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Credit: Irina Bit-Babik

Penn students have the shortest combined mid-year breaks in the Ivy League.

This year, the University gave students less than three weeks off in the winter, a two-day reading period before exams and a week for finals. And its reputation as a stress cooker, coupled with shorter breaks than most of its peer institutions, has caused many to wonder how seriously Penn takes mental health.

Based on calculations that include winter break, spring break, thanksgiving break, reading days and all long weekends for the 2016-17 academic calendar, Penn gives students 34 days off for the year — fewer than Dartmouth, Cornell and Brown’s winter breaks. Meanwhile — with the exception of Columbia, which gives its students 40 days off — the rest of the schools in the Ivy League all give students at least 55 days off in mid-year breaks.

Penn not only gives students the shortest mid-year breaks of any school in the Ivy League — it also gives students fewer days to study before finals than most. Princeton, for instance, gives students eight reading days. Harvard, Brown, Yale and Princeton all give students at least a week off from classes before finals each semester. Cornell also gave its students more than a month off for winter break and four reading days before exams for the 2016-17 year.

Many Penn students complain that Penn’s lack of sizeable mid-year breaks and reading periods does more than simply limit their time on the beach. Wharton sophomore Geeta Minocha stressed that Penn’s calendar has a major negative impact on both mental health and academic success by not giving students either enough time time to prepare for finals or adequate breaks.

“I think they are being very disingenuous by not at least acknowledging that the calendar is a mental health factor,” said Minocha. “When you shorten our winter break and only give us two reading days to prepare for exams, there is an issue.”

Some international students reported not even being able to get home on time for Christmas this past winter break due to more expensive flights and a shorter break. Since the break was so close to Christmas, many students had to purchase flights that were more than double the price that they would pay during the rest of the year.

Mental health has been a central topic of conversation at Penn after a series of student suicides, an outpouring of student activism and a subsequent bundle of administrative policy changes.

But while Penn has created a mental health task force, some students argue that the University’s lack of flexibility, particularly on scheduling breaks and reading days, shows that it is not serious in confronting stress and mental health issues.

Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning, said Penn’s short breaks and reading period is simply a product of constraining regulations and the lack of a better option.

“The variation in calendars with other peer institutions who are similarly set up has to do with state regulations,” Nelson said. “We have specific regulations and those regulations stipulate a certain number of hours for each class.”

Nelson is referring to a Pennsylvania law stipulating that for all colleges in the state, whether public or private, each “college semester credit is defined as 14 hours of classroom instruction.” This means that for the state of Pennsylvania to recognize Penn as a school of higher education, every Penn class offering a full credit must meet for at least 14 hours a semester.

While it might be hard to believe that an addition of a couple reading days would push any Penn class below the 14-hour threshold, Nelson insisted that the state regulation is a key reason that Penn has shorter breaks and reading days than peer institutions.

However, other Pennsylvania schools, such as Haverford College and Swarthmore College, have been able to create academic calendars with longer mid-year breaks and reading periods. Swarthmore, despite being under the same Pennsylvania law, has a week off for both fall and spring break, a month off for winter break and five reading days in May.

So, what does Penn do with its unused break time? Extend summer vacation, of course.

Nelson said the long break was necessary as Penn turns many of its college houses over to educational programs in the summer.

“We are under pressure to get summer started as early as possible because we have to end it in time for the residence halls and all the operations to get ready for the the summer,” Nelson said.

Once these programs end, dorm rooms need to be updated and cleaned before New Student Orientation.

The trend of sacrificing mid-year breaks to extend summer vacation is especially evident this year. Winter break was shortened by six days, creating five extra days of summer.

For many students, the exchange of mid-year breaks for a long summer is not worth it. They said that more time off in August simply does not alleviate the stress many students feel during the school year.

Instead, some argue that Penn should either stop shortening mid-year breaks or use the extra time to lengthen reading periods. Longer summer breaks might give the University more time to run summer programs, but many students feel the time would be better used reducing stress during the year.

Robert Ashford, the president of Quaker Peer Recovery and a second-year graduate student in the School of Social Policy & Practice, said there is a disconnect between what students need to be healthy and what the University thinks is important. This is especially true around midterm and final exam periods.

“We see a tremendous amount of stress around those periods and I think increasing the amount of reading time before could alleviate a lot of that,” Ashford said. “It’s something that Penn has got to take a look at.”

Ashford added that if the University is really going to try and address mental health on campus, it needs to consider how changes to the academic calendar could help students who struggle with high stress levels.

College freshman Nate Fessel noted that mid-year breaks can be vital for students’ academic success and mental wellness.

“The fact that we have short breaks really contributes to having more stress and not having time to recover after stressful midterms and finals seasons,” Fessel said. “It would be beneficial to everyone’s mental health on campus if we had more time to rest over break.”

Counseling and Psychological Services did not respond to a request for comment before publication. 

For students hoping for an updated calendar, change in the near future is unlikely. The academic calendar for the next three school years has already been set.

While students seem to agree that longer breaks would help them decompress after exams, Nelson said it can be extremely difficult to craft an academic calendar that fits everyone’s needs.

“Stress is actually good if it leads to success and effective learning,” he said. “It’s bad if it interferes with that. Trying to gauge that over an entire student population is tough — we have one calendar that has to suit all kinds of educational experiences.”

Nelson noted that the art of calendar making can also be tremendously difficult as academic needs vary widely between disciplines. He explained that while classes requiring large amount of memorization, like organic chemistry, might benefit from extra reading days to help prepare for a finals, other seminar-based classes would benefit more from another week of learning.

“It’s kind of a balancing act where a lot of different curricula is crammed into one academic calendar,” Nelson said. “This structure works the best that it can.”

Brown, however, seems to have taken these class differences into account based on its calendar. Students can receive up to 12 reading days in spring 2017 based on the instructor’s preference.

However, many students insist that despite clear differences in academic needs across disciplines, it’s obvious that the vast majority of students want longer breaks and more time to study. Some even argue that Penn’s lopsided academic calendar demonstrates that, despite its lip service to combating mental illness, Penn is unwilling to make real changes to promote a healthier campus.

“They should do what they claim to be doing,” Minocha said, “which is prioritizing students’ well-being.”