Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge my ignorance regarding the specifics of being a STEM major. Though I don’t believe my brain has the capacity to even consider pursuing a path in STEM, I’m not unaware of what it’s like being a college student.
Higher education is often analogous to adult life, given the multitudinous responsibilities and stresses thrown at students, ensuring that the information is somewhere in your $150 textbook, or that it can be reviewed via a grainy and inaudible Panopto recording. STEM classes offer no exception, but instead of taking the challenge head-on with your peers, you’re competing against them.
UW’s STEM programs rank among some of the highest in the world, according to the Times Higher Education and U.S. News, which means the pressure is on for these programs to maintain their reputation, generating higher levels of competition between students.
STEM is notorious for what’s referred to as the weed-out process, which tests students’ abilities and willingness to make it through arduous classes and high volumes of coursework. If you’re not up to par, you’re out.
“It’s less about the material and more about performing well under pressure,” Abi Gao, a first-year pre-med student taking BIOL 180 and MATH 124, said. “It’s a lot of pressure, because to get into a hard STEM major everyone tells you [that] you should get an A — only the top 5% get an A. I’d want to be tested more on my ability to understand the material instead of how fast I can type or how well I can perform under pressure.”
One could argue that students have been training all their lives for this moment. From a young age, we’re taught that the singular goal is to strive for that sole letter grade that will supposedly take your life to new heights. It’s the idea that test scores and GPAs are the greatest forms of measuring intelligence, and that no student could possibly achieve an A without fully comprehending the material.
This is not to say that I’d be OK with the world’s doctors or mathematicians being just 85% sure of something, but I do believe prioritizing students’ mental health should be made equally as important as their letter grades.
“It’s just a lot of work in a short amount of time,” Hope Patterson, a first-year student in BIOL 180, said. “So you either are into it and you do it all and get good grades, or you’re not and you change your major and get out of it. I feel like it’s less about trying to learn about biology and more about trying to remember what you learned and rewrite it … I might not even grasp the concept, but as long as I say it right then I’ll get a good grade.”
I’ve yet to encounter a college student naive enough to anticipate their academic experience will be a cakewalk, but I believe there’s an issue with expecting students to simply brace for impact without thoroughly providing the necessary resources to hold on.
Greater attention must be paid to the struggles students in STEM are dealing with on a daily basis. There’s no shame in needing help to overcome college’s hardships, but there is shame in making someone feel that putting their head down and dealing with it is the only way through.
“You hear stories about how people in study groups will purposely give their study group partners the wrong answer,” Patterson said. “There’s a lot of sabotage because they want their grade to be better. If their study partner gets a bad grade, then they can get closer to the top 5%.”
The college experience isn’t meant to be studying in a dorm room for all hours of the day in the hopes that you’ll beat out the student living next door. Life is hard enough as is, and everyone is deserving of an opportunity to step away, decompress, and recharge.
Mental health services are offered by the UW Counseling Center.
Reach contributing writer Michael Delgado at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DailyUW_md
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