Academia isn’t the be-all and end-all of university

By Catherine Meyer-Funnell

As I put pen to paper, I am juggling summatives, revision, and filling my C.V. with enough shiny extracurricular activities that might persuade someone, someday, to give me a job. I can practically feel my brain whirring with thoughts every second of every day, and my skin, sleep pattern and sanity have all been affected in various ways.

Stress is of course something we expect to face at some point during our university careers – I would be concerned, even disturbed, if a fellow student had managed to remain perpetually chilled through the duration of their degree. While stress may be normal, however, surely it cannot be healthy for young people to study under such intense conditions?

Is academic success worth the academic stress?

This question appears especially important when we consider the extent of mental health problems observed amongst students, many of which emanate from stress and the pressure to succeed academically. According to YouGov, 63% of students claim that their stress levels interfere with their everyday lives, while a worrying one in five say they have a fear of failure, potentially leading to problems with procrastination, anxiety and depression.

Some might argue that pressure is a positive motivator for students, encouraging us to strive for achievement, with the ever-more competitive graduate job market looming inevitably on the horizon. But can universities, particularly those as prestigious as Durham, congratulate themselves on cultivating such successful, well-rounded and dynamic individuals at such a high price?

There are supposedly official mechanisms in place to counteract this problem. The puppy room held in the SU for a precious few days is a popular choice in Easter term, when exam stress levels hit an all-time high. Counselling sessions are available for those who are really struggling, but there is still a severe lack of provisions for people who just need some help balancing it all and some reassurance that, actually, it is all going to be ok.

Moreover, these pressures are not exclusive to Durham. Our whole generation is constantly reminded of the need to do more, go further, improve on what has gone before. We have technology, possibilities and prospects at our fingertips that could never have been dreamt of previously.

Long-term mental wellbeing is far more precious than academic achievement

As incredible as this can be, it also puts an enormous amount of pressure on us. We are expected to simultaneously obtain outstanding grades, apply for every internship going, and contribute to all forms of extra-curricular life, just to make us even remotely employable. Such an insurmountable task is naturally going to make us just a tad stressed.

Thankfully, there are many individual approaches which can also work wonders. It is vital that students take time out for themselves and remember that their mental wellbeing is in the long-term far more precious than academic achievement. Learning to relax and wind down, even for just a few minutes each day, is a skill that should not be neglected in favour of a do-everything-youpossibly-can-until-you-collapse approach.

Something I can personally attest to are the benefits of fresh air and exercise. Clearly this is advantageous to your physical health, but it can also help to clear your mind, relax your body, and allow you to focus on something other than the deadlines that have been festering in your consciousness for several weeks. Perhaps a compulsory departmental fun-run would be a step too far, but physical activity during exam-season is certainly a move in the right direction.

My final and most significant point is this: university can herald some of the most interesting and challenging years of your life, but it doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all.

What we really take from university are the friendships and the opportunities

Rather than trying to convince themselves that their module is the only thing that matters, tutors should reflect on what are really the most memorable aspects of university life: the friendships we make; the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities; the development of life skills such as confidence and independence. If we’re honest, these are the things which we take with us rather than the contents of that last summative we wrote, forgotten as soon as it drops into the hand-in pile.

University has the potential to be a truly unique and pivotal moment in our lives. However, if it is to remain that way, we must ensure that the flipsides, like stress and the pressure of work, are recognised and dealt with appropriately, before they become as synonymous with student life as partying and puppy rooms.

Photograph: Zoë Boothby

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