CMU responds to 'stress culture' on campus


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On a campus whose hard-charging culture exacts an emotional toll on some students, Carnegie Mellon University junior Soniya Shah told a group of freshmen this fall something they may not often hear.

Every so often, it's OK to fail.

Her simple message -- delivered in a new course -- is one often lost on those who were the best in their high school class but quickly discover when they arrive at Carnegie Mellon that no matter how many all-nighters they pull, everyone around them seems just as smart or smarter.

It is that so-called "stress culture" that one of the nation's most highly competitive campuses hopes to modify through a series of initiatives, some of which grew out of campus soul-searching over a sophomore's suicide a year ago this month.

Among the first is an elective course for first-semester freshmen called "thrive @ CMU," developed jointly by Ms. Shah and another junior, Vivek Nair. The 50-minute weekly class, which meets over two months, debuted this fall and is intended to give new undergraduates tools to find balance in their lives while making their mark on campus.

Inside a windowless room in Wean Hall, lecturers ranging from professors and psychological staff to the wife of the university's president offered various perspectives on wellness, relationships and identity.

The goal is not to make Carnegie Mellon less rigorous, said Angela Lusk, assistant director of student life. Rather, the idea is to alter perspectives on that rigor and encourage students to see their own success without "always comparing it to the person next to you," she said.

One recent evening, Ms. Shah shared her own struggles early on as an undergraduate, telling the class about a D she received in Organic Chemistry I -- a serious blow to someone who finished high school near the top of her class.

She rebounded with an A in Organic Chemistry II, and as of the fall, carried a 3.25 grade point average. Just the same, that low point gave her fresh perspective and is why she said she wanted to share it with those who might soon face something similar.

"Everything isn't going to go right all the time," said Ms. Shah, 20, a technical writing major from Clarence, N.Y. "You're still going to wake up in the morning. Life goes on."

Her story of early failure hit some in the room like a rock.

"I think I freaked some of them out," she said. "I don't think we talked about failure enough in the class."

College: universal angst time

On any college campus, there are students hundreds of miles from home for the first time who are in anguish over academic or personal woes, from their first failing grade to a bruising long-distance romantic breakup.

Nationwide, 11 percent of college students reported being diagnosed or treated for depression within the last 12 months, according to a survey by the American College Health Association. Nearly 1 in 5 students reported anxiety severe enough to have hurt their academic performance.

Those stresses are magnified at an elite university like Carnegie Mellon, which this fall had 13 applications for every freshman seat. Eighty percent of those enrolled graduated within the top 10 percent of their high school class and, on average, had a grade point average of 3.72.

Overachievers to begin with, they suddenly find themselves in a place with a dizzying array of career possibilities, from the labs that design robots for space exploration to performance stages that have propelled some Carnegie Mellon graduates to Broadway and Hollywood fame. But there is crushing pressure, too, on a campus where driving oneself to the brink is a form of status for some students.

"They push themselves to the breaking point by not sleeping for three days. There's kind of a sense of pride in doing that," Ms. Shah said. "And for those who don't, it's almost embarrassing [so] you feel the need to 'one-up' people on how hard you're working."

She said the adjustment for her was like a slap in the face.

"I hated Carnegie Mellon the first year I was here, to be perfectly honest," she said. "I had never struggled with school so much in my life. That was really something I had a difficult time coming to terms with and yet it ended up being OK."

Ms. Shah knew the young man whose fall from a campus bedroom window last December unnerved many on the campus of nearly 12,000 students. Unaware of his torment, she said it altered her assumptions on who potentially is at risk.

"We were all shocked that someone who seemed so happy on the outside was hurting on the inside and hiding it from so many people," she said. "No one saw it coming."

Experts say campuses nationally see about 1,100 suicides a year. Even so, the rate of such deaths is little more than half that among Americans between the ages of 18 and 25.

Research has not found suicide to be more prevalent on elite campuses, said Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist who is medical director for The Jed Foundation, a New York City organization whose mission is to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students.

He said the data suggest that while academic pressure can add underlying stress, it is not necessarily a trigger.

At Carnegie Mellon, last December's death was the fifth suicide in a decade, and while each was tragic, the number doesn't exceed the expected rate given the school's size, experts said.

Nevertheless, the school hired additional therapists to work with students, beefed up after-hours phone assistance and plans with Mercy Behavioral Health to offer anyone on campus an eight-hour certification program in how to recognize when someone is in serious mental distress and how to get them help.

