Editor’s Note: It’s finals week at Notre Dame, the most stressful time of the year, but as this 2016 Magazine Classic documents, the academic pressure students feel transcends these intense few days. It’s baked into the system where they have excelled — but many also have struggled under the weight of expectations. How do we balance mental rigor and mental health?
On occasion a seemingly ordinary moment snaps with surprising clarity. A revelation landing like a flare from far away. Like the time this happened to me.
It is an August night in 2015 and I am hanging out in a public school classroom. It’s an open house, a few nights before another school year. The room is empty. There’s a message on the blackboard and a box of Post-it notes. The teacher has invited the visiting parents to write their expectations for the coming year and stick the note on the board. I step forward to read what the three notes say these parents want for their children over the next 10 months.
The first parent writes she would like her son to “learn to be responsible.” A second asks that her child be “challenged to the fullest.” A little stern, I think, looking at the room’s happy posters, colored pencils and construction paper. But it’s the third that strikes me most sharply. It reads: “I want my daughter to be pushed to her limits, and beyond.”
This is a 5th grade classroom. What parent wants their 11-year-old pushed beyond her limits?
A good one, perhaps.
The new childhood
In 2011 Amy Chua, a professor at the Yale Law School, sparked a lively dispute with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, a book contrasting the child-rearing techniques of Chinese and Western parents. In January of that year she condensed the idea into a Wall Street Journal piece, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” to explain “how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids.”
Chua, named to Time magazine’s list of 2011’s 100 most influential people, said her two daughters had never been allowed to attend a sleepover or have a play date, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities or get any grade less than an A. “What Chinese parents understand,” she explained, “is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”
The Tiger Mom’s prescription for success caused a ruckus. Experts, scholars, dads and moms voiced their views on the wrong and right ways to raise a child, on the principles and practices of good parenting. Chua had touched a national nerve, adding her bold voice as many U.S. parents were less publicly discussing their concerns with the new American childhood. I know, because I am one of those parents.
Our conversations often go to things our children do, and which kindergarten is best for their intellectual pursuits . . . and about how much we chauffeur them, how many activities they’re involved in, how consuming the schoolwork, how important it is they make the all-star teams, how much to push, how to raise and temper expectations so they thrive without feeling pressured to succeed (well, not excessively pressured). And still be happy.
While Chua’s regimen sounds extreme (and was criticized by other Asian parents), the basic outline is not far from the profile of many children flourishing in affluent neighborhoods with heavily scheduled, demanding lives and serious ambitions to attend elite colleges and universities — the type of kids you find in many Notre Dame families.
Yet the same parents who engineer these busy lives fondly recall a bygone era, a charmed, bike-riding childhood when whole neighborhoods became playgrounds, when school was a place of both learning and amusement, and their youth, including their teen years, was an unhurried glide toward adulthood and the gradual assimilation into a waiting world.
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The new childhood — the one many of us question, discuss and script — is accelerated, abbreviated, agenda-driven. It has less leisure, less idle time, less room for boredom and the work space for unbridled imaginations. Beginning with early learning and preschool programs, our children are enrolled in future-directed activities, making their way through efficiently arranged days busily preparing to succeed in a serious, competitive world.
These young people are the fortunate ones, those with parents who play an active role in their children’s lives, are devoted to their enrichment, want what’s best for them. They attend thriving suburban, private or magnet schools, take music, art and dance lessons, play travel-team sports and enjoy family vacations that expand their horizons. That 5th grade classroom with the Post-it-note goals was in a public middle school with a reputation for academic quality and rigorous pedagogy. The world my 12-year-olds navigate today is far different from the one I grew up in; it is significantly different from the one my grown sons encountered just 20 or 30 years ago.
The idea of providing our children with the ladders to climb higher is fundamental to the American dream. For many — those born into unfortunate households, living in impoverished neighborhoods and attending overburdened and ineffective schools — that dream has become a pinhole of light in a dark sky. For others, the beneficiaries of birthright and loving, nurturing, encouraging parents, those young people you might think the happiest, most fortunate, most privileged, the pursuit of that future has become a competitive, stressful, wearying race — a race, in the minds of some, to determine if one’s youth has been a success or failure.
