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Wired and Weary

By France Griggs Sloat

Sara Rowell blames no one but herself. Her parents tell her not to push herself so hard. But something inside keeps driving her. As a freshman, she routinely studied until 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m., slept a few hours, went to class, stayed busy into the evenings, then hit the books again. By the end of her freshman year, she was fried. 

“My goal was a 4.0 grade point average,” she says, “but that was too hard. I had trouble ordering my time. My schedule was so out of whack that I was up all the time. I’d start homework around 7:30 p.m. and just do homework all night. I knew I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I’m a pretty clear-cut case of overachiever. It’s totally my fault.”

Rowell is a triple major—math, political science and the Philosophy, Politics and the Public honors program—which makes her a bit unusual among students. But she’s not alone in other respects. In fact, her story is quite common. Many students in college today suffer physically, mentally and academically as a result of a drive to succeed, a need for social stimulation and a 24-hour-a-day schedule that has no beginning or end. To accomplish it all, they’re staying up late—really late—and robbing themselves of the sleep their bodies crave.

Sleep-deprivation among college students is nothing new, but, in many ways, it’s defining today’s students as much as their wired world. Coming of age in the new century, today’s students have embraced the explosion of technology as their own. They played on computers as toddlers, have been in programmed activities since grade school, have high expectations from parents, school, society and themselves, and are adept at multitasking the dizzying array of technological tools available to them. They use cell phones, iPods, laptop computers—often at the same time.

They’re also ambitious, hard-working and more involved, joining groups, playing sports and doing community service, always with their résumés in mind. Many work crazy hours to pay their rapidly rising tuition. When they add socializing to their crammed schedules, the only time left to study is the time they should be sleeping, so they study instead. They show up for class red-eyed and groggy, and are apt to sack out on a couch at the library in the afternoon. The pace of their lives, the stress they endure and the lack of rest are taking their toll, and it has college officials concerned, especially when it leads to unhealthy behaviors such as eating disorders, irresponsible drinking and sex, and increased visits to the health clinic.

“My role is to try to educate students that for every action there is an equal reaction,” says Luther Smith, dean of students and assistant vice president for student life. “Students are always trying to stretch their boundaries, and our role is to set those boundaries and hold them accountable. The greatest lesson they learn is when they screw up.” When they do, Smith talks to them about their behaviors even as he enforces the University’s discipline policies. But his approach is also holistic. He wants students to practice healthy behaviors before they get out of control. Still, many students come fully intending to rev up their stress levels.

“Everything is turned on from the time they’re toddlers,” Smith says. “And it carries on into college. From the time they enter as freshmen, we send the message that the most successful student is the one who is involved. So they make an extra effort to get connected, and they stay up all night.”

Kailin Borton taped little fuzzy sheep to all the doors in her wing of Husman Hall, where she’s a resident assistant, to drive the freshman girls to a message board in the lounge. There she’d posted a display about sleep. “You Snooze, You Win,” was the title. Underneath was a list of facts about the value of sleep and words of advice: “Thinking of pulling another all-nighter? Think again. Sleep is a key part of a healthy lifestyle.” Such a simple message, it seems, and so common-sense. But it often goes unheeded. And the reasons why aren’t always related to school. While some students are actually studying, others are on the Internet until 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. talking to friends, downloading music or playing online games. Rowell recalls when some guys in her dorm bought a copy of a new computer game, Halo 2, shut the door and didn’t come out until they beat the game—48 hours later.

College students have always found things to keep them from studying. Today, it’s the computer. A tracking program by Xavier’s information systems office shows the heaviest online weekday traffic among students living in the dorms is from 2:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. Internet traffic then slips gradually until 8:00 a.m., when it begins a steady climb through the rest of the day. Still, during the quietest time, between 4:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., there is a measurable amount of Internet traffic. Somewhere among the 1,800 students living on campus, several are awake and online after 4:00 a.m. “There are 38 students on my wing and about 25 percent are late-night studiers,” says Evan Klein, a junior resident assistant in Husman. “At least one stays up until 4:00 a.m. or so every day.”

As a freshman, Klein used to stay up past 1:00 a.m. hanging out with friends. Now he gets his work done in the evenings because, with his RA responsibilities, he no longer has the luxury of afternoon naps.

“It’s a balance,” he says. “After your freshman year, you realize you’re here for a degree and you don’t have time to play.”

