Grapengeter-Rudnick ’17: A reinforcement of today’s pressures

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, April 2, 2015

On Tuesday, Brown extended invitations to 1,970 students to join the class of 2019. Admitted students probably flocked to Brown’s website, its Facebook page and The Herald website to relish in their excitement and immerse themselves in the chatter of the school they might soon call home. But what they found, I’m sure, did not put them at the edge of their seats to get here. In fact, it likely caused them to slink back in their chairs, as this news did to most of us here on College Hill and to the Brown community at large.

The tragedy that shook Brown’s campus on Tuesday when a graduate student fell to his death from the 12th floor of the Sciences Library is horrific simply because of its nature — the proximity is agonizing and the reality is deafening. But for many of us, once the initial stinging shock wears off and we resume our routines, a different realization will come from this cataclysm. Though we cannot speculate as to the exact causes of Tuesday’s event, we can realize that similar situations are not unique to Brown but are the product of how our generation has evolved.

This is nothing novel. It is a fact that national newspapers have plastered across their op-ed sections for a number of years. But Tuesday’s events serve to reinforce the problems that stem from an excessively strenuous culture. The pressures of today’s society have gotten out of hand. We’re forgetting how to live.

Things start in high school, though the exact grade at which students and their parents begin the talk — the college talk — is creeping further and further into childhood. High school is meant to prepare students for college, but it has morphed into a race track, fiscal arms flexed, testing students’ stress tolerance to the brink. The sheer number of extracurriculars with which high school students smother themselves is unprecedented.

Ann Brenoff wrote in a Huffington Post piece Sunday, “The academic pressure has built to the point that (high school students) implode.”

Dwight Garner commented on this increasing pressure in a New York Times review of William Deresiewicz’s controversial book “Excellent Sheep.” Garner notes that Deresiewicz points out the problem that students are “blinkered overachievers” who “throughout their high school years are unable to do anything they can’t put on a resume.” Meanwhile, Barry Schwartz wrote in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday, “The intense competition for admission to highly selective colleges and universities is destroying our kids.”

The college search has evolved to become not about attending college to learn how to think, but about attending college to line oneself up for a job to make the maximum amount of money possible. This is plucking us off one by one, encouraging us to disregard life education in favor of job priming. And this is just the application process.

And then we get here. The stress typified by the 1,970 students that were accepted this week will not subside with their arrival on campus. It will only grow. This may not be because our classes are slapping us with unbearable pressure or because we did not get an offer from our first-choice job. Rather, it may be the result of our being conditioned during our high school years to function this way. In order to get where we are, we’ve experienced such stress that we don’t know how to work in its absence. Stress is the new norm, the new control — until it implodes.

A study reported in Psychology Today supports this ingrained mental state. It investigates the affluent and reveals that “maintaining the mantle of success is a special imperative for the well-off, for whom expectations are especially high” in order to “meet the standards of living they are used to.” The standard of living for college prospects has been raised; the standard of living for college students has been raised even higher.

We’ve become too accustomed to abnormal amounts of stress and mental strain — we’re losing ourselves and we’re losing each other to these tendencies; we’re losing touch. We shouldn’t be led to believe that failure in a class means sacrificing a job, which means sacrificing a financial tier and social prestige — and all for what? More and more students are feeling this way because our generation is beginning to know nothing else.

I do not know why Hyoun Ju Sohn GS took his life on Tuesday. I have no place to speculate on his mental state. But I do know that school pressures were a popular initial assumption as to the cause and have been sources of distress, and this is the heart of the problem. We all expect someone to crack — it’s not why, just a matter of when.

Some students have mitigated the pressure by taking time off. Others decided to split semesters, though this policy is no longer in place and students are forced to finish in four years or less should they decide to study at Brown continuously. Psychological services and support groups are much needed, but the problem is much deeper and self-perpetuating.

We cannot go on like this. We cannot continue welcoming students into an environment with too much pressure and too few release valves. How can we take the blinders away from this competitive, tunnel-visioned environment and prevent people from living lives that may lead them to the feeling that there is no way out?

In the wake of Tuesday’s tragedy, a friend turned to me and said, “I don’t care if I fail my exam tomorrow. Life and sanity are more important.” I wish more people reached this conclusion. I wish our school and our society made it easier for us to put ourselves and our health before our studies and our successes.

Megan Grapengeter-Rudnick ‘17 is a Herald opinions editor.

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  1. gotta say something says:

    “I have no place to speculate on his mental state…”


    “…But I do know that school pressures were a popular initial assumption as to the cause and have been sources of distress”

    Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

    Sick of the layer of self-serving BS choking this school. The college suicide rate is so, so much lower than the general population suicide rate for ages 18-22. Going to a nice college is stressful. It’s also much LESS likely to make you kill yourself then being a 20-year-old not in college. 30% less likely.

    What happened was so, so tragic and it’s awful. But this piece isn’t about Hyoun–it, like so much of the reaction over the past two weeks, has been self-centered, self-serving, and obnoxious. Hyoun was a person. His agony was his own. It’s not an excuse to go on about how hard, how goddamned hard it is to be a student at an elite U.

    You suffer because you’re human. Not because you’re in the Ivy League.

  2. frustrated says:

    logically, if he committed suicide during high school… this idea would make more sense. If he did it before getting into grad school, understandable. But he was already in grad school. He already finished his bachelor’s.

    If you made the argument that it was due to lack of psych support in grad school, that is more consistent. If it were due to his international student status and is far away from home, makes more sense.

    Whenever there is a tragedy, people tend to project their own issues onto that person’s behavior.

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