Just postponing exams doesn't help
'I can't take exams because of stress and anxiety'
"Do you think you'll listen to the podcast?" My therapist asks me on the phone. I'm in the train's toilet, looking out the window and listening to her silently. My eyes are caught by the straight-lined, solid-coloured, ordered polder landscape. After half an hour on the phone, I feel the tears in my eyes start to dry. You can only be lost for so long, at some point your brain just pulls the emergency brakes. Little by little, I come back to my senses and my eyes completely stop tearing up. I look around me and suddenly realise that the toilet is dirtier than normal. Ew. I look in the mirror and the final result of my episode stares back at me: run-down and exhausted as if I had spent the entire weekend on a rave.
As the train approaches Amstel station, where I'm supposed to get off, my therapist asks me if I feel a little bit better. She noticed I'd stopped sobbing and began answering her questions more calmly. Although I'm no longer short of breath, I don't dare get off the train on my own. "Can you stay on the line, please?" We talk about podcasts and everything I've got to do that day for fifteen more minutes or so, then I'm ready to pretend I'm in control like the rest of the world does. Every now and then, a tear streams down my face but I take that as collateral damage.
Trust a mentor
I have now reached the end of my Liberal Arts & Sciences studies. For a long time, it looked like I would never make it to the finish line. Study number four also seemed doomed to fail. My problem is not my intellectual capacity but rather anxiety and extreme stress. I quickly reach the limits of my emotions and study skills. Thanks to intensive therapy and guidance, I survived.
Another reason I succeeded this time was that, at LAS, I admitted for the first time to my mentor that studying was difficult for me. Her response was simple and striking: "Oh, you're actually doing two studies." "Hey hey", my therapist sighed in the next session with a satisfied sigh, "finally a mentor who understands."
I often had the opportunity to cry with her about my studies and my relationship with the teachers. She explained to me extensively how to write argumentation structures because I couldn't understand them during regular lessons. Even now I can turn to her if I am upset about college. It is partly thanks to her that I have managed to complete my studies. When I told a fellow student about the mentor, her reaction was: "A student like you requires a lot of extra time, and there is hardly any time available." Good to know I'm a time-consuming problem.
Regardless of whether or not this is a problem of our times, I exist and I want to study at the university. UU has been paying increasing attention to mental health problems these past few years and study advisors have gathered more knowledge about how to guide students with disabilities. Even so, I'm not the first one to raise the issue of guidance. Other students and teachers have turned to DUB and other outlets to raise awareness of the students who need additional help. Fair enough, I feel supported by my study programme and my teachers. They want me to finish my degree. It's just that sometimes things really don't work and it's not my fault or my teachers' fault, but rather the good ol' system's fault. Fuck the system, am I right? Whenever the system doesn't cooperate, I find myself depending too much on the goodwill of individuals. Unfortunately, the university doesn't have a lot of mechanisms to guide students who have a half meltdown every time they need to take an exam.
Postponing: a one-size-fits-all solution
Apart from the well-intended postponement of exams and assignments, the number one solution for students who need an extra push, there is not much the university can do to help me succeed. Not to mention that all those postponed deadlines hang over me like the sword of Damocles. It gets me in a panic and I never managed to rest. What this means in practice is that I never get to enjoy my much-needed vacations as I'm always busy with my studies somehow.
Supporting a study means so much more than only postponing deadlines or offering a scholarship. In my case, I need emotional guidance while taking exams. Yes, I did have a good relationship with my mentor in the first year and I used to turn to her more than other students do. But it was out of the question to call her right after an exam and spend forty-five minutes crying on the phone. The university offers a student psychologist but even they can't do that for me. They say there is neither time nor space for that.
Besides, I wouldn't have done that anyway as I think that it wouldn't be appropriate. It would only make me feel like a burden to others. Some people say: "why don't you call your friends or your parents?" Sure, I do that, but they're not equipped to offer me the same help a professional would. I'm not very easy to manage when I get an episode. Additionally, it's not good to be so emotionally dependent on the people around you, that's not desirable. They're my friends, not counsellors. At a certain point, you have to become independent of your parents.
In this sense, the boundaries of my relationship with my therapist are pretty clear: I ask for help and she gives that to me. In my case, it would have been positive if my therapists had worked together with the study advisor to develop a plan to help me move forward with my studies. One of my therapists once came to my house to help me get things in order. Why can't they do that at the university?
Moreover, I think the university would be offering a nice plus if there was an employee to whom students with disabilities could turn without the need to make an appointment first. Someone that would guide them not only in an organisational sense but emotionally as well. The university should also consider alternative ways of testing students' knowledge. Sometimes it's hard for me to express my ideas on paper, so an oral exam would do me good. Throughout my entire studies, I've only been offered this once, which was such a relief. After my internship, I simply wouldn't be able to write an internship report, so I asked if I could do it orally instead. That wasn't allowed. As a result, I got fewer credits for my internship. Such a shame. I finished my internship with a 7.5. Anyway, these are things that could have helped me. Perhaps there are other students in need of the same thing.
One cannot help but wonder: when is enough, enough? When should you accept that you're simply not suited to pursue a university degree? That you do have the intellectual capacity to do it, but not the physical capacity? To be honest, I don't know the answer. It makes me wonder about the function of the university in society. Preparing students to graduate as soon as possible so that the money invested in them is recuperated as fast as possible? Or is the university a knowledge institution where everyone is welcome because acquiring knowledge is a great asset which cannot be expressed in monetary terms? The only thing I can say is that I've seen many capable students drop out because the infrastructure harmed them instead of helping them.
In my case, there are two reasons why I've been able to almost graduate:
1. My parents' financial situation — I've written about that in a recent column. I didn't have to work alongside my studies, nor did I have to borrow a lot of money to be able to study, so I wasn't stressed out over money. That gave me space to search for help. Ik I had to work, it wouldn't have been possible to go to therapy and so I wouldn't have been able to finish my degree.
2. My therapists. I have a hard time dealing with extreme stress and anxiety. It wasn't uncommon for me to call my therapists on the way to an exam and then call them again right after taking it. I needed emotional support to count on. Unfortunately, the university itself doesn't offer such help.
Teachers also asked me to understand their situation when I requested postponements or other options. "Irem, we're busy and we can't take this in. I've already offered you a good alternative (the holy postponement)". I do understand their point of view. It's not only students who are busy, teachers are struggling with that too. The question is: who is crossing the line here? Me or the teacher? I think both.
I actually wonder if there is such a thing as a task force of experienced experts who gather to brainstorm how to make the university more inclusive in more areas (so, not only for mental health). If not, then please sign me up.
Where can you turn to if you get excessively stressed out ahead of an exam?
Do you also suffer from extreme stress ahead of exams? Can you relate to Irem's testimony? If you need help, it's always good to first knock on the study advisor's door. They can tell you what the study programme can offer. You can also follow the courses and workshops offered by the university — you can find the list of workshops on offer on this page. There, you can also click on Who to Contact. Students in need of short-term help can make an appointment with a student psychologist. If you need help for a longer period of time, then you shoud talk to your GP (huisarts) who will refer you to a shrink.
Another place where you can get the help you need is the platform Studying without Limitations, an organisation founded by students for students. They offer professional help and peer-to-peer support. The platform can help you obtain different perspectives to your problems and figure out solutions to them. They also have a buddy programme that takes a close look at students' individual needs. For example, you can share your story with another student who went through the same thing, or someone can walk with you to the lecture hall where you're going to take the exam, or they can study with you to make the materials easier to understand.