For many of these young people and their families, the measure of that success or failure is admission to the elite college or university of their choice — a triumph that has become exceedingly difficult to achieve, thus raising the stakes and making the competition all the more intense, and commencing much earlier in our children’s lives.
My ah-ha moment last year in that 5th grade classroom was the realization that — after years of reading, talking and hearing about, anticipating and gingerly evading — I had encountered, if only through messages posted on a board, those for whom that race is real and serious. And who intend to win. Because they want the very best for their children.
Off at college
In 2014 William Deresiewicz, who had taught English literature at Yale for a decade, ignited national discourse with his provocative book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life. It is both a critical and compassionate appraisal of this generation of students and an informed critique of the educational system that has produced them. It is valuable reading for any parent who wants what’s best for their kids. To a greater or lesser degree, we are all enrolled in that system, all caught in its currents, all confident we — and ours — are the exception.
Deresiewicz argues that the race today’s young people have been running so determinedly — conducted by our educational system and subscribed to by parents — sends them down errant pathways. They may appear to be winning at life, they’re skilled at mastering the system, but that system and their lifestyle have deprived them of other meaningful skills and qualities — virtues that go right to the heart and soul of a person.
“Today’s elite students are, in purely academic terms, phenomenally well-prepared,” Deresiewicz admits. “How could they not be, given how carefully they’re bred, how strenuously sorted and groomed? They are the academic equivalent of all-American athletes, coached and drilled and dieted from the earliest years of life. Whatever you demand of them, they’ll do. Whatever bar you place in front of them, they’ll clear.”
Their high school careers, he says, are frenzied exercises in “credentialism,” in which “the purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busyness, the neglect of learning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can’t put on your resume. Hence the constant sense of competition,” creating what he calls a “resume arms race.”
Rather than offering a finish line, college prolongs the race and presents further pitfalls these young people are ill-prepared for. “The endless hoop-jumping, starting as far back as grade school, that got them into an elite college in the first place — the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches, tutors, ‘leadership,’ ‘service,’” he writes, “left them no time, and no tools, to figure out what they want out of life, or even out of college.”
The gold stars, the grades, the scores, the trophies, Deresiewicz says, “signify not just your fate, but your identity; not just your identity, but your value. They are who you are, and what you’re worth.” The accumulation of external measures of affirmation can be a misleading pursuit unless you also develop internal strengths and judgments that carry you through hard times. But those interior lives too often get neglected by those always running full-speed-ahead.
“With credentialism,” Deresiewicz says, “comes a narrow practicality that’s capable of understanding education only in terms of immediate utility, and that marches, at the most prestigious schools, beneath a single banner: economics.”
The author does a thorough dissection of higher education today, but the book’s primary focus is the young people themselves — and their mental, emotional and even spiritual well-being. And here he delineates what should be a national concern. The professionals confronting this trend call it a crisis, some say it’s epidemic.
“Look beneath the façade of affable confidence and seamless well-adjustment that today’s elite students have learned to project,” Deresiewicz suggests, “and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. We all know about the stressed-out, overpressured high school student; why do we assume that things get better once she gets to college?”
The author continues: “If anything, the already dire situation in high school deteriorates further in college, as students suddenly find themselves on their own, trying to negotiate an overwhelming new environment and responsible for making decisions about their future that their childhood has left them unequipped to handle.”
‘Getting A’s no longer means that everything’s OK, assuming that it ever did,’ writes Deresiewicz. ‘These kids are very good at hiding their problems from us.’
Recent studies bear this out. In 2013, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that one-fourth of U.S. college students (5.4 million young people) were diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition. A National College Health Assessment showed that 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function at some time in the past year.” And the number of college students seeking counseling for “severe” psychological problems rose from 16 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2012.
