250 at CMU discuss stress of campus life

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More than 250 people crowded into a meeting room at Carnegie Mellon University Monday night to discuss how academic intensity and drive for success on the highly competitive campus have affected students' well-being.

The session, called by Carnegie Mellon in the wake of a student suicide last month and another student's published criticism of campus culture, was intended to diagnose the problem rather than offer specific solutions, organizers said.

Just the same, students advanced a number of suggestions as they took turns at the microphone inside the school's University Center, their comments in some cases triggering applause. The university closed the nearly two-hour town hall session to those not part of the campus community. Faculty and staff attended, but only students spoke.

Carnegie Mellon president Jared Cohon attended part of the session. He declined comment as he left.

Afterward, Gina Casalegno, dean of student affairs, and others who attended the meeting said the suggestions included such ideas as creating a for-credit course in life skills to better help students cope, eliminating the current cap of 12 visits yearly to the university's counseling and psychological services, and providing students better information upfront about workload expectations in individual courses, because that affects decisions on how many courses students take a semester.

One speaker said Carnegie Mellon needed to reduce the stigma surrounding the topic of emotional well-being.

"I think this session did a lot to open up a campus conversation about mental health and people's struggles," Ms. Casalegno said.

On Dec. 7, a Carnegie Mellon sophomore died in a fall from his bedroom window on campus. The death was ruled a suicide.

Five days later, graduating senior Katie Chironis penned a forum piece in the student newspaper that suggested Carnegie Mellon was not doing enough to get help for students who were at or near the breaking point from academic and personal stresses.

"Many are suffering, and no one's talking about it," she wrote. "Why?"

Her words, published in The Tartan, struck a nerve on campus of 11,000, and the flood of strong opinions continued Monday, both from students who attended the meeting and others who did not.

"CMU has a culture that breeds stress, but I think [Ms. Chironis] over-dramatized the amount of stress there is," said Carrie Weintraub, 19, a sophomore and information systems major from Fairfield, Conn.

"There is pressure to one-up each other, but not to the point it really drives people insane. I think a lot of the stress is self-created," she said.

But Jahque Bryan, 17, a freshman from New York City, said after the meeting that Ms. Chironis' forum piece eloquently summarized how she feels.

On one hand, she said, it's clear "we need to put our health first," but she said there's no escaping the pressures she and others will feel as they compete against graduates from other top schools. "How do you compete with someone from Hong Kong, someone from Harvard?" said Ms. Bryan, who is majoring in decision science and international relations and politics.

Asked to identify the biggest problem, Dinesh Ayyappan, 22, of Millburn, N.J., who last month completed a degree in mechanical engineering, thought for a moment then replied.

"I think it's something not really particular to Carnegie Mellon," he said. "There is no real reward for good life balance, so you have a lot of people pursuing the things that are rewarded -- like grades and additional majors, stuff like that."

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Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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