How life at Bryn Mawr can stress students to the point of breaking
By Courtney Pinkerton
“If someone had described to me how my college experience would turn out three or four years ago, I would have stared at them in disbelief before laughing politely.”
But this 5’7”, lanky, brunette from New York City, in the midst of finals once again, is a different person than she was three or four years ago because of this experience, and even now wonders if it was for the best.
Before coming to Bryn Mawr College, Anne described herself as having been a well-adjusted, Honor student in high school. (We are using a pseudonym in exchange for her candor about her personal experiences.)
“I was high-achieving, just like my siblings,” she says, shrugging casually. “It’s a little bit of nature and nurture: we’re all pretty smart, but the environment we grew up, in between my parents and each other, also contributed to a culture of working hard in school and always trying to move ‘up’ in that regard.”
“I worked hard at a good school, but I wasn’t overwhelmed,” she continued, describing other “normalizing” aspects of her first eighteen years growing up. “I ran track, went to football games, had movie nights with the girls, and went on dates with guys.”
“It was a generally healthy lifestyle,” she laughs, “Complete with lots of friends and an appropriate sleep cycle!”
So, what changed after high school? After all, Anne went onto college that September just like her fellow high school graduates, and thousands of other 17- and 18-year-olds across the nation.
Yet, Anne didn’t go on to a school that automatically accepted her because she had graduated in the top 10 percent. Her college decision wasn’t determined by the institution’s vicinity to her childhood home, or because a family member was a graduate.
Anne chose Bryn Mawr College because “it’s a school with a great reputation for having a rigorous curriculum, a wonderful history, and a beautiful campus, and I fell in love with all of those when I researched the school online and visited the campus over Spring Break during junior year” of high school.
Indeed, Bryn Mawr is ranked the twenty-fifth top liberal arts college nationwide by U.S. News and World Report, but it is also listed among the25 institutions with the most rigorous workload, noted as “the schools that are most likely to keep you studying late into the night.”
In fact, it’s ranked higher for being a “demanding” school than a good one.
This report’s description is in line with what’s been reported about Bryn Mawr and other schools on the list lately: each of these top-tier campuses have become their own little microcosmic “stress cities”, possessing schedules and stress levels reminiscent of the lifestyle of a high-powered, corporate world member, or a new lawyer working in the criminal justice field.
“I didn’t expect to be stressed out for the sake of being stressed out,” Anne asserts. “Instead, I feel as though there’s a culture of stress here, and pressure to maintain it.”
“I don’t know who is feeling validated by such an environment, but it’s not healthy, appropriate, or worth bragging about,” she added. “And I’d like to be allowed to relax from time to time; I don’t want to feel guilty for getting a decent amount of sleep.
In fact, over the last few years, reports of overwhelming stress levels, associated behaviors, and other stress-related incidents have increased among students at the Bryn Mawr, according to student health and school public safety officials. It is especially visible during exam periods.
But according to Anne: “It’s not just the academics: everywhere around me, all my friends and schoolmates are alarmingly anxious about suddenly being involved in a lot of extracurricular activities during the school year and over the summer. Many of them haven’t worked before, some of them were involved with sports or clubs in high school, but now everyone’s concerned with making sure they look really attractive for graduate schools.”
“It’s normal for us to see surges of students with concerns at different points during the academic year,” said Reggie Jones, Bryn Mawr’s Director of Counseling Services. “But over the last few years, we’ve seen an unprecedented trend in the theme of these concerns.”
The trend she’s referring to is what Anne described: credentializing.
Credentializing refers to the practice of resume boosting in order to be as appealing as possible; the intended audience could range anywhere from future employers to graduate school admission officers to one’s peers.
“Students seem suddenly much more concerned, not just about studying well and getting good grades, but now there’s a much greater focus just on the grades, and furthermore, on doing well in more areas,” said Jones. “The Health Center’s Counseling Services has been much busier lately throughout the year, as students seem to be more and more stressed constantly, instead of just during exam periods.”
However, at what cost?
“Being at Bryn Mawr has definitely been the most stressful time of my life,” Anne said. “And while I have no problem with working hard in order to go far and achieve what I want to accomplish, I don’t always feel like the amount of stress Bryn Mawr puts on me is warranted.”
“There’s a culture of stress here that’s unique to Bryn Mawr that I don’t see among my friends at other schools.”
This new increase in stress is something that the health professionals on campus are concerned with as a rising trend in “stress for stress’s sake”.
“Now, staying up late is sort of like a bragging point for students,” Jones says.
And what sort of toll does it take?
“The first semester startled me,” Anne describes. “My roommate pressured me to drink and party way more than I was interested in doing; with the Social Honor Code, there were no adults [living] on campus, so if anyone didn’t respect someone else, you felt kind of helpless in terms of how to go about dealing with a situation.