According to Deresiewicz, a recent large-scale survey of college freshmen “found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the twenty-five-year history of the study.” And he cites another recent survey from the American Psychological Association that found nearly half of college students reported feelings of “hopelessness.” He adds, “College counseling services are being overwhelmed. Utilization rates have been climbing since the mid-1990s, and among the students who show up, the portion with severe psychological problems has nearly tripled, to almost half.”
For some, the mental stresses lead them to contemplate suicide; it is the second leading cause of death among college students, although the incidence is less than among the same age group in the general population. Still, each life lost is a tragedy and, when you hear that 10 University of Pennsylvania students have committed suicide in the past three years or that a prestigious, academically superior high school in Palo Alto has witnessed multiple suicide clusters in less than a decade, you rightfully question the culture of competition and its impact on those you assumed were winning.
“Getting A’s no longer means that everything’s OK, assuming that it ever did,” writes Deresiewicz. “These kids are very good at hiding their problems from us.”
A Notre Dame focus group
In Room 217 of DeBartolo Hall I am facing 13 of these super high-achieving students. I know this because they are here, at Notre Dame, and gaining admission here is a difficult proposition. I am teaching a magazine writing class to those with a journalism minor, majoring in marketing, psychology, political science, philosophy, history or American studies. They’re facing a tough job market and, unlike their counterparts in business, economics or engineering, the prospects aren’t encouraging. They all want to do something they love, but some aren’t sure what that is, and most wonder how that might happen. There are no org charts or blueprints to follow, and no corporate recruiters courting them.
“Today in class,” I tell them, “I want us to talk about the pressures in your lives.” The brainstorming exercise demonstrates how a story starts with a question that leads to a discussion, how questions hunt down answers, how untethered thinking turns up unexpected insight. On a good day the discussion fills the blackboard with a menagerie of words and phrases, and then I show them how to wrestle all these ideas, facts and notions into a coherent magazine article.
On this day, when I ask about stress in their lives, it feels more like group therapy. Here is what we learn.
First, these students worked incredibly hard to get here, and some felt heavy pressure to come here. Now here, they feel pressured to perform, to live up to the place and what it stands for, to make the most of the opportunity they’re so privileged to have. But, having all been rock stars in high school, they find their extraordinariness is common. The competition is daunting, and they aren’t so special anymore. That hurts, and spawns subversive doubts about their capabilities.
This leads to something they have not encountered much before — failure, and what that means.
It’s a highly competitive atmosphere, they say, but it’s not so much competing with each other as it is competing with yourself, being the best you can be.
So they try what always worked for them. They work harder, run faster, stay up later, add more to their already busy lives — until those lives are jam-packed, tightly scheduled throughout the day and far into the night. Notre Dame students, they tell me, pride themselves on how little sleep they get. Indeed, Notre Dame ranked second in a national survey of sleep deprivation among college students. It’s a badge of honor. In the morning students brag about how little sleep they’ve gotten the night before. Four hours, two hours, an all-nighter. Adderall and other medications, especially caffeine, help keep them stimulated. A coffee cup in hand is almost as ubiquitous on campus as a smartphone.
Their day-planners reveal lives of perpetual motion, scheduled down to the minute, every hour occupied, nonstop. Many of these activities involve others — a network of friends whose movements and meetings are coordinated incessantly via text or phone. And whose equally harried lives require attention, synchronization, sensitivity — and comparison.
They are not aware — because their lives are immersed in this, like fish in water — how ever-present is their world of social media: the information barrage, the habitual messaging, the incessant appetite for immediate response. When they exit class, they talk on their phones, thumb-tap text, look to see what they’ve missed in the time they’ve been away. They feel lost if not connected, umbilically, to the latest digital watering-holes. It is relentless, addictive, brain-swiveling. But to them it is not unusual. The deluge and its unceasing demand for attention is not something they think of as stress-inducing. I put it on the board anyway.
But look, they say, we work out, we make time for exercise — although that leads to the admission that working out at Notre Dame takes on Olympic-training levels, and the drive to compete and win is instinctual to many of those who live and play here. “Well, not all,” other voices counter, raising another source of stress: physical appearance, body image, self-esteem. At this age, at this place, it really matters how they look — at least to many, including those so physically perfect you’d never suspect they suffer from eating disorders.
