Content warning: This op-ed includes mentions of depression and suicidal ideation.
Brown’s administration, despite receiving multiple learning opportunities to improve its behavior, continues to make decisions that severely undermine the quality of student life. This leaves already exhausted and emotionally drained students feeling like they have little choice but to take matters into their own hands and publicly air their grievances on anonymous platforms such as Dear Blueno in order to be heard. On top of facing severe mental health degradation with the stress of keeping up with classes during a pandemic, and amidst national racist violence and shootings, we feel obligated to shoulder the emotional burden of writing this op-ed to express and publicize the struggles of scores of students. Many of our peers in the Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income Student community reached out to the University directly concerning the status of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security funding; it wasn’t until we authored a public op-ed that Brown demonstrated any sense of urgency to act.
As a result of this experience, we now feel our only option is to put aside our academic, personal, familial and financial responsibilities to spell out to administrators what is painfully obvious: Students need a break. It is extremely disappointing that your most vulnerable students must continually beg for support and advocate for our peers and those in the Providence community.
Students are currently facing challenges and mental health issues like many have never experienced before. One friend told us recently that the lack of a break has left them overcome with the “worst anxiety” of their life — a sentiment we have heard all too often in every corner of campus with which we associate. Others have expressed that the winter storm in Texas, in combination with family medical emergencies (all too familiar under the cloud of this pandemic), has put them so extremely behind on coursework that only a break could give them the chance to catch up. Even more, others have expressed dealing with unprecedented burnout, difficulty finding motivation and suicidal thoughts — to such a degree that they have considered going on medical leave, in part because even course reductions have not offered the reprieve needed to catch up on coursework. For all of these students, a break would have been a game changer.
Other colleges such as Harvard and Yale have extended their students this bare minimum and given them wellness days. However, Brown has merely depended on the holidays that align with the school semester, expecting that a four-day weekend occurring only four weeks into the semester is enough to sustain student well-being throughout the entirety of one of the most horrifically stressful times in many students’ lives. What’s more, many students living in Texas, including ourselves, spent their only break of the semester without electricity, heat and water. Then we were tossed back into the semester, behind in our classes and traumatized by the winter storm power outages. Meanwhile, seniors with thesis work are drowning because they’ve been forced to cram their work into a tighter timeline with graduation occurring a whole three weeks earlier than usual. And for many students, their professors didn’t adjust class syllabi and workload expectations to fit the condensed semester. Professors expect students to learn the same amount of information and put in 180 hours of engagement with a course in a mere 14 weeks without a spring break, compared to the normal 17-week semester with multiple three-day weekends and a full, week-long spring break. Brown did nothing to mitigate this trend at the outset by enacting a system that prevents professors from overloading students with work.
One of the authors of this article works closely with first-year students and has seen first-hand how this semester is negatively impacting their mental health and academic performance. Many of them already feel isolated because Brown has failed to create systems for them to safely interact with one another and meet their peers, as expressed in a March 14 op-ed in The Herald. On-campus first years already have to deal with the constant isolation and stressors of a new and often uncaring environment. First-years began attending Brown in January and will finish their first semester in May, having only had two three-day weekends. They will then only be afforded a two-week break before starting another compressed semester without any breaks besides holidays. The first-years will then have a three week “summer vacation,” before being forced to complete yet another semester. They won’t have their first proper break until after their third semester during the winter holidays. This simply is not a sustainable way for students to learn, and it is shocking that the administration continues to willfully ignore the problems it has created.
The University is performative in the ways that it shows care for its students and the Providence community. In a recent email, the administration said it would only donate $10,000 — the full amount it had available — to local Providence food banks if a certain percentage of the student body filled out their survey. Administrators only later apologized and reversed the decision after community outcry pointed out the clear issues of conditioning philanthropy on student time in a time of crisis. Brown’s administration has also squandered many of the early measures put in place during the pandemic to support students academically. Students this year were not given the extended S/NC deadline, and the University has once again made the summer earnings fee a mandatory cost for the upcoming school semester. Both the extended S/NC deadline and the summer earnings waiver fee were put in place because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. But even with vaccinations rolling out, this uncertainty still remains. College students did not expect the semester to take such a toll on them and certainly do not have the same summer employment opportunities that they would in a normal summer. The University chose to eliminate these support policies and simultaneously raised tuition.
We understand and can appreciate that the University chose to cut spring break out of the semester in order to prevent unwanted travel and spread of this virus. However, scores of other schools were able to implement more caring policies from the get-go that afforded students the opportunity for rest while keeping risk low under this pandemic, such as mini breaks in the form of wellness days dispersed throughout the semester. In addition, we would be remiss not to point out that the University has appeared to apply this concern for student safety rather inconsistently — it never publicly condemned a recent large social gathering that was followed by a spike in asymptomatic cases.
Things must change. If not Universal Pass, students at the very least should receive an extended S/NC deadline. Give us a real break. If not a week, a few days. Implement policies that prevent professors from overworking students. Get rid of the summer earnings requirement. Provide full need-based aid for all students pursuing a third semester this academic year. Many of us need the third term because of the effects of the pandemic, and it is unfair that the University refuses to grant full need-based aid to these students.
It’s sad that we feel we have to spoon-feed these steps, obvious to hundreds of struggling students. Brown’s current policy reveals a great deal about how little University administrators understand about the student experience and the immense emotional duress this pandemic and shortened semester has placed on students, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds. While the pandemic may not be around forever, this University needs to seriously rethink its approach to student life if it wants to retain students and prove that its commitment to marginalized students is more than just empty words.
And to our professors: The lack of spring break is only a glimpse of the problems that have arisen in the compressed semester. Although some days off are better than none at all, it is dangerous to believe that a long weekend or day off is enough to mitigate the stress and anxiety felt by students across the board. What is the point of granting a long weekend if professors maintain unrealistic expectations of students? We respect that professors remain dependent on University reviews to remain employed, but you do have the ability to alter the syllabus to accommodate students. Accommodation and empathy should not come after the fact. Professors, especially those that have already secured tenure, need to begin reevaluating their priorities. Students cannot be expected to meet all demands during a normal school year, let alone during the past year of this pandemic. Cancel assignments. Adopt more lenient grading policies. Seek student feedback and sincerely check in with your students. Adapt everything based on that. You are working us to death otherwise, and we do not say this lightly. The number of Brown students that have taken to anonymous platforms to share thoughts of suicidal ideation due to the emotional burden of the semester is alarming and should be taken seriously.
And to our fellow students: We, the authors of this piece, are extremely lucky to be living together and have each other to turn to during these intensely difficult times. We know many Brown students are facing the difficulties of isolation; we cannot imagine what you must be going through. Please know you are not alone, and we stand with you. Please remember to put yourself first. Brown University is not cultivating an environment conducive to learning. It has and will continue to foster burnout among its community if it does not start reflecting on its complicity in maintaining a toxic culture of overworking. Students, yet again, are forced to carry the burden of advocating for basic empathy and compassion from professors and the administration. As for now, demand extensions, ask for flexibility, do what you need to take care of yourself and prioritize your well-being.
Adela Herce ’22 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Sibeles Torres ’22 can be reached at email@example.com and Georgeara Castañeda ’21.5 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Content warning: This op-ed includes mentions of depression and suicidal ideation.