The saga of the stressed out student

anxiety_-John-Lawson
John Lawson/Staff

My hometown sits in a valley. The main road, the only road, snakes between two sets of hills that roll up steadily but markedly. When it has rained as much as it is apt to in a California January, those hills are a sight to behold. If you make the hike up, the sunset views from their lush heights will make your knees weak.

But other times, in those same winters, the flanking hills can make you feel like you’re stuck at the bottom of a pit with no way out. My hometown is stressed out.

The parents, teachers and students of Orinda, California, a town just 15 minutes from the Berkeley campus, are white-knuckled drivers, pencil gnawers, Google Calendar obsessives. The Job Binder at the local high school, Miramonte, is stocked with local parents searching for enterprising students to drive their 5-year-old to ballet, swim practice, piano lessons, jiu-jitsu. From kindergarten on, we Orinda elementary kids fall into a spiral of organized recreation: character-building hyperactivity until we get old enough to fill out our own Google Calendars, the momentum of the spiral being all we ever know.

The parents, teachers and students of Orinda, California, a town just 15 minutes from the Berkeley campus, are white-knuckled drivers, pencil gnawers, Google Calendar obsessives.

In April, Miramonte leadership administered a Stanford University-designed Challenge Success Survey to all students. The survey, which is intended to help schools identify stress-related issues and develop effective solutions, inquired about academic concerns, general health, community support, parent/guardian expectations and more. Miramonte’s results, presented in early September, are worrying:

84 percent of students reported being almost always or always stressed out.
46 percent reported having between 0 and 40 minutes of free time on a typical weekday.
The average amount of sleep per night was 6.5 hours.
The percentage of students who admitted to academic dishonesty was around 93 percent.
40 percent said they didn’t have one adult at school to whom they could go to for help.

These statistics don’t seem to embody the ideal high school, a place for learning and growing, with ample space for making mistakes and figuring out whom one wants to be. At a time when depressive disorders and student suicides are a striking reality, the emotional and physical tolls of stress are nothing to scoff at.

Given this, the most surprising part of the report was that no one in my community — not me, not the administration, not the students — seemed to be even remotely shocked by the numbers. My local newspaper mentioned the survey briefly in its October edition, the same issue that hailed the school’s’ achievements on standardized testing on the front page.

“It’s easy to see that there’s a very big problem,” said Veronika Pister, a junior at Miramonte.

Pister, who has three older siblings she describes as “success stories,” is living in the thick of Miramonte’s stress culture. After the day’s rigorous classes, she runs with the cross country team, acts as the Parliamentary Debate Team’s captain and is an Intuitive Writing Project intern, the historian for the Latin Club and a mock trial participant. These activities consume the entirety of Pister’s day and her life, all for the promise of an impending university education.

“College is going to be rainbows and butterflies and sunshine,” she said.

The acceptance letter is the light at the end of the tunnel for the junior, who describes the daily push through a “high-pressure, high-stress, high-achieving” culture as exhausting. Getting into college is the defining feature of Pister’s life. She said grades are the most important thing to her, followed by debate, then by what she describes as “typical teen things.”

“If I could fit trouble into my schedule, maybe I’d go for it,” Pister said.

So what happens when that acceptance letter comes, when she arrives at the supposed light, when she and so many others arrive at the place they’ve been single-mindedly working to  reach for at least four years?

***

My start at UC Berkeley was a shock after my high-pressure high school experience — I was suddenly swimming in time. I could do all the work I needed to do, enjoy my meals and even squeeze in a party every once in a while. Instead of enjoying the free time, I started beating myself up. I was doing fine in school, but I’d never not been stressed. In my mind, I thought I must not have been working hard enough. A lifetime of equating hard work with stress meant that without one, I must have been without the other.

When I came to UC Berkeley, one of the few schools I felt that my community would respect me for attending, I was pulled out of a fog, wrenched from whatever morphed expectations I had for college life. Everyone was at the same academic level, if not higher; there was no specific end goal; and most importantly, I had to find new things to help define myself. I sat in my Unit 3 triple, realizing I needed to prove that I was a worthy person in my own eyes without the aid of the list I’d always relied on: SAT scores, GPA, extracurriculars, personal statement.

My self-worth disintegrated as I gained distance from my high school self, as I lost the web of people I’d met and connected with at Miramonte — people who saw me as successful, hard-working and accomplished, in part, because I’d come off as stressed out.

UC Berkeley senior Tamara Katoni is a graduate of the elite boarding school Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, a high school with pressures similar to those accompanying mine.

“My experience in high school was that I had to get through it — it was this huge task that I needed to overcome,” Katoni said. “If I didn’t, I just … I failed. Getting the Andover diploma was everything.”

Living in close quarters with her peers, Katoni applied for colleges and heard back right next to her classmates and best friends.

“It was hard to see myself as anything bigger than (what schools I got into),” she said.

For Katoni, who will graduate in May with a degree in political economy, finding success at UC Berkeley meant finding what she was passionate about: connecting with her community and developing as a global citizen.

“The prestige of the Andover diploma became less significant as I went through Berkeley, where it used to seem like an ending point,” she said. “Now there’s this new stress — what kind of person do I want to be, and how am I going to be happy?”

Seeking out this happiness, for some, means reconsidering the point of college in the first place.

“I sometimes feel trapped and restless. Everybody goes to college, but what am I doing here? I don’t really want to be in school,” said campus freshman Isabel Soloaga. “I know how to do the school thing — I just don’t want to (do it) anymore”

Soloaga, a former high school basketball player who has interest in studying everything from peace and conflict studies to horticulture, attended St. Francis, a college preparatory school in Sacramento.

After four years of intensity in high school, four years of weekdays with zero to 40 minutes of free time and weeknights of 6.5 hours of sleep, Soloaga, like many others, is ready for a break. While she is enjoying her experience at UC Berkeley, she sometimes considers dropping out of school and working in a coffee shop somewhere for a year — surely the opposite of what her college prep school intended for her.

High schools as close as a stone’s throw away have become assembly lines producing stressed-out teenagers: Miramonte’s Challenge Success survey results are a testament to this. Students work for years toward college, define their lives around their applications and resumes — but when they reach their prize, what’s waiting for them? Passions lie in wait to be found, but when one’s self-worth has always been defined by grades and extracurriculars, the transition to a new way of thinking is sharp and definite.

High schools such as Miramonte, Andover and St. Francis have only the best of intentions. They want students to have options, to succeed in any way possible. But they often end up leading to disillusionment. Part of moving from these hyper-focused academic settings into the wide-open collegiate environment is reckoning with this loss of one’s self-worth. Part of leaving high school behind is regaining an identity that can reimagine self-worth as something that is purely one’s own.

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