Chicago-Area Colleges Create "Safe Spaces" To Help Students De-stress

Area colleges are taking steps to help students manage end-of-semester stress.

Roosevelt University called it Stress Fest.  Students could take a break from studying for final exams to sculpt Play-Doh, color, or decorate cookies.  The school even brought in miniature horses to help students decompress.

The University of Illinois at Chicago provided a bubble-wrapped room where students could chill out.

Northwestern University, my alma mater, maintains its tradition of the primal scream.  The Sunday night before final exams begin, at exactly 9 p.m, you can go outside and scream as loudly as possible (as long as you're on campus.  If you try that off-campus, expect to have the police called).  NU also brought in miniature horses and offered late-night coffee and breakfast.  Students could also participate in Lego-building and board games.

Efforts to help students de-stress are fueled by universities recognizing the academic pressure they experience.  The idea is to provide outreach, rather than expecting students to seek help if they need it.  Academic administrators fear that, if left to cope on their own, some students may not find a constructive way to deal with busy class schedules, rigorous academic standards, and sometimes outside responsibilities such as a part-time job.

Critics of school-sponsored stress-busting activities question whether they're actually helpful.  Skeptics point out that colleges should be encouraging students to be psychologically resilient.  Instead, their endeavors seem to coddle students.

Clay Routledge, psychology professor at North Dakota State University, acknowledges that some students need psychological services and support, but he's concerned that when schools take it upon themselves to help students manage stress, they're going above and beyond to create a culture of sensitivity and victimhood.

Those on the other side of the debate believe that universities should teach students how to take care of themselves and deal with pressure before they get out in the real world.

I have to admit I was a bit shocked when I read this article.  While it's fun to build Pokemon sculptures and construct Lego towers, I think universities are taking things a little too far with these "lessons" in decompression.

I might not feel so strongly about it if this theme were not already so prevalent in our culture, and if colleges and universities were not socializing students as they are.

These de-stressing outreaches seem too reminiscent of the "safe spaces" created to shield students from speech that they may find offensive (i.e., differing opinions).  If a speaker is coming to campus and has views that students don't agree with, they can go to one of these little bubbles and drink hot chocolate, color pictures, snuggle up with teddy bears, and the like.

In short, I think it is not these schools' responsibility to teach students how to cope.  They can perhaps offer short workshops and seminars on the topic, but to provide coloring books and Play Doh?  Student can purchase those things on their own.  You can pick up an adult coloring book for $10 or less, or download free printables from the Internet.  When it's on sale, you can find Play-Doh at Wal-mart for as little as fifty cents.  You can also get it at the Dollar Tree.

Basically bringing in therapy horses is going over the top.  If you want to teach stress management, at least do it by providing real-life scenarios.  In the real world, when we're stressed, how many of us have access to miniature horses?

If I had been enrolled at any of these institutions, I'd rather my tuition money not be spent on hand-holding students through cookie-decorating and animal therapy because finals are too stressful.

I attended Northwestern from 1998-2001 (I should add here that I finished ahead of schedule, lest anyone think I only lasted three years and then dropped out from all the stress!).  I remember standing outside Norris University Center, participating in the primal scream.  I didn't do it because of the stress.  I did it because it was a random tradition unique to NU.

We didn't color and reconstruct the Chicago skyline with Legos.  We didn't stop to pet miniature horses on the way to turn in term papers.  The student center and a few other places on campus were open 24 hours, and at Norris they served breakfast in the wee hours of the morning.

To me, that seemed like a lot.  I honestly didn't expect the university to bend over backward to accommodate our finals-week all-nighters.   I have to admit I felt bad for the student center employees who had to pull all-nighters with us so they could keep the place staffed and provide round-the-clock snacks and midnight breakfast.  I hope they were compensated generously.

And you know, somehow we got through it.  We recognized that "this too shall pass."  After exams, we could relax and have a respite until the next quarter began.  We recognized the stress we were experiencing was temporary and normal.  If we needed to decompress, we walked along the lake or took a study break with a friend.  We were adults.  We could figure this out.

It seems we are living in a culture that is highly averse to adversity.  We seem to think of all stress as bad, even though some stress is healthy.  If competition is too stressful, we'll give you a trophy just for participating.  If you have to hear viewpoints different from your own, we'll give you a safe space to escape.  If final exams are too much, we'll get you therapy animals and a coloring book.

College students are adults.  If they need additional support, they need to look for it.  It's almost like the university is expecting students to be unduly overwhelmed.  Schools seem to be under the impression that students aren't capable of managing stress on their own.  It seems we're lowering the bar and attempting to put upon ourselves the responsibility of parenting grown-ups.

There's nothing inherently wrong with offering university-backed study breaks.  It's the motivation behind them that carries the potential for harm.  As Routledge said, it appears to be encouraging a sense of victimhood.

Universities need to be cautious about helping students keep things in perspective.  Calling so much attention to exam stress or disagreements about free speech makes more of an issue of things than they really are.

We need to think enough of college students that we expect them to handle these issues on their own, with perhaps some support and guidance.  When it is offered though, it should serve to strengthen them and not enable them to be overly sensitive.

In life, they will encounter stressful situations far more intense than an end-of-semester exam or term paper.  Let's encourage them to develop coping skills and seek out support that will help them keep their thoughts and actions in perspective during tough times, not encourage them to seek a false sense of security in a bubble-wrapped room.


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