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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Opinion: Examining mental health at AU

Our campus environment propels mental health issues — we must be the ones to prevent them

The following piece is an opinion and does not reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff. All opinions are edited for grammar, style and argument structure and fact-checked, but the opinions are the writer’s own.

For many students like me, American University was and still is my dream school. Before my freshman year, I had butterflies in my stomach just thinking about my future here. Students often come to college dreaming of freedom and happiness until the reality of being a college student hits them like a freight train.

Suddenly, they must juggle demanding coursework, strange professors, the hunt for competitive internships, having a social life and living independently for the first time. It is no wonder many of these students fall through the cracks, succumbing to the mental health crisis that is ravaging college campuses across America.

But I feel as though American University is a special case. Our college campus, environment and student body create the perfect breeding ground for depression, anxiety and stress in ways other schools cannot relate. We cannot necessarily fix these factors, but we can try to come out on top.

Our campus stands at a mere 90 acres. The University is landlocked, and with around 7,600 undergraduate students, space is tight and competitive. In comparison, neighboring Howard University enrolls about 9,600 undergraduates and has a campus size of 257 acres. American University is home to 88 undergraduate programs, but major ratios are noticeably disproportionate, leaving many to compete for the same coveted classes and academic awards. While certain majors such as international relations and political science are popular due to the strength of our programs, the lack of major diversity can lead to fear of “falling behind the curve.” 

Small class sizes help considerably with overcrowding, but one step outside and the lack of spatial privacy on campus makes one feel packed in like a can of sardines. Especially with the notorious lack of dining options and closure of half of the Terrace Dining Room — leaving many fighting for dining seats. The University has historically struggled to maintain its allotted on-campus housing requirement. In 2021, on-campus housing fell short of guaranteeing beds to 300 students, meaning there was higher competition for dorms for students who desired on-campus housing, forcing many upper-classmen to move off campus. University space capacity is stretched thin, and students are quite nearly piled on top of each other in every aspect of life.

The elephant in the room is the campus culture. The University receives considerable hate for being “the school that everyone transfers from,” and they would be correct. The 2022 first-year undergraduate retention rate, or the percentage of first-year students that come back for a second year, stands at 86.1 percent from a 90.6 percent retention rate in 2020 — a 4.5 percent decrease in the span of two academic years. The University tends to be seen as a second choice for those who applied to more prestigious institutions. Newsflash: going here expecting the characteristics of another college is likely to lead to disappointment. 

Many consider the University a mere stepping stone or a transient school for something bigger. In D.C.’s extremely competitive and turbulent environment we have driven and intelligent classes of students — but at what cost? The lack of school spirit and a vibrant social scene is disappointing as these are crucial contributors to feeling comfortable and happy at college. Feelings of depression thrive in stale or discouraging environments.

Student mental health issues are not new, but they are increasing rapidly. More than 60 percent of college students have reported experiencing symptoms of mental illness — increasing by 50 percent since 2013. However, it makes sense; our education and social rigors are vastly different from those our professors had. American University students feel the demand for what seems like perfection: perfect grades, extracurriculars, volunteer hours and dozens of recommendations from supervisors or professors. Of course, this is doable, albeit stressful. This should not be a realistic expectation to press on students — everyone’s expectations and limits are different. For most, if not all, this standard for success creates severe stress and anxiety of potential failure.

But AU is still an amazing school and I’d like it if people saw it in this light. For many including myself, the University was our top choice of schools because of the fantastic programs it houses and the beautiful campus nestled in the District. With such a competitive student body, this means there are a lot of opportunities for finding that certain niche to join. AU has a vibrant club culture ranging from club sports to beekeeping. Our student voices are strong and diligent despite any pushbacks, while being heard throughout the entire University. A word of advice: attend sports games! Watching home games are fun, involving and make you feel proud to be from American University. 

I hate picking AU apart, but it is time someone did it — the issues at hand need to be examined wholistically. As other students have pointed out, when we let hustle culture consume us, we lose ourselves in the process. AU isn’t just about finding internships or going to graduate school, it’s also about enjoying what is for many the first time being away from home. I want students to realize that we deserve to feel at home at AU despite its challenges. American University is not a normal college by far, but at the same time, what college is? While some issues here are not fixable, we need to try and emphasize support and unity as a student body instead of being transient and distant. Uplifting others and being open about struggles or failures is important and not weakening —it makes us human. At the end of the day, American University is the school we chose. It should feel like it, too.

Mari Santos is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.

This article was edited by Alana Parker, Jelinda Montes and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing

done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti.

opinion@theeagleonline.com


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