Reif: Students are burnt out. NU must embrace a culture of less

Richard Reif, Op-Ed Contributor

In a Jan. 22 article, two Weinberg sophomores stated that Northwestern students “lack mental health resources at an institution with a culture of perfection.” When I was a student at NU, I too felt the pressure for perfection but just in terms of my academics.  To cope with the increased pressure, the University should improve mental health resources by increasing funds and staff for Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as the Center for Awareness, Response and Education programs. As a non-profit — with a $14.4 billion endowment and a positive margin of $138.7 million — NU surely has adequate funds to deal with this. But why does the University need to show a positive margin anyway?

Confronting a culture of perfection is a much more complex and difficult task. Based on what I’ve read in The Daily, NU students today feel compelled to be “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” but without that movie’s 11 Oscar nominations. In addition to their academic studies, students join campus organizations, do volunteer work, participate in professional internships, play sports and take part-time jobs. And then some. This whirlpool of activities, coupled with the stress of the modern world, can drive them to the point where they need to seek help from mental health resources.

Some pressure is a necessary part of campus life. Every generation of NU students — including mine in 1964 — has faced intense academic pressure. This is appropriate for an institution like NU, which has consistently been ranked among the top 10 U.S. universities and colleges, according to U.S. News. Students on scholarships must devote much of their time to the craft that earns them a place at NU, be it a sport, the arts or academia. Many low- and middle-income students must also take part-time jobs to help finance their education at a school with an annual tuition tab of $60,000 and rising, as well as a total yearly cost of more than $80,000. NU can ease their pressure by increasing financial aid, which could be funded by the University’s adequate financial resources.

But students can ease pressure on themselves by re-evaluating the extracurricular options available to them. Greek life is an obvious target for decompression. Despite aggressive efforts to abolish it, many NU students join fraternities and sororities. They sign up after an intense rushing process that gives them just a few days to decide which Greek organization they wish to pledge. A former NU student described the rushing process as “Wildcat Weekend but on steroids.” Once they join, pledging makes heavy demands on their personal time. NU can remedy this by ending the rush process and banning pledging entirely. Joining a fraternity or sorority should be no more difficult or demanding than joining any other campus organization.

Non-Greek organizations embrace activities that range from performing arts to political protests. While they may enrich students’ lives, they can also drain students’ energies and place onerous demands on their time. Before joining, students should ask themselves: Is sacrificing my personal time worth the benefit I might gain from sharing in a collective experience? If the answer is no, don’t do it. But because of the strong impact of imposter syndrome, NU students face a dilemma — they feel like they have to forfeit their personal time. But, being at an elite school like NU should be enough.

NU’s passion for perfection is reflected in the school’s slogan: “AND is in our DNA.” It’s time to adopt a healthier tagline: “Less is a lesson we learned.” I’m not advocating that NU foster a culture of slackers, but it should not push students to a breaking point and beyond. Studies are important, but students can still get a life while getting an education.

Hit the pause button when you’re not hitting the books. Stop trying to be “Everything Everywhere All At Once” — that only works in the movies. Consider doing less — you might find it can lead to a more rewarding and saner college experience.

Richard Reif is a Medill alum. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.