October 10, 2018

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Stifle Student Leadership Burnout

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There are a variety of ways in which Cornell students take on additional responsibilities across campus. A non-exhaustive list includes student organization leaders, student-athletes, resident assistants, shared governance representatives and teaching assistants. In addition to being an essential part of diversifying and augmenting one’s resume, these leadership positions, formal and informal, provide valuable opportunities for academic, professional and personal growth. It is an integral component of one’s professional and personal development, and, as a result, most students hold multiple leadership positions across campus.

A consequence of this, however, is that for many students a significant portion of their non-academic time here is spent fulfilling the associated responsibilities of every leadership position they hold. Every semester students try to balance their academic, professional and personal responsibilities. More often than not, when talking to students, they describe their constant struggle to maintain or even find this balance. Fear about a hyper-competitive job market and a strong personal desire to support one’s community pressure students to take on more positions than they can manage.

Despite the physical and mental toll this places on students, many have a hard time stepping away from these positions. Students plan campus-wide events, invest in long-term projects and provide feedback that informs university policy decisions. Students forgo sleep, miss meals and often deprioritize their academic responsibilities to meet the expectations of their leadership positions. The reality is that the broader student experience is improved thanks to the work these students do.

But, the physical and mental toll this places on students cannot be ignored. I have talked to students that were so exhausted that they would lie on the floor of their office trying to recharge. Others shared stories of losing weight due to the number of missed meals. One student I talked to described getting physically ill, often feeling feverish and developing intense headaches, while another experienced emotional outbursts, often snapping or yelling at those around them. In extreme circumstances, students even mentioned turning to drugs or alcohol to cope.

When asking students what would be most helpful to them, a few repeated themes emerged. Many expressed a desire to institutionalize knowledge across organizations. Students have invested significant energy into learning how this university works, how to secure funding for events and which staff members can best assist them accomplish their goals. By creating a way of storing and sharing this information across the student population, we help leaders, particularly those new to their position, easily find solutions to their tasks. We can also assist student leaders in developing training opportunities for new members. If student leaders can easily and confidently distribute labor across a broader base, we can prevent them from becoming overwhelmed.

Finally, we must actively work to disrupt the idea that exhaustion is an indicator of student success. This is no easy task. As I mentioned earlier, there are a variety of factors that motivate students to work past their boundaries. The ultimate goal, should be, as I often advise students, to work smart, not to work hard. If we want to better support students, we need to robustly assess what exacerbates their non-academic workload and adjust our support services accordingly.

Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a PhD candidate at Cornell University. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester. Munasinghe can be reached at mmunasinghe@cornellsun.com.