“Measuring up” is a constant refrain — perpetual comparisons. There are so many exemplary people, they say; alumni, classmates, faculty doing incredible things. Their stories, achievements, heroics are on display all over. It does not occur to them that they are not alone in feeling this way — not good enough. In their world, so assiduously documented online, everyone appears to be happy, succeeding at everything, on top of the world. That’s the persona they present to others; it feels like failure to be otherwise. And no one dares acknowledge any missteps or defeats; they dare not expose any vulnerabilities.
It’s a highly competitive atmosphere, they say, but it’s not so much competing with each other as it is competing with yourself, being the best you can be. The pressure to excel, my students say, does not come from parents; it comes from within. Well, they hedge, when I persist, there have always been “these expectations.” And I suspect these external expectations have been internalized over time by young people constantly proving they are gifted, special, worthy of all the doting. In recent years perhaps a half dozen students have said to me: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” They bear a clear sense of reciprocal obligation.
There is some solace in Notre Dame’s Catholic character, its nurturing community, its distinctive commitment to each student’s personal life.
One of the great gifts of their young lives is their Notre Dame education. Whatever family circumstances they come from, these students are fully aware that their four years at Notre Dame cost more than a quarter of a million dollars. That’s a lot of money, and they and their families are mindful of a return on that investment. Their gratitude for all that has been given them weighs heavily upon their young shoulders. And they are often caught between convergent if not competing goals, both celebrated at Notre Dame — financial success and doing good.
Reconciling this potential conflict shadows their daily decisions, their choice of major, their career aspirations. For most, that Notre Dame degree launches a lucrative and personally rewarding career. Many opt for pragmatism over passion. And those who reach second-semester senior year without a promising employment opportunity, that race they began before kindergarten — the one they so earnestly and winningly championed until now — can feel like a loss, a fall, a failure. They have a very hard time with that. Some, it simply overwhelms.
Meanwhile, they are vying with elites everywhere for prize internships — no longer mere summer jobs that offer respite from the school year’s intellectual grind — but pre-graduation career moves. Completing applications for internships, fellowships, employment, international or advanced study can be an onerous task with no guarantee of payoff. Additionally, many are burdened with financial straits; some feel the stresses of being a minority, international or LGBT student, feeling out of place at this traditionally, conservatively, white Catholic institution. During their time here many encounter roommate and relationship issues, nettlesome romantic adventures, the loss of parents and loved ones through death and divorce. And there is a deeply ingrained drinking culture here, a work-hard/play-hard attitude that may damage, more than help, student well-being. Counselors call it “self-medicating” — for the temporary relief of college-life afflictions.
There is some solace in Notre Dame’s Catholic character, its nurturing community, its distinctive commitment to each student’s personal life. You hope that this school — unlike the ones Deresiewicz impugns — attracts and assists students with an interior life that keeps them grounded and safe. And that this university fosters a life centered on deeper, more lasting truths. But sometimes these ideals bring about their own particular pressures and expectations. It may be easier if everyone were not expected to be so good, so perfect.
Finally, near the end of class, as I am still adding to the blackboard list of stress inducers, a woman calls out, “And we’re expected to save the world,” to which another voice adds, “And love it while we do.” There is that about Notre Dame — the ideal that the institution is here to do great things and that its graduates are obliged to be a force for good in every corner of the globe, to eradicate poverty, sow peace, feed the hungry, heal the sick, fight for justice, clean up the environment, spread the Gospel. The students do want to answer this call, and they’re feeling the pressure to come through as expected.
And even though some may not aim to save the world, they all know they are taking on a pretty troubled planet — and that can bring a whole new wave of anxiety to these young lives.
Here to help
I know a student who is having an especially hard time. She is skipping classes and missing assignments. We meet for coffee. She is about to graduate, and several job leads have yielded only dead-ends. It’s not so good at home. She’s clearly troubled, and I see that the stuff we talked about in class is now right in front of me — a real person grappling with real life. She tells me she’s OK, she’s fine; she says she’s got it covered. But she seems fragile, and I suggest she see someone. I am glad there are professionals here who know what to do. They are also very busy.