“And despite the academic Honor Code on campus, there’s definitely a strong sense of competition, and in fact, by making talk of grades so forbidden, the competition even seems pretentious instead of respectful, sometimes.”
By the end of her freshman year, she was a mess, the New York native claimed. She still attended classes, but her grades had fallen, and she was struggling to balance her classes, track practices, and her campus employment.
“Summer should have been a welcome break, but I didn’t even know how to handle this new experience.” The subject is still a sensitive one, made obvious by the t tears running down Anne’s cheeks as she pressed on. “Heck, college should have been an enjoyable experience overall, and while I have definitely grown as a person, it has not been what me or my family expected.”
By the end of her third semester, the former Honor Roll student had developed an eating disorder and was not turning down invitations to drink and party, as she had the previous year.
“I was skipping a couple classes a week on a regular basis,” she recalled. “I was drinking, experimenting with drugs with other girls on campus who were looking for ways to cope, and I was starting to feel like I was reaching my breaking point. Nothing was taking the edge off of the stress, and I wasn’t even sure if I really expected any of these things to.”
The turning point came when one of Anne’s friends reported her to the deans after seeing cut marks on Anne’s arms and torso.
“My dean called me into a meeting and when I got there, there were several other people present, too,” the current junior recalled. “It was terrifying. My world was about to get turned upside down again and all I’d wanted from here was a good education.”
Due to the nature of the case, Public Safety became involved. But the incident, though unusual, was not totally new to the community.
The Health Center hasn’t been the only department to reevaluate what it needs to do to meet evolving student needs recently. In fact, over the last few years, the issue of stress has lead to Bryn Mawr’s Department of Public Safety rethinking some of its training workshops and protocols.
According to interviews and reports by Public Safety officers, incidents of students harming themselves or others “on account of being stressed” have increased significantly over the past 10 years.
“It used to be unheard of at Bryn Mawr to come across a student behaving in a self-destructive way,” Mike Ramsey, the Department’s Training Operations Coordinator, declares. “Over the last couple years, we’ve had half a dozen.”
What does this increase mean for them?
“We’ve had to rethink how our officers are trained. Now their training is supplemented with another component so that they know how to respond to situations that deal with mental or emotional instability,” Ramsey explained.
Incidents drug and alcohol abuse labeled as stress-induced have increased from a handful each year to several incidents of hospitalizations or students taking medical leave over the last few semesters.
Anne’s story is just one of those experiences.
“I’d been to a couple parties that Public Safety had broken up, whether there were too many noise complaints, underage drinking, or other rowdy behavior,” the former track star stated gratefully, “but fortunately I was never one of the ones who got into any serious trouble with them [before getting reported to the Deans’ Office].
“That intervention probably helped me avoid a total breakdown.
“Over the past year, my college experience has definitely taken a turn. It’s been a road of recovery, but definitely a struggle,” the 20-year-old said. “After meeting with my dean and other campus authorities that day, I was given a couple options: if I wanted to remain a part of the Bryn Mawr community, I could take a medical leave of absence for a semester or a year, or I could stay at the campus on a couple of conditions: counseling, lighter course loads, and no more misbehavior.
“Along with weekly counseling appointments, I was referred to an organization on campus called the Body Image Council because of the anorexia I had developed,” Anne continued, “I’ve learned a lot about eating disorders and myself –and how we came together: and sure enough, it was the stress. Eating disorders themselves are not primary afflictions, but instead are usually a symptom of some other illness.”
Liz Frontino, the student in charge of Bryn Mawr’s Body Image Council, has witnessed this firsthand, and works now to actively combat the condition that thrives on insecurities.
“I’ve definitely seen a correlation between eating disorders and stress,” the Bryn Mawr senior stated, “and perfectionist or anxious tendencies are a big risk factor for developing or reacting with an eating disorder.”
Eating disorders spring from a need for some sort of control. And the academic stress that comes from a breeding ground like Bryn Mawr, where the workload and pressure can feel overwhelming, is a perfect way to produce such symptoms.
In such a high-intensity institution, there’s “absolutely a correlating elevation,” according to Frontino. “But there’s also a lot of shame in admitting it here.”
As with other aspects of a high-achiever’s lifestyle, “Bryn Mawr girls don’t like to admit that they aren’t perfect and that they have problems and need help.”
“A focus that the BIC has concentrated on before, and will work more with in the future,” said Frontino, “is the Bryn Mawr-pressures on women: perfectionism, constant stress, competition – and how that affects body image.”
Now, as yet another finals season comes to a close, Anne says she’s relieved at her progress through college as well as in her recovery.
“College has not turned out to be what I expected, but I am making the best of the time I have left. Most of all, while I might have learned the hard way, I’m grateful for the perspective I’ve gained on how to prioritize and balance a healthy lifestyle.”