New Lesson for College Students: Lighten Up
April 6, 2004
By SARA RIMER
BRUNSWICK, Me. - It was intended as a statement against the
kind of perfectionism that drives some Bowdoin College
students to spend two hours a day on the treadmill:
plastered all over campus recently were photographs of
naked undergraduate Bowdoin women - or at least their
bodies, as the pictures had been shot from the neck down -
in all their short, tall, thin, not-so-thin, fit and unfit,
anonymous, unairbrushed glory.
Far from being shocked, Craig W. Bradley, dean of student
affairs, said he supported the women's group that came up
with the poster campaign - anything to get students to stop
worrying so much about body image, grades, careers.
Mr. Bradley, along with other college officials, has been
telling students to get off the treadmill. Go for a walk,
go surfing. Read a novel just for pleasure. Eat ice cream.
Hang out with the knitting club. Find your passion.
Bowdoin's efforts reflect the ever-increasing attention
colleges across the country are giving to undergraduates'
personal growth and emotional well-being.
It has been more than a decade since colleges became
mindful of the new generation of students arriving on
campus with serious mental health illnesses. But these
days, as they respond to the rising number of students
seeking help for stress-related conditions on campus and
the expectations of consumer-minded parents, many colleges
are extending the therapeutic culture far beyond treatment
for clinical depression and bipolar disorders.
Private and public colleges alike have begun offering a
wide range of services and activities intended to help
students negotiate what used to be considered the ordinary
rites of passage: homesickness, sophomore existential
angst, romantic relationships. There are now free massages
and dogs to cuddle in exam seasons, biofeedback workshops
and therapists available to help students work through
their first C.
At Harvard, the training given to graduate students who
live in the undergraduate houses has in recent years
expanded to include ways to help students fight
perfectionism - a theme on many campuses - as well as
negotiate matters involving race, class and sexual
At Amherst College in Massachusetts, students can have
unlimited sessions with the counseling center's therapists.
They are free to discuss more mundane concerns like their
futures and their relationships - with family members,
roommates, boyfriends and girlfriends - as well as more
serious issues like depression and eating disorders.
Washington University in St. Louis has established
stress-free zones during finals, where students can get
chair massages and listen to New Age music. Addressing the
notoriously poor sleeping habits of undergraduates, the
university recently celebrated Sleep Awareness Week by
handing out sleep quizzes and reminding residential
advisers not to brag about how little sleep they can get by
Kevin Kruger, the associate executive director for the
National Association of Student Personnel Administrators,
with nearly 1,500 members, said the new services were the
natural extension of the awareness raised by students with
serious mental health problems.
"This movement is an indication of colleges trying to be
more proactive," Mr. Kruger said, rather than waiting for
students to "flunk out, have a breakdown or whatever the
outcome is going to be."
But many college officials also acknowledge that they are
responding to the heightened consumer mentality of many
parents. "If you're paying a lot, you expect a lot in
return," said Craig McEwen, dean of academic affairs at
Bowdoin, one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges.
"Unhappiness is not something you're supposed to feel."
Some college officials say that these services are not only
driving up higher education costs but some may also be an
extension of a therapeutic culture that has gone too far.
While it is important that colleges talk about "the whole
student," said Steven E. Hyman, the provost at Harvard, and
the former director of the National Institute of Mental
Health, "that doesn't mean they should all be in group
Dr. Hyman said he also doubted the value of the biofeedback
and massage, suggesting that it might be more helpful if
students learned to organize their lives.
"It's a difficult tightrope to walk," said Dr. Hyman, who
is a psychiatrist. "There's a risk that we will medicalize
what are really developmental issues: negotiating
independence, deciding what your goals are in life, having
the courage to explore your interests rather than follow
the straight and narrow path of careerism. At the same
time, we have to be very careful that we don't miss serious
treatable illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders and
Colleges have been steadily increasing the availability of
treatment and counseling, and students have responded. At
the University of Michigan, for example, the number of
students seeking counseling has risen 22 percent in three
years, said Todd Sevig, director of counseling and
Some college officials see the contradiction inherent in
their new efforts to offset stress and encourage the joys
of reflection and unstructured time. After all, it was
multitasking, hyperorganized, rÈsumÈ building behavior that
helped some students get admitted to their schools in the
"We admit only the most over-scheduled children and we
boast of how many sports they play, how many clubs they
organize, how many hours of volunteer service they
provide," said Elaine Hansen, president of Bates College,
in Lewiston, Me., in her inaugural address two years ago.
How then, she went on, could Bates encourage those same
children to risk "moments of woolgathering, daydreaming,
improvisation" that she viewed as an essential component of
a liberal arts education?
Ms. Hansen said she had thought about calling off classes
on the spur-of-the-moment so everyone could enjoy, say, a
glorious spring day in Maine. But, she said: "If we do it
without a conversation first about why we're doing it,
we're afraid people will just go to the library and get
In his January letter to parents, Bowdoin's president,
Barry Mills, expressed his concern about what appeared to
be a national increase in stress-related conditions among
college students. Expanding on the president's letter, Dean
Bradley spoke to the college's trustees recently about
creating a culture that emphasizes the joy of learning for
learning's sake, "a culture that can itself ameliorate the
anxiety many students feel about grades, jobs, grad school
At the same, Bowdoin officials say they do not want their
students to relax too much. "You still have to accomplish,"
President Mills said. "You still have to succeed. This is
not about relax and schmooze your way through Bowdoin."
Many students here said they welcomed the emphasis on the
joy of learning. And many said they were having fun at
college. But they were quick to point out the realities of
the world they live in.
Travis Brennan, a Bowdoin senior who wants to be a lawyer,
said all his love of learning would not get him into a good
law school. What he needs, Mr. Brennan said, are high law
board scores. "You have to be mindful that you're operating
in a larger system," he said.
In the 1960's and 1970's, with students demanding
liberation from administrators, colleges relinquished their
role as in loco parentis chaperones. Now, some of the
students who once told administrators to get out of their
lives are parents paying high tuition and expecting
colleges to smooth over everything from their children's
relationships with roommates to grades.
Colleges, in the meantime, are coaching their students on
how to manage their overmanaging parents. At Austin
College, in Sherman, Tex., Rosemarie C. Rothmeier, director
of student services and counseling, coaches pre-med
students who are afraid to tell their parents that they
hate organic chemistry and do not want to be doctors after
all. One piece of advice, "Don't drop the bomb at
Some college officials say parents must share
responsibility for their children's difficulties in coping
with the inevitable stresses of college.
"Rather than seeing late adolescence as a time of learning
by trial and error," Mr. Bradley told the trustees, "many
parents put great energy into trying to eliminate the
error." He suggested that perhaps parents were creating a
generation of students afraid to take risks.
Another factor contributing to stress is the high price of
"If you break it down, it's about $75 a lecture," said
Karen Jacobson, a Bowdoin senior, quoting a faculty member
who had made the calculation based on Bowdoin's
$37,950-a-year price tag.
Ms. Jacobson said she had sought her mother's advice about
taking a dance class. "She said, `Are you sure you don't
want to take something more intellectual?' " said Ms.
Jacobson at a meeting of the college knitting club.
Ms. Jacobson said she figured her mother might have been
thinking, quite understandably, that she was not paying
that much so her daughter could take a dance class. "I
ended up taking statistics," she said. "I realized I needed
it for grad school."