Professors speak about students’ stress at MHC


While stress culture is something that many Mount Holyoke students experience, it can be hard to define, for both students and professors. 

Stress is something that all people experience. Many students, both here and across the country, experience stress and anxiety surrounding their academic performance.

According to a 2016 American College Health Association survey, 36 percent of Mount Holyoke students reported stress as a factor that affected their individual academic performance. In the same survey, 56 percent of students responded that academics had been “traumatic or very difficult to handle” in the year preceding the time they were surveyed. 

But though stress itself is fairly easy to define, stress culture can be a harder concept to discuss. While stress refers to an individual experience, stress culture refers more to a culture of pressure to meet impossibly high standards of academic performance. 

According to professor of psychology and education Gail Hornstein, naming and discussing stress can contribute to stress itself. “Although I know what [the term ‘stress culture’] means and I understand how people are using it, I actually feel like it may inadvertently contribute to the very thing that we’re concerned about.” Hornstein said. “If you think you’re in a stress culture and you feel stressed, you might just be saying to yourself, ‘Well that’s just how things are.’” 

During Hornstein’s nearly 38 years teaching at Mount Holyoke, students have always experienced stress, but the stress culture is a relatively new phenomenon. “I think that of course there are many objective pressures on Mount Holyoke students and there always have been,” she said. What’s new, according to Hornstein, is the way many current studentsfeel that constant stress is a normal part of life. “If we think about ‘stress culture’ as if it’s just a fact about our environment, then we don’t ask questions, [like] could we change it, could we make it less, could we cope with it better?” she said. “I think the biggest problem that I see with it is that it has this quality of being something you can’t escape, and I don’t think that’s true.” 

While hard work and academic achievement can be rewarding, the pressure to achieve and to compete with peers can promote stress culture on college campuses. “Knowledge is a cooperative and not a competitive enterprise,” said professor of history Dan Czitrom. According to Czitrom, the pressure for students to meet high standards of achievement can defeat the whole purpose of education. 

Students can be focused on high academic achievement for a wide variety of reasons, including financial and family pressures, and Czitrom knows this. “I’m very empathetic to students who are ambitious and have drive,” he said. “My point is, education is not always empowering. It’s not always going to make you feel good. It’s not always going to give you a sense of worth. It’s hard work. It’s often two steps forward, two steps back. It’s blind alleys and learning how to deal with the fact that you don’t get it right away. And that, I think, is stressful.” 

As a first-generation college student himself, Czitrom can remember what it was like to strive for achievement. It’s when the pressure to succeed outweighs the act of learning itself that Czitrom finds fault. “The larger culture at Mount Holyoke is full of all of this language about, ‘We’re leaders, we’re successful, we’re leading the world,’ you know? It’s like, can we go to the library first and take out a book before we lead the world? Can we read the book before we lead the world?”