November 14, 2019

WAITE | The Cost of Peak Performance at Cornell

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Yes, challenges are essential. The purpose of our time at Cornell is to prepare us for our futures — to prepare us for the goals we’ve set for ourselves. So I get why this University is challenging. It is supposed to be. It is meant to drive us and allow us to achieve more and more. And that is all very cool — until it’s not. Until there is a stretch of time when I find myself not getting out of bed. Until my friends start telling me that they spent last weekend in bed, or the majority of last week. And it is not because of the flu.

There comes a point when this “challenge” becomes less of a motivator and instead becomes detrimental to health and success, leaving me to question the upper limit of pushing ourselves. How are any of us supposed to keep up with our assignments if we can’t keep up with our minds? Comparing who got less sleep, whose sleep schedule is more unhealthy and who is truly more overwhelmed are part of our celebrated campus culture. This is just a form of Cornellian bonding, if you will.

During my first semester on campus, I used to nap. A lot. I would tell myself that I was just tired. But subconsciously, I knew that I was just trying to escape, avoid and delay all of my anxieties and stresses and doubts. I used to get stuck. I would feel frozen with fear because I did not feel capable enough to complete whatever it was that had to be done. I sank under my covers. I would promise myself that sleeping would give me more energy and make me more productive. There was even a time when I finally forced myself to get to the library, only to spend 45 minutes staring at a screen before convincing myself that although I just arose from a nap, I was tired once again. So I retreated to my bed. I do not have a diagnosed mental health issue. So, it seems hard to define, articulate or even understand what it was that I was struggling with. I just knew that I was not doing well.

Like my peers, I am not just a student. I am a daughter, a sister, a friend and most importantly, a person — an imperfect and fallible human being. The pressure that we put on ourselves on this campus ignores these roles. And though Cornell should not begin to cradle us through these four years, it should recognize that what the campus culture tells us is necessary to succeed is unhealthy. But we all already know that.

The students know, as is evidenced by our woeful humor. We chuckle about our outrageously high stress levels with glassy eyes. Tears brim in our eyes just as the meetings and assignment due dates flood our congested Google Calendars. The administration knows, which is why they keep telling us to prioritize sleep and “self-care” — though simultaneously providing us with freshly renovated 24-hour study locations like the Cocktail Lounge. Though the renovations are fire, the concept of an institution that seeks to prioritize mental health while ensuring we have our much needed 24-hour study spaces is ironic. It is also hypocritical. Cornell Health’s suggestions to help students manage stress and “thrive” includes tips such as “let go of perfectionism” and “refuse to play the stress game.” But why is the onus of stress management placed entirely on the students?

The University and its mental health resources put far too much emphasis on students to control their stress rather than ensuring that the campus environment, the professors and the faculty are making sure that we remain at “healthy” stress levels that maximize our “peak performance.” Ultimately, it is not even up to the students to maintain a stress-free environment, if that is what we are being fed. Professors assign us weekly problem sets, 20-page research papers and seemingly endless prelims. As a false solution, students are told to “keep stress in check.” Yet, professors are not taking any responsibility. Their only remedy is to provide extensions, merely prolonging and  — often through the deduction of points — penalizing our stress. They instill in us the guilt that we are deficient if we do not reach the academic elitism that they expect.

Sidney Malia Waite is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Waite, What? runs every other Friday this semester.