More than 1,500 students sought assistance from the University Counseling Center this past academic year — 12 percent of the student body. That’s a 61 percent increase since 2005, when about 900 students received help there. Anxiety is the primary reason students seek some form of therapy, eclipsing depression, which for years had been the leading cause of student distress. It isn’t because there’s less depression, says Sue Steibe-Pasalich, now in her 14th year as director of Notre Dame’s counseling center. A staff psychologist there since 1981, she says there’s simply much more anxiety among college students these days. Then again, she points out, there’s a lot more anxiety in the general population these days, too.
Steibe-Pasalich says she and her colleagues — about two dozen staff members — are seeing more students partly because the stigma attached to psychological counseling is less of a factor than it once was. Also, she notes, many students received treatment in high school and see counseling at Notre Dame as a continuation of that. A good number of these students have been on various medications since they were adolescents, and they need continual support and guidance with these prescriptions.
Others have struggles so severe they require immediate attention. “Look at the number from this year — 695 people walked in saying, ‘I’m in an urgent crisis,’” says Steibe-Pasalich, pointing to data from the past school year and noting that this number has doubled since the 2011-12 school year. Suicide is extremely rare, she says, but adds, “We had 42 hospitalizations this past year of students who came in and said, ‘I cannot keep myself safe,’ or overdosed or made some attempt to hurt themselves and agreed to go to the hospital.” According to a 2013-14 Notre Dame report, 66 students withdrew from school because of mental health challenges.
‘Our responsibility as a university is first and foremost the safety and well-being of our students. They can’t live, learn and be formed by this place unless they start from a baseline level of physical and emotional well-being.’
Those who best know the mental health landscape at Notre Dame are fully aware that its students are susceptible to the same struggles afflicting college students everywhere, especially those attending elite institutions. Braided into higher education mental health networks, Notre Dame’s caregivers watch the numbers, see the trends, discuss the causes and come up with strategies and programs to soften the impact on Notre Dame students. One lesson many in the field learned from a 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech is that various components — from faculty to counselors to campus security — need to be better integrated in identifying and helping individuals who show signs of troubled behaviors. Notre Dame’s Office of Student Affairs, says Steibe-Pasalich, has implemented just such a mechanism, convening weekly meetings to discuss any “students of concern” and to devise “a care plan for that student.”
The University Care Team and its Care consultants, an initiative to assist students with academic and personal challenges, was started in 2012, the same year Bill Stackman was hired as Notre Dame’s associate vice president for student services after holding similar positions at other colleges. He oversees all the University’s health and wellness services, including the counseling center and the drug and alcohol education program.
The Care consultants welcome referrals from faculty and staff, rectors and friends — anyone concerned about a student’s mood, attitude, coursework or behaviors. They advise, counsel and help students with problems large and small. When needed, they refer students to the University Counseling Center for individual or group therapy and assistance.
In addition to individual counseling, the center has a host of programs — on social anxiety, eating disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorders and perfectionism. The center sends counselors to three campus locations — an outreach effort to connect with students who may be reluctant to venture into Saint Liam Hall, where counseling services resides. It also offers students with moderate anxiety a therapist-assisted hotline with an online assessment and Skype conversations.
Then there’s the Inner Resources Room — 305 Saint Liam Hall — where students, faculty and staff may retreat for a quiet timeout. The room is equipped with light therapy to counter the South Bend winters, a massage chair, music and various biofeedback programs to help users learn to defuse anger, frustration and negativity.
Also, in 2014 the University established the James E. McDonald, CSC, Center for Student Well-Being (casually known as McWell), focusing on education, prevention and intervention programs to enhance student health. These initiatives and additional staffing reflect a significant investment in resources since 2012 when Erin Hoffmann Harding ’97 became vice president of the Office of Student Affairs.
