A different perception of pressure


Longtime members of the Penn community discuss student pressures over time




Penn students currently face heavy workloads and carry many extracurricular responsibilities that cause excessive stress.

But some longtime members of the Penn community don’t remember campus always being this way.

A combination of work ethic, social pressure and a competitive drive to succeed can push students to achieve great things; but this can surpass a healthy level. The Daily Pennsylvanian discussed stress levels at Penn with long-standing members of the University community to gauge their perceptions of how students approach pressure.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dennis DeTurck observed how students take on a wide range of responsibilities rather than focusing on a particular interest.

Alongside an Ivy League workload, this means students are “loading up so much” in terms of all of their work and extracurricular activities, said Gregory House Dean and 1992 College graduate Christopher Donovan.

Donovan specifically outlined the idea that students feel “every second of your life must be filled with responsibility.”

“Students take on more stress just to take on more stress,” he said. He described it as “a strange dynamic where you feel bad if you don’t have something crazy going on.”

Associate Director of the Netter Center and 2005 College graduate Rita Hodges also acknowledged how Penn students are very involved. However, she described that involvement as “powerful,” explaining how “excited and engaged” students working with the Netter Center are.

Origins of pressure

Dennis DeTurck, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty master in Riepe College House, said that students now are more concerned about “being employed and being successful” than they did while he was a doctoral student at the University.

“[My generation] didn’t feel that sort of pressure,” he said. “We did what we wanted to do and had the confidence that it would work out.”

DeTurck speculated that a root cause of students’ stress are their own personal drives to be successful, a sentiment echoed by DuBois faculty master and former University Chaplain William Gipson, who came to Penn in 1996.

“[Students are] self possessed,” Gipson said. “They want to take advantage of every opportunity at Penn.”

Both DeTurck and Gipson touched on the idea that students’ drives to succeed were influenced by outside factors - pressure from parents, society and peers that reinforce that drive.

Pressure over time

Some faculty members who have also studied at Penn have observed a shift in student approach to pressure over time.

Christopher Donovan observed a “significant shift” since his years at Penn. The kind of internal pressure he observes at Penn now “didn’t exist,” during his time as a student. As an academic advisor, he has noticed an increase in the number of students requesting to double major, something that was very uncommon during his time at Penn, he said.

In the late 1980s, Donovan said there was a “hype” of pressure at Wharton, because it was like the “center of the universe.” Now, he feels like the whole campus embodies that spirit.

Rita Hodges, however, said she has not observed a significant change in approach to student stress since her time as a student. She outlined a general trend, though, which has impacted stress over time.

“Everyone is looking for a competitive edge,” Hodges said, discussing the job market. She added that increasingly competitive admissions to Penn may also be encouraging a competitive mentality in the students who get in.

University Chaplain Chaz Howard, a 2000 College graduate, said that new expectations from employers have increased student stress levels by adding to worries about their future job prospects.

He explained that students are now far more likely to spend their summers doing internships, as opposed to when he was a student, when they were more likely to travel over the break.

Ways to deal with stress

Faculty members interviewed by the DP generally agreed that a solution to a culture of stress can be found in thoughtfulness, collaboration and moderation.

“It’s important to have a drive to achieve, but the emphasis should be on learning,” Donovan said.

He said that students’ goals need to be aligned with the sources of pressure in their lives, noting that hard work and stress can be fulfilling, but only when students are in it for the right reasons.

Gipson praised the ability of Penn’s numerous student services and organizations, such as the Chaplain’s Office and Counseling and Psychological Services, to collaborate in promoting student mental health and wellness. He noted that members of these offices are often consulted by other universities for advice.

Most importantly, it’s important to sometimes take a step back from a situation to decompress, and to not always be working actively towards a specific goal, DeTurck said.

“Students sometimes don’t take time to just be themselves - you have to take time to do that,” DeTurck said.

Specific to Penn?

Christopher Donovan said he feels that Penn’s pre-professionalism is something that might cause a more goal-orientated mindset for students. From talking to residential college staff members at other schools, Donovan feels that Penn’s culture might encourage temptation to overload on academics through double majoring.

Rita Hodges, however, considered stress culture as less Penn specific. “Weird pressures and competitions ... happen on a university campus,” said Hodges. Competition is ”how society evolves,” she added, describing how she perceived stress culture more as a trend which can be considered increasing universally.

University Chaplain Chaz Howard agreed. “Stress is a problem that transcends Penn,” he said. “College and maybe even the world has become more stressful,” he added. 

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