The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.
Here’s a picture I’m sure we’re all familiar with: a group of friends sitting around a dorm lounge or at Fran’s, laptops open, books sprawled out everywhere. The discussion is flitting around some dining hall event or the weather or class readings, when someone responds to a question about weekend plans with the casual remark, “I don’t know – work, I guess?” All at once, it seems like everyone’s airing grievances about the two-hundred page reading that’s been assigned, or about the fact that they can always expect to count on one hand the hours of sleep they get at night. It’s cathartic, people laugh, expressing their sympathies for one another. That was my experience just last week, and with my friends stressing seemed innocuous, if not outright therapeutic. We often complain about it, but we all accepted that pressure when we accepted Northwestern’s offer of admission. It’s a fact of life for any college student.
Is it always good? It certainly didn’t feel that way when I was sitting in my dorm last night, paging through texts I knew I was barely processing, with my midterms and papers approaching like the four modern horsemen of the apocalypse. Some of it might’ve been attributed to the fact that my professors had collectively decided to assign much heavier-than-usual workloads for the week. But a lot of it felt self-inflicted: Did I have to be a part of so many clubs while working a part-time job? Could I have planned my deadlines and managed them so I wouldn’t have had to stress so much at 1 a.m. the night before so many things were due? Should I really have written this article knowing full and well I had a midterm the next day? I knew that the answer to those questions was yes. But I didn’t feel like that was something I had to change.
We blame it on both the society and the toxic environment of competition that seems to pervade college campuses all over the country. I wrote my college application essays about leaving the stress behind, but it followed me here. Or more accurately, I carried it with me. Despite being so fortunate in attending a school like this, I still find myself regularly freaking out over my grades, my extracurriculars, leadership positions and career prospects. I still find it hard sometimes to be grateful for what I already have and proud of what I’ve already done.
I'm pre-stress stressed, like i'm stressed about the stress that i will be stressed out about for school— College Students (@LostAtCollege) February 9, 2018
I have friends here who go to sleep at 10:30 (p.m., if that wasn’t altogether clear). I tell them, “that’s wild” and ask them “how the hell do you do that?” They’ll say something about time management or wanting to be ready for the next day, a sentiment that’s wholly sensible but not one I’m entirely prepared to accept. Why should I give up napping after a 11 a.m. class or turning in papers an hour before they’re due? And that’s exactly why the problem is so persistent: we don’t truly see it as one.
Figuring out that college students stress out a lot isn’t anything new. But the studies rarely seem to acknowledge that the problem is partly self-induced. In a 1978 essay entitled "College Pressures," William Zinsser wrote that “it will be students’ own business to break the circles in which they are trapped.” The solution won’t as simple as condemning the culture or preaching self-love. While both of these things are incredibly important, they alone aren’t going to change much. I couldn’t tell you how many times my friends and I tell each other to take care of ourselves only to subsequently ignore that advice. It’s a problem with a solution that won’t be found in broad appeals to uncontroversial messages. Instead, we should look to reflect on whether or not we play an active role in exacerbating the issue of stress. Yes, all of us are here for a reason. And though our experiences differ, it’s not hard to imagine that each one of us cares deeply about something; that to achieve that end, we’re willing to work ourselves to the point of sheer exhaustion. It’s a belief that’s buried deeply into who most students are, something that isn’t inherently wrong. But the procrastination, stress and sleep deprivation don’t necessarily have to follow. And whether or not those things get fixed? That decision is ours to make.