The following responsibilities regularly cause university students to pull out their hair: maintaining a decent GPA, completing assignments on time, and trying to keep their heads above water during midterms and final exams. What tends to sucker-punch students, however, is not the amount of pressure during school but the amount of stress created during a break that was (ironically) made to relieve this pressure.
Purposely placed during some of the most stressful months for university students — originally in February, and recently added in November as well — reading week was designed as a means for students to de-stress and focus on their mental health. However, many students feel the intended purpose of reading week is stripped away when this period of rest, relaxation, and, yes, reading is turned into another stress-filled cram session.
During the frosty days of the February 2017 reading week, MacEwan University student Jane Doe (whose name has been changed to protect the student’s identity) could be found nestled warm in her bed with a stream of tears running down her face and overwhelming stress confining her to a safety net of blankets and pillows. Doe, who has been clinically diagnosed with generalized and test anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), is just one of many university students who found the promised sanctuary of reading week clouded over by school work that left her with heightened stress levels and deteriorating mental health.
“I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was just doing assignments, and crying, and sleeping, and would just repeat that cycle throughout the break,” says Doe.
On Feb. 24, reading week came to a close, and Doe, along with the rest of MacEwan’s students, returned from the working break with completed assignments and an unrefreshed mind. Despite its purpose, the break’s focus was taken off mental well-being and was instead stuck back in the textbooks.
Brenda Barrett, a counsellor at MacEwan’s Wellness and Psychological Services, sees professors having to balance between allotting a break for students and completing their own course schedules.
“It’s challenging. University professors have a lot of material to get through. (But) that break is there for a reason. Instructors that either have assignments due or exams coming right after reading week kind of defeat the purpose of having the break,” says Barrett.
Barrett advises students to try to maintain their assignments as much as possible during the school year and to try to dedicate at least a portion of reading week for its intended purpose: a break.
“It’s good for students to have breaks,” Barrett says. “Everybody needs a break.”
But it isn’t always easy for students to take the break they need during their time off, and some find socialization with family ends up being sacrificed.
Second-year student Rain Bossert is no stranger to making the gruelling decision between spending time with family or getting an A. During MacEwan’s most recent November break, Bossert was invited to visit her godparents for some family bonding and relaxation at their lake house.
“Instructors that either have assignments due or exams coming right after reading week kind of defeat the purpose of having the break.”
Bossert’s excitement quickly turned into frustration as she came to realize she was going to have to choose between unwinding with family or completing assignments. Like many students, she couldn’t say no to school.
“I felt like I couldn’t take the time off to leave and visit my godparents,” says Bossert. “I had so many assignments to finish. Taking time off just didn’t seem like an option.”
Escaping the city to visit family isn’t always a possibility for post-secondary students. Between a heavy course load, exams, and tight finances, allotted breaks are often students’ only saving grace — until they aren’t.
“I just want to be able visit my family without having to wait until summer,” Bossert says. “(But) I pay too much money for these classes to risk failing.”
In an attempt to salvage some healthy family time without jeopardizing her grades, Bossert made the conscious decision to try to juggle both. She packed her stress and her laptop and hit the road.
“Working on assignments around your family doesn’t count as family time,” Bossert says. “I’m still stressed out. I can’t spend quality time with them. It still isn’t a break.”
Choosing grades over healthy socialization and relaxation is not restful. However, it’s the harsh reality that MacEwan students face each reading week.
Students can only enjoy this precious breathing period at the mercy of professors. While it isn’t easy for instructors to rearrange their course schedules to accommodate a stress-free reading week, this is something that can, and arguably should, be done for students’ well-being.
“You’re almost always facing one of two undesirable choices: you either frontload the beginning of the course prior to reading week, or immediately when (students) come back from reading week there’s an assignment due, or there’s an exam coming. Neither is really desirable, but that’s the reality,” says Leslie Vermeer, an assistant professor in MacEwan’s faculty of communication studies.
However, Vermeer recognizes high stress levels among university students and acknowledges the changes that need to happen for reading week to be effective.
“It is, perhaps, necessary to raise awareness with professors. The whole idea behind reading week is important, and it’s up to us as professors to make it happen for students. A lot of us are so immersed in our own subjects, we can sometimes forget the consequences of what we expect of students,” Vermeer says.
Students may feel professors have pushed mental health aside, but for professors like Vermeer, its relevance has not been forgotten.
“I think all of us professors, and the institution, need to be thinking about what’s best for students, because ultimately that’s the reason we’re here,” Vermeer says.
Hope may be on the horizon for MacEwan students, as Vermeer is not the only authoritative figure who sees a need for change in the way reading weeks are handled.
Students’ Association of MacEwan University’s (SAMU’s) vice-president of academics, Robbie Lepp, hopes that through an independent study with Andrew Howell, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at MacEwan, he can provide research that will encourage an adjustment in the mindset of professors. He hopes to see fewer midterms and assignments due immediately after reading week so as to help students put their minds to rest.
“We can’t force (professors) because there is the collective agreement,” Lepp says. “But we can encourage them.”
The collective agreement is between MacEwan’s board of governors and its faculty association. The academic freedom section of the agreement includes “the right to teach approved and assigned courses without fear of censure or interference.”
Encouragement, awareness, and understanding may be the ingredients needed to take the bitter taste out of reading week. Separating the world of studying and assignments from the world of relaxation and de-stressing is what’s best for all students.
While conflicts are evident between strict deadlines for professors and the mental well-being of students, perhaps the recipe for success can be found by breaking free from the current “us versus them” mentality and bridging the gap between the needs of students and professors.
Lepp adds that while he also hopes to extend the fall reading break by two days, his current focus remains on what he says will be most beneficial for students: having fewer assignments and midterms scheduled immediately after reading week. This would give students the break they desperately need.
Graphics by Kia Valdez Bettcher.