College is no ivory tower

The fall semester at UNC Charlotte will end in just four weeks.

It is no ivory tower I live in, no easy-spirited setting for youth to grow into adults.

Academe is a place where young people are asked to perform, again and again. They are measured – constantly. They must deal, each and every week, with one assessment or another.

Hardly any adult I know works in a world that involves this kind of constant pressure. Yet, those same adults have described the university world in halcyon terms – as if university life were just one extended party of sorts.

How many of those adults worked third shift in a warehouse when they went to college, came home after 12 hours of work, slept three, and the headed off to discussions, quizzes and exams? A student of mine, who has been doing this all semester, just explained, last week, why she looked so tired in class.

Many of my students are dealing with family crises. In one case, I have a 20-something student who is caring for two younger siblings while he juggles his work and school schedule. Another has to help take care of his father, who had heart surgery recently, so his mother can take care of the rest of the kids. A third – just last week – was the only family member available to drive his grandmother to the emergency room when she fell and broke her leg.

My students are frequently engaged in taking on a range of responsibilities during a time when they are supposed to be focusing on becoming adults – not taking over for them.

University life can be a pressure-cooker for these young people.

Some of them are dealing with internal issues; I have three students in one small class who are battling with medically diagnosed depression. Doctors are tinkering – as they must – with medication and trying to get it right at the same time that the student can hardly afford the usual side effects of that self-same tinkering. Some can’t sleep at all. Some oversleep.

Years back, a student of mine with chronic depression finally came to see me after battling the disease all semester.

“You know what it’s like,” she said, “when you are leaning back on a chair and it falls backward?”

Yes, I said, I knew about free fall.

“That’s how it feels to wake up in the morning,” she told me.

It’s no wonder that I’ve had three students in the past two weeks fighting tears when they’ve finally come to tell me about all the difficulties in their path. Despite my invitations to do so as soon as those difficulties are seriously impeding their ability to do well in my class, many young people I encounter are proud and self-sufficient. They don’t want to ask for special consideration. They don’t want to appear weak.

They won’t be emailing me or coming to my office until their struggles seem insurmountable.

We are four weeks from the close of the semester, and my students are writing their last papers, preparing their last exams and their final exams. They face a lot more assessment of their performance, of their skill sets, of their smarts.

I will watch them, these last weeks, for the signs of shakiness, depression, anxiety that have caused some students I have known to free fall.

This is no ivory tower.

Barbara Thiede is a freelance writer: