Pressure Beneath the Surface

Duke students are defined by their ability to excel academically and socially. What many don't see is the cost of that drive to succeed.

It’s a scene that would be ideal for an admissions recruiting brochure. On a flawless Carolina morning, with the hybrid tea roses near the Allen Building in full bloom and Duke Chapel punctuating a cloudless blue sky, hundreds of students bustle around West Campus between classes. A student- led admissions tour gathers near Perkins Library. A cluster of prospective applicants takes in the idyllic landscape, listens to the upbeat pitch about life at Duke, and calculates the odds of securing a coveted place in the university community.

Yet all around where these hopeful teenagers are standing, there are disconcerting signs that being a Duke student is not so rosily idyllic. In Clocktower Quad, a sophomore is distraught over a poor grade, convinced it marks the end of his career aspirations. In the Union Building’s Great Hall, a young woman wanders through the cafeteria line selecting virtually nothing to eat, too worried that last night’s frozen yogurt put her over her weekly calorie count. In the Page Auditorium offices of CAPS (Counseling & Psychological Services), a constant flow of undergraduate and graduate students check in for appointments or complete self-assessment surveys before meeting with a therapist.

Inside Perkins Library, someone stops to look at a wire sculpture, formed like a tree. A sign near a stack of blank note cards invites students to write down their greatest hopes and fears and hang them from the tree. The cards, dangling like leaves, offer a powerful insight to what preoccupies Duke students. Being alone. Finding love. Being a failure. Enjoying life. Disappointing Mom and Dad.

Duke is full of young men and women who devote themselves wholeheartedly to classes and community service, who find fellowship with a religious group or camaraderie with a club sports team, who discover their passion for politics or meet their future spouse while they are here. They write and direct plays, invent irreverent cheers, and tutor children in local schools. Yet for many students, the pressures of being in a highly competitive environment—where the “work hard, play hard” ethos is a defining characteristic and achieving effortless perfection is seen as the ultimate ideal—can be a crushing burden.

“Not only do you have to be smart, you have to be popular. Not only do you have to be fun, but you have to be creative, and athletic, and artsy, and a good friend, and thin, and pretty. You have to be all these things,” says senior Katy Warren. “Duke students hold themselves to such high standards, so there is this expectation we put on ourselves to be perfect.”

During the summer between her freshman and sophomore years, Warren felt that pressure acutely. Trying to keep up with the hyper-body-conscious students around her, she began running for miles every day on a treadmill. She went on a low-carb diet, banishing even fruit from her plate. Once school resumed that fall, she realized that calculating calories and maintaining a rigorous exercise schedule only compounded the stress of coursework and maintaining an active social life. “I realized I was running on empty,” she says. She sought help from a nutritionist and, later, a therapist in her hometown.

For modern college students, stories like Warren’s are far from the exception—and in fact they are becoming the norm. From his second-floor office overlooking the Chapel Quad, CAPS director R. Kelly Crace says he and his colleagues have seen a steady increase in students seeking their services. “A lot of the students we see here in CAPS, and who we interact with through our outreach programming, are what we call the marginalized majority,” he says. “They are looking for ways of finding meaning and deep levels of connecting, but they see what they describe as Duke’s superficial culture and think they don’t belong. They tell us they feel alone and isolated, and yet they are the majority.”

Crace says that his counterparts at other universities are facing similar case loads. According to a report released this past spring by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) at Pennsylvania State University, nearly a third of college students have sought some kind of mentalhealth counseling before or during college (or both). The report, culled from surveys of more than 25,000 students across the country, shows that today’s students experience high levels of academic stress and social anxiety and that a growing number of them are on psychiatric medication before coming to college. Sixteen percent have considered or attempted suicide before or during college.

“Duke students in many ways are an amplification of what we are seeing nationwide among emerging adults,” says Crace, who was director of the College of William & Mary’s counseling center before coming to Duke in 2009. “Physically and intellectually, they are maturing quickly, but the gap between intellectual and emotional maturity is ever-increasing.” Although they have instant access to information, young people don’t always have the emotional maturity to process it and synthesize it in a meaningful way, he says—a fact that is magnified by the pace of their lives.

“These students have an internal wisdom that can be nurtured, but the word ‘awhile’ is being gradually removed from the lexicon of our society,” he says. “Reflection takes time, and students, like all of us, can find it hard to carve out that time for themselves. But it’s essential for fostering emotional maturity and wisdom.”

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