“The mental well-being of our students is probably the first or second thing that keeps me awake at night,” admits Hoffmann Harding, who adds, “Our responsibility as a university is first and foremost the safety and well-being of our students. They can’t live, learn and be formed by this place unless they start from a baseline level of physical and emotional well-being.” While acknowledging that Notre Dame’s attention to these concerns is consistent with national trends and “a rising desire for supports and services that we’re seeing predominantly from students seeking mental health care and also expectations coming to us from students and parents,” the vice president notes, “We are unlike many of our peers, I think, in that we’re really lucky in terms of the resources and the safety nets that we have in place here.”
For example, the residence hall system enables rectors to know “every student personally,” she says, and all incoming students have a first-year adviser. Faculty and staff are encouraged to refer students to the University Care Team, and the Counseling Center offers bystander training to help students recognize concerns in roommates and peers.
“I think Notre Dame, being intrinsically set up in this personal way,” says Hoffman Harding, “is really beneficial to us,” allowing students who are struggling or simply not doing as well as they might to get help and support earlier in the process. “I truly do think,” she adds, “that a place like Notre Dame that emphasizes the education of the whole person, that emphasizes personal relationships — whether with rectors or faculty members — offers a caring community that can help students to flourish, and I think we’re awfully lucky, we’re doing pretty well amidst what is a national challenge.”
Things to talk about
The Care Consultant Program, launched in 2012, handled “100-something cases” in its first year, recalls Stackman, the associate VP for student services. When we talked this past April, the Care consultants had seen almost 700 students during the 2015-16 school year, and graduation was still a month away. “It’s only getting more intense,” he said that day. “It’s getting more severe. It’s getting more, and more, and more. The numbers are increasing. The number of students who are really struggling on some level has risen and, to me, I think it’s a societal epidemic. I think our country needs to take a look at this. It’s not just the responsibility of colleges, or elite colleges. It’s our country.”
While some discussion could be aimed at the social and economic forces impacting young people today, another area deserving examination is that coiled dynamic — the interplay of competition, comparison and pressure, the expectations and fear of failure — that threatens the emotional and psychological well-being of many college students. Stackman, who has worked in student affairs for 33 years at eight institutions, public and private, and is a parent himself, also sees the continuous trail from childhood to college.
“I think parents are trying for their kids, from an early age,” says Stackman, “to have an edge. So the kids are mastering, at a young age, many musical instruments, many sports, many talents.” He talks about parents posting their children’s achievements on Facebook and recording their soccer matches. “I think parents are getting a lot of satisfaction out of their kids’ accomplishments, and are wanting those satisfactions, so they’re placing a lot of pressure on their kids — I don’t think realizing what they’re doing.” One counselor with whom I spoke wondered if successful, winning children had become a kind of status symbol — shining offspring as validation of parenting excellence.
In fact, one of the questions being asked by campus caregivers, counselors and sociologists today is the role helicopter parents have played in the psychological and emotional makeup of this generation of college student. It’s not just the possibility that even well-intentioned parents may inflict undue pressure on their children to succeed. It’s those parents who are so involved in their children’s lives that they are making their decisions for them, providing constant support and affirmation, being right there when they fall, making sure they do not fail, then interceding on their behalf when they do.
Too often, says Stackman, the parents are “the problem solvers. And they’re the ones who are reassuring them that things are going to be OK, or they’re quick to blame external sources for the situation rather than helping their child understand how they got there in the first place. They’re not putting responsibility on their kid, so there’s a lack of accountability.”
It’s not that uncommon these days for parents to call a faculty member or administrator when their child receives a low grade or misses out on an award they thought they deserved. When parents are constantly coming to the rescue, the thinking goes, their children do not acquire the skills and mettle that come with a healthy maturity — like resiliency and “grit.” The days of the occasional Sunday-night call home have been replaced by many college students and their parents talking two or three times a day.
“With parents so involved in their lives,” says Stackman, “you get students who don’t know how to cope, who don’t have the proper resiliency, don’t have the internal skills. So when they do hit that wall, they don’t know how to come back up, take a breath, put things in perspective, to give themselves the love and the hug they need.”