The school also is opening a technology-free "mindfulness room" to help students find balance and quiet on campus.

To encourage empathy and levity, said Ms. Lusk, the university now funds a student group called Project Smile that sponsors "free hug days," hands out cookies and posts signs around campus with such messages as, "You are a genius. Remember your worth."

Carnegie Mellon administrators say they were working to alter attitudes about stress even before last December's death. In fact, it has been a sore point there for decades.

In 1996, as administrators showed off the school's new University Center, they praised the longer-than-a-football-field venue as a boon to student life at Carnegie Mellon, with its recreation facilities, mall-style food court and meeting spaces. But even a project that was the biggest in school history at the time could not silence a lament often heard: that the "all-work-all-the-time" credo made Carnegie Mellon less fun and might be why some graduates from especially demanding disciplines carry less emotional affinity for their alma mater than do graduates of other universities.

Carnegie Mellon has spent millions since then to enhance facilities and programs and works to attract more students who excel, not just on paper, but also in leadership skills and left brain/right brain intellectual balance.

Just the same, every year a share of campus flirts with the maximum course load, pursuing two and three majors while throwing themselves into so many campus organizations their schedule sometimes squeezes out sleep.

The ethic is so ingrained in the school's identity that it surfaced at last month's installation ceremony for Carnegie Mellon president Subra Suresh, an Indian-born scientist and engineer who himself began school at age 4 and notched a Ph.D. in two years.

"Like us," Allan Meltzer, prominent economist and CMU professor, told the new president that day, "You seem to be a worker bee."

Within days of last December's suicide, a student op-ed piece decrying Carnegie Mellon's stress culture appeared in the campus newspaper, The Tartan, prompting scores of responses from students, alumni and others. They blamed everything from unrealistic course-work demands to students who impose stress on themselves to lack of big-time campus sports as a unifying distraction.

The university responded with town hall meetings and solicited ideas for improving the campus experience.

Inside 'thrive @ CMU'

The fruit of that effort was on display on a recent Tuesday night as associate history professor Nico Slate guided the thrive @ CMU class through a discussion that touched on such points as the tension between serving one's own needs and those of society, and the balance between individuality and fitting into a community.

"At the end of the day, none of us wants to sacrifice uniqueness or that sense of purpose that comes from being [part of] a community," he told this young audience seated in a circle, adding a little reassurance. "You don't have to choose."

The class's 15 students were about evenly divided between females and males and represented almost every college on the campus. In interviews, some said they chose the for-credit, pass-fail elective to gain useful life skills or to find others facing the same angst as them.

For Sloane Macklin, 18, of Cheltenham, Pa., attending Carnegie Mellon suddenly put her hundreds of miles away from a twin sister who enrolled in a college in Georgia.

"For me, the issue wasn't being smartest in the pond; it was being alone in the pond," said Ms. Macklin, a double major in biomedical engineering and materials science engineering.

The course reminded her of the importance of staying in touch with those closest to her. She said a key to her own balance is prioritizing her life.

"I would join every club if I could to try new things," she said. "But that's just not possible here, especially with the workload."

Another student, Aline Naroditsky, 18, an undeclared major from Wayne, N.J., was worried about finding her niche, just months into her campus career.

"Everyone at this school is so passionate. You hear that word all the time -- 'passionate.' And you do see it. Computer science majors are passionate about computer science," she said. "I was like 'Well, what am I passionate about?' "

Dr. Schwartz, the psychiatrist at The Jed Foundation in New York, said it's not practical to try to eliminate competition on campus or even stress. "The job market is what it is."

But a school might want to encourage a sense of "we're all in this together" and a feeling that "my success doesn't have to be on the shoulders of your failure."

At Carnegie Mellon, officials say the challenge is doing that while preserving what makes Carnegie Mellon what it is.

"We have just as many students as we do other community members who say 'If you can't handle it, maybe this place isn't for you,' " Ms. Lusk said.

They urge the university not to do anything that "disrupts how incredibly competitive this school is, because it's the reason why I'm here. I come because of the high pressure," she added.

That said, a number of students seemed to welcome an opportunity to think beyond their next assignment.

William Yu, 19, of New York City, a double major in psychology and computer science, said what he liked best about taking thrive @ CMU was "being able to say my assignment was to think about life, or my assignment was to try and make my life better.

"That's something I don't get to say very often,'' he said. "It was kind of a relief."


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter @BschacknerPG.

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