I’ve found that I’ve rediscovered loneliness in the empty chairs around the dining tables and the soft whir of the fan in the solitary Clapp study room.
As I mentioned before, Wellesley is filled with incredible minds and unique talents from all over the globe. I see ambitious students forging their own initiatives to change the world or juggling impossible loads of athletics, clubs and work. In this fertile, competitive atmosphere, the stress culture starts to feed on itself where students see other stressed students and feel the obligation to appear just as stressed. Not because we like being stressed, but because we feel the need to keep up with the motivated and ambitious students who burn so brightly. This makes us nervous to share our stories because to admit that we can’t handle it seems like a confession of weakness and an inability to cope with Wellesley’s rigorous workload. As an insidious corollary to this point, I personally feel the need to participate in the stress culture to prove that I belong at Wellesley, that I can take on just as much work as the typical Wellesley student does. So as I pull an all-nighter finishing a p-set and two essays, I find a perverse satisfaction in the knowledge that I can push myself this far and that yes, I can handle the work and that I deserve to be at the prestigious Wellesley College.
I said this before but I sincerely hope that by sharing a little of my experiences with Wellesley’s stress culture, I can encourage other students to do the same. At the moment, there is a lack of dialogue between students about this topic but I’m hoping that this can change and we can break the self-feeding cycle of Wellesley’s stress culture. In the long run, it’s not the Hunger Games; we’re all just trying to graduate and survive the college madness together.