It’s a Catch-22, says Anna Detlefsen, one of the Care consultants. To get into an elite school requires near perfection, so there have been few failures to learn from, resulting in “this obsession with perfectionism,” she says. “I don’t think we’re doing a good job of teaching our kids the value of mistakes, and the good that comes from that, the personal growth that comes from that, and normalizing it. We, as adults, make mistakes all the time, and that’s OK. We learn from it. We grow. One of the biggest things I tell kids is you are going to make so many mistakes. You are not perfect. Own it.”
And recognize, she continues, “that there are things you are not great at, things you might not ever be great at, your whole life. We all have those things. I don’t know if those are conversations they’ve ever had.”
Says Stackman, “We turned away 1,400 students two years ago who were valedictorians. We turned them away. So we’re getting these students who somehow outshined them in application because of all these wonderful things they can do. That’s who’s here. Then they get here, and their sense of self is tied into performance.” And their perception of those around them fuels those nagging feelings of self-doubt. “They say they feel at times that they don’t measure up,” says Stackman. “They’re not good enough. They’re not smart enough. They’re not talented enough.” Their sense that “they’re not performing up to the standards that they are used to,” he says, is the leading reason “they’re showing up on our doorstep.”
Exposing weak spots or expressing self-doubt does not come easily or naturally to high-achievers. They don’t want others to know their worries or vulnerabilities — especially among those who appear to be thriving. But sharing such feelings is crucial; it would make for happier individuals and a healthier campus. “I met with all the students who were withdrawing my first two years here,” says Stackman, “and almost all of them said they felt alone. They felt that they were probably one of the very few students who were in this situation. When I said, ‘I think there are probably hundreds, if not a couple of thousand students here who feel like you,’ their eyes lit up like they were in shock.”
Apart from adjusting to college life at a place like Notre Dame, the most acute transition may come in the spring of senior year. Graduating seniors are thrust into a less nurturing world than Notre Dame provides, and some will be deliberating aspirations to teach or do service work or pursue a life in the arts, knowing classmates whose first job will bring a six-figure income and others with tech skills that promise lavish windfalls before young entrepreneurs turn 30. To many parents and students, that may seem like the proper return on a costly education. To others, those facing graduation with an uncertain future, this milestone may feel like the moment of truth, the culmination of young lives bearing the weight of expectations, accustomed to conspicuous success and watching the flight of classmates.
Detlefsen counsels many students in a funk because their first jobs are entry-level positions. “I tell them, ‘That’s great, you have a job,’” Detlefsen says, adding, “The expectation that your first job is going to be your dream job — where did that come from?”
Other students are stressed because they aren’t sure what to do next, don’t have a career path mapped out. Detlefsen says: “‘That’s fine,’ I tell them. ‘You don’t have to have all the answers right now.’ I think sometimes they feel like they have to have all the answers.” The truth is, none of us does.
The bitter trap of comparing our lives to others probably haunts all of us — from me reading notes on a 5th-grade blackboard to Notre Dame students wondering where they fit into the mythical hierarchy.
When I raised this point with Sue Steibe-Pasalich, the director of the counseling center, she referred to a talk Father Pete McCormick, CSC, ’06M.Div.,’15MBA had given, comparing Basil Moreau and Edward Sorin, two very different Holy Cross priests instrumental in Notre Dame’s character.
“He was saying everybody contributes to the Body of Christ, you know? Don’t compare yourself, just find your place, accept your niche, your place in the big picture. I really like that thought and, if we can communicate that to students . . . find your gifts and live them with passion, and you’re building up the Body of Christ, you’re building up the big thing, the big picture. You don’t have to be the person who’s the hero, because the hero is standing on a lot of shoulders of other people who played a part. Just do your part. Bring your gifts to your job and they might not be the same as the next guy, but we need you.
“If we could communicate that kind of perspective to students, that acceptance of finding out who I am, living fully who I am, wouldn’t that bring such peace?”
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.