Fearless Friday: Stress Culture at Carnegie Mellon

In light of the recent deaths at my university, I feel a strong need to share some of my story and my perspective on the stress culture at Carnegie Mellon.

The reason I’m scared to do this is because I feel like my opinion is not a very popular one. It brings a lot of the onus to the student population and not necessarily to the university. That being said, this is truly what my experience was like.

About six months after I graduated from Carnegie Mellon, a student committed suicide and that rocked my campus. Students came out and spoke against this stress culture that was at the heart of the university. Students came out and called for better counseling services. Students came out and called for the university to make a change.

But no one spoke about the students making a change.

This week two more students were found dead at my alma mater. And this article, written by Katie Chironis, a senior and editor at The Tartan, in response to a 2012 suicide, the fifth in that decade, suddenly resurfaced all over my newsfeed.

I would like to share with you my experience at Carnegie Mellon, as mundane as it was. And I’d like to completely acknowledge that some of this has been painted brighter thanks to nostalgia (it has been nearly four years since my graduation).

When my parents left me in my dorm room at Carnegie Mellon at the beginning of orientation week back in 2008, they kindly told me that they knew I’d be totally fine in terms of my academic pursuits, but that they were worried about my social life.

In high school, I was often home after school. I had a good group of close friends, but most of them were participating in many more activities than I was and had little time to hang out. When I wasn’t figure skating or doing homework, chances are I was watching TV or on AIM, catching up with friends while they caught up on their homework. It felt like my friends in high school were always fighting to keep up with the workload, while I was consistently getting to bed at ten (except for on Wednesdays, cause Project Runway). My friends were often lamenting about how little sleep they got because they were up late doing homework. They were always shocked at my regular sleep schedule. It still comes up to this day.

So maybe I’ve been different all along.

I remember that same day that my parents left we had our commencement ceremony. I didn’t realize until later on in the week that no one could punish me for not attending something, so I was there, eagerly listening as one of the orientation counselors spoke to us about our upcoming four years. There is a part of that speech that stuck with me that day. The essence of it, not a word for word recording in my head. This guy told us that while we may have been the smartest kids in our high schools, while good grades might have come easily to us then (I mean how else would we be there, right?!), we needed to  prepare ourselves for a big change at Carnegie Mellon. We’re no longer going to easily float to the top. We are now surrounded by others who had it easy in high school.

The truth is, even when he said this I knew this didn’t apply to me. And no, it’s not because I was overly confident in my intelligence. It’s because what he described as all of us having felt in high school, I didn’t feel. I worked hard in my high school. There were years I had to fight my teachers to stay at the honors/AP levels of my classes. My friends, by all means, were as smart if not smarter than me. Most of them went on to colleges ranked higher than mine. Though I may have not been losing sleep in high school, I didn’t have it easy by any means. And I never ever had straight A’s.

So maybe, again, I’ve been different all along.

It took me a whole semester to start joining extracurricular activities. And no, smarties, I didn’t not have any friends. I was out partying most weekends. I got pretty close to some girls on my floor. So this wasn’t anti-social Tammy avoiding clubs, this was just something I thought was best. I wanted a semester when I was able to ensure that I had my academics under control before I started adding more things to my plate.

It took me another year, until second semester of my sophomore year, to start taking on leadership roles in these extracurriculars. And by leadership roles, I mean singular, and at one activity.

Mind you, during this time, I had my own academic struggles. By the end of my third semester at Carnegie Mellon, I was completely questioning my choice of major (and this was a choice I had made 5 years earlier, so that was kind of a complete shock at the time). By the way, I only had one major at this point. One major. No minors. You know who was shocked by this. My fellow students. I don’t think a single advisor or counselor ever looked down on me for only having one major. But I had been scoffed at here and there by students who felt that I was underachieving. Students who had two or three minors. Students who had double majors and still had at least one minor (but likely more). They were the ones that made me feel judged, not the institution.

And while my peers continued to complain to me about their workloads and lack of sleep, I was still, for the most part, getting my 8 hours every night, just like in high school. And this, this is a testament to my parents. My parents who taught me that a well-rested brain was better preparation for a test than two more hours of cramming.

I saw that culture that Katie Chironis refers to in her article. But I saw it being perpetuated by students and not by a faulty institution. Katie’s article consistently points to an issue with the students. The students were the ones that laughed when someone confessed about not sleeping for three days. It’s the students, as far as I can tell, who don’t acknowledge that “…this is hard, and…it’s difficult to cope.” It is the students who smile knowingly or respond with impressed comments instead of horrified shock. And though I can’t confirm this, it seems to me that it’s the students who say that this is the norm, that at Carnegie Mellon you shouldn’t expect to have a social life.

The truth is, I never once pulled an all-nighter at Carnegie Mellon for academic reasons. Though I did come close, once, in what I would say was arguably the hardest class I’ve ever had to take in my life. I got a D, by the way. And my parents took me out to dinner to celebrate the fact that thanks to my strong grades thus far, I wouldn’t have to retake that class my senior spring. My parents took my out to celebrate a D. Thank you, parents.

I’m not saying Carnegie Mellon makes getting a degree easy. When I graduated with a Bachelors of Science with, yes, one minor, I was extremely proud of the work that I accomplished both inside and outside the classroom. At the end I was able to not only become a strong leader of one organization, but also cofound another organization that was near and dear to my heart.

But I also don’t think this stress culture issue is a problem that the institution of Carnegie Mellon can fix so easily. And I don’t think it’s an issue that is unique to my alma mater.

This past week, in response, I assume, to the two aforementioned student deaths, another article was published in The Tartan forum, this time by a Zeke Rosenberg. And this article stated eloquently what I felt strongly when the article by Katie Chironis came out three years ago. The truth is, this problem that Carnegie Mellon and many other top schools are facing, “…needs to be addressed as a cultural problem…” and not an institutional one. According to Texas A&M, “A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

Yes, it’s true that institutions are responsible for culture as well. And when we talk about a company’s culture, it is often the leadership that we look to. But the truth for me was that I saw a stress culture that was very much a result of the students. Students who maybe wanted to stand out against other bright young minds. Students, who maybe, were unaware of their own limits. Students, who unfortunately, had never failed before and didn’t realize that failure was not a sign of weakness in an individual but a pretty much inevitable part of life. Failure, to me, is often a sign that I need to change something, not a sign that I am not good enough. So when I read Katie’s article, back then, and today, I hope that people focus on her saying “It’s time we stopped telling jokes and started admitting to ourselves that we…have a problem.” It’s not just the institutions. It’s us. So next time someone complains to you about how much is on their plate don’t laugh, don’t one-up them, ask them how their plate came to be so full. Challenge them to take something off it.

I’d like to share one more story with you guys before I end this. In high school, one of my best friends sought me out our freshman year because she heard I was pretty smart. She was pretty smart herself. She went on to attend Harvard for undergrad, work on Barack Obama’s second campaign and lots of other less gasp-inducing things, and has now returned to Harvard to study law. Our sophomore year we finally had a class together (and this is how to came to find out that she had basically been stalking me for a while). One day in that class we had a pop quiz. There were four questions on it. She got two wrong. That means she got a 50%. That means she failed the quiz. It was the first time my friend had ever failed anything (I mean we were 15, how many opportunities did we really have beforehand?!). And I remember, after she received her grade, I think she was the calmest I had ever seen her. She failed a quiz and it changed nothing about her. The world continued to turn, life continued to flow forward, and she continued to be one of the smartest people I know. She was relieved.




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