Opinion: It’s time to Acknowledge Student Burnout
One of the most common complaints expressed by bearcats is the semester structure at Willamette. As both a private liberal arts college and an institution that espouses high academic standards, Willamette university designs its semesters to be demanding and rigorous. The workload is intense and expectations relating to class attendance and participation are strict. While this framework does produce consistently high achievers, many bearcats, including me, have struggled to navigate burnout come the end of the semester.
Willamette’s fall and spring semesters (for the 2022/23 academic year) run from late August to December and January to early May, respectively. In both cases, this amounts to an almost four-month schedule of solid, uninterrupted school work (excluding holidays), with a week-long break being the only respite offered during each. Some might suggest that students who apply to study at Willamette know what they are getting into, and that the prestige and employment opportunities that come with this justify the rigor. But the long semesters take their toll, both on bearcats’ mental, as well as physical, health. As an international student who is accustomed to a much more lenient study model, during my time at Willamette I have felt the effects of burnout particularly severely. The weekly homework assignments, compounded by the extensive reading required of a history major, have frequently left me feeling mentally exhausted and without the energy to socialize or pursue other interests outside of my studies.
I am far from alone in experiencing this; friends and even some professors have acknowledged that there is a problem. While primarily an academic issue and resulting from overwork and overstudy, burnout is often exacerbated by the additional, extracurricular commitments that many bearcats take on. High expectations both in and outside the classroom have pushed several friends to burnout on several occasions, creating unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety and, consequently, having a negative effect on their academic attainment. It can be a vicious cycle, one that not only spoils the university experience but has forced several bearcats (myself included) to seek help and support through Willamette’s counseling services. Simply put, it should never get to the point that young people must sacrifice their own mental health and happiness for their education or career prospects.
The length of the semesters only makes things worse. Long semesters leave little time to recuperate from intensive study. The weekends provide some breathing space, but as someone who had classes on every weekday during the previous semester, I can attest that this is still just not enough. For bearcats who work off-campus jobs on the weekends, it is even harder to catch a break. Moreover, while fall break brought some welcome rest before the onset of finals, it came far too late in the semester. Again, as an international student who is unaccustomed to Thanksgiving and therefore unable to appreciate its importance as a holiday season in the US, the university’s decision to schedule fall break just two weeks before the end of classes seemed all the more absurd to me. For bearcats who live beyond Salem and Oregon, many of whom would have felt obligated to travel home to spend the Thanksgiving season with their families, only to have to make the same, laborious (and not to mention expensive) journey a few weeks later, the timing of fall break must have felt particularly frustrating. While setting aside a brief break period in recognition of the Thanksgiving season is understandable, it would also be sensible of the university to allot several additional work-free days earlier in the semester. This is a simple demand. Were the university to implement it, this would demonstrate that it at least somewhat cares about the well-being of its students.
Seth Bell (‘23) discussed their personal experience and thoughts surrounding burnout. “I come from a very ‘college prep’ background that encourages you to overwork and tolerate burnout,” they told me. “Willamette can also encourage this sort of culture and make you take on lots of classes and overwork yourself.” While there is “some awareness” of how harmful this attitude can be, and professors usually advise students to “pace themselves,” student welfare is still not a priority for the university. “Students will fill up their schedules and just carry on, ignoring the effects of burnout.” Bell recalled their own struggle with burnout last semester. “Fall break was so late in the fall semester,” they said, “so I had to push, push, push myself for the better part of the semester. As a result my exercise routine, sleep schedule and diet had all deteriorated by finals week.” Bell argued that one solution to the student burnout crisis at Willamette would be to “work in more break time.” There would not be “any cost to prolonging the semester ever so slightly if it meant inserting another few days break,” they insisted. “A couple of four-day weekends, perhaps.” Bell also drew my attention to the disproportionate impact that burnout can have on students with marginalized identities. “A trans, neurodivergent, or POC student may experience certain challenges or difficulties that can compound the effects of stress and burnout,” they argued. “The university should invest in more resources for these types of students and seek to correct the systemic imbalance. For example, the university could invest in assistants or officers who could support these students in some way out-of-hours.”
The semester structure at Willamette is flawed; urgent adjustments are required to make it more manageable for students. While prestige and academic finesse are important, these alone are insufficient to nurture a truly happy and productive student community. Bearcats’ welfare and quality of life is just as important, if not paramount.