But he still fights the lure of the Internet. “It’s horrible. If you hear the ding of the Instant Messenger, you drop what you’re doing and go see who it is. It’s 24/7 on the computer.” Students are easily caught up in the attractions of the Internet. Most students today use Facebook.com, a web site that allows them to create personal pages that selected friends may view, like an online social club. Instant Messenger or surfing the web is popular. But some get hooked on more risky behaviors like online gaming or gambling that suck up valuable time—and money.

Borton, who studies as late as 3:00 a.m. some nights and has 8:30 a.m. classes every day, has to disconnect her Internet when it’s time to write a paper. When that doesn’t work, she heads for the library or the Gallagher Student Center, away from the distractions of the dorm.

“In your room there’s TV, you might go to sleep, there are a lot of distractions,” says Monique Simpson, a junior criminal justice major who was using the computer lab in Gallagher one Sunday night. “When you’re in your room, there’s that cell phone and you want to talk, but here there are a lot of people who are motivated to work.”

In annual surveys by the American College Health Association, students increasingly list stress as their top impediment to academic performance, rising to 32 percent in 2004 from 29 percent in 2000. Sleep difficulties rate third, just behind illness. The book College of the Overwhelmed by Richard Kadison, chief of mental health services at Harvard University, declares a mental health crisis on American college campuses.

At Xavier, there is an increased emphasis on addressing students’ health. Residence hall directors hold regular discussions with their assistants about issues such as healthy eating, sleeping, the risks of drinking and sexual behavior, and time management. The office of student retention looks for health problems behind struggling students’ poor grades and refers some to the medical clinic.

“What I see is students getting themselves run down because they’re trying to do too much. It shows in their grades,” says Molly Maher, assistant director for student success and retention. “Or they’re just completely stressed and overwhelmed. Students are calling me about Cs. They consider it like an F.”

Maher also contacts students who are having trouble with their grades because, she says, it’s usually an indication something else is wrong. The number of students requesting counseling at the McGrath Health and Counseling Center, where staff was increased this year, is up 13 percent over last year. About 20 percent of all visits are for mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, says medical director Dr. James Konerman.

“Ten years ago, I rarely had to write prescriptions for mental health drugs,” Konerman says. “I’d see a handful, like 1 or 2 percent, but now it’s really exploded. No one knows why we have more cases of this.”

McGrath’s counselors help the stressed-out create more balanced schedules. Campus life is challenging enough for the well-adjusted person, he says, but it can push those who are prone to depression or anxiety right over the edge.

“Students still don’t take care of themselves,” Konerman says, “but demands on them have increased and the speed has increased. Everyone has a computer and gadgets to help them manage their days, but the same problems are out there. They’ve just gotten more complicated.”

Kathleen Edwards has seen a lot in her five years as a residence hall director, the last two at Xavier. She says most of the kids in Husman manage well, but she worries about those who deal with serious personal issues. Last year, a male student withdrew because he couldn’t control his addiction to Internet gaming. He didn’t even notice when campus police came into his room to write up his roommates on an alcohol violation, nor was he aware of his roommates’ drinking.

Edwards says she works closely with her resident assistants about these issues because she knows students will listen more closely to their peers. They create programs where students discuss the challenges of staying healthy in college. One of her favorite exercises is having students survey their friends about the effect of their own behavior on them. “I worry about how they take care of themselves, how much sleep they’re getting, how they handle their stress and how they cope,” Edwards says. “And their study habits. Yesterday at 8:00 a.m., I opened my office and a student was out here with her papers all around her. She hadn’t been to sleep all night.”

Lori Lambert, director for residence life, says freshmen struggle the most. But most also adjust their habits before their second year. “I think students learn the hard way what works and what doesn’t,” she says. “You get sick, you get poor grades, you get in trouble. It’s difficult that so many students stay up and socialize, and it’s hard to be the one to say they’re going to bed. But we see a different pattern after the first midterms and in the second semester.”

Lambert estimates 60 percent or more of Xavier students don’t drink regularly, but she wishes more would find the perfect balance between studying, jobs, socializing and sleep, and would be more considerate of others.

“For some it’s that they’re socializing and doing other things when they should be studying, and then when everyone else is going to bed, that’s when they do their work,” Lambert says.

In response, the University provides people and programs to help students manage the freedom and demands of college, such as tutoring, campus ministers and Student Support Services for first-generation college students. Says Maher, “I almost feel a student fails only if they work at failing here because there are so many resources.”

As for Rowell, the triple major, she’s now a junior and has turned her schedule around. It’s still not for the faint of heart. She sleeps until 6:00 a.m., studies before, between and after classes until about 1:00 a.m. In between, she fits in intramural volleyball, a job as a math tutor, student government meetings and community service. It’s the kind of schedule only a student could master.

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