Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Saturday, December 15, 2018

Stress culture is stifling students

Columnist Julia Gagnon tackles AU’s wonk culture

Julia Gagnon

One of the first things I noticed when I stepped foot on this campus were the shuttles. They are the gateway from AU to the rest of D.C., where opportunities lay abundant and ready for the picking, and that is the message that these shuttles boast.

Plastered across these shuttles is the reminder that 90% of AU students participate in an internship and if you don’t, then why’d you even come to this school? At least that’s what I asked myself. A large part of why I came to AU was for the unparalleled access to internships and career connections that I had been told were necessary to gain even a foot in the door.

During my first semester, I was unaware of the truth surrounding competition and what that word meant to young, ambitious, scared college students. One internship during your college career meant nothing if you didn’t already have one before college even started and had five other extracurriculars to brag about. It was never about doing what you liked, it was about doing the most that you could and, more importantly, more than the person next to you.

I received my introduction to this stress culture when I felt shame about the amount of clubs and extracurriculars I chose to take on in my first semester at school. I committed myself to one club, one that necessarily didn’t offer any edge to my career goals but helped me to find a place on campus with people who understood my personality and my values. It was a personal choice. I knew myself and how much I could handle, but this reassurance did not quell the catastrophic thinking to which I found myself succumbing to often. While this race to the top may be the unfortunate reality of the current job market, the toxic careerism that it breeds in universities adheres to a one-size-fits-all educational system that perpetuates ableism and classism. Because while this may be the reality of the work force, many students face a very different set of circumstances.

Many families and individuals have made sacrifices in order to receive an education at AU, drawn to it by those same messages of internships and opportunities. But unless that internship or that research opportunity is paid, why is it assumed that everyone can afford to take advantage of it? The idea that you must have an internship in order to be competitive in the job market is a tactical move in class warfare. There are very few who can afford to be at a competitive institution with recognition for internship opportunities, such as AU, without substantial financial help. However, this aid does not include living expenses, causing many students to seek out additional jobs. This often leaves students with no time or money for an unpaid internship, not only making them perhaps less qualified in the job market but also subject to the feelings of stress and shame that come with the appearance that they are behind.

Similar to students who struggle financially, the same situation also occurs when students who struggle with different mental health concerns have to pursue their academic goals at a slower pace than the majority of the student body. Four classes and an internship may be the absolute maximum one student can handle while others seek to load their schedules much more. Contrary to popular rhetoric, neither commitment load is better or worse than the other, because there is no generic model for what an educational path is supposed to entail. We as students have bought into this idea that each decision we make will directly impact our future. We understand the large amounts of stress and pressure being placed upon us and we accept it for what it is.

Our classrooms are not platforms to pick out our competition, so please don’t treat them as such. We become enveloped in our own stress and forget that we are not the only ones who feel alone. We are all products of a system that has waged war on our abilities as students, so in remembering that, we must take care of each other.

Julia Gagnon is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.

Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.