'Look at these exceptional students! So, what are YOU doing?'
Even before the pandemic broke out, the mental health of higher education students was already a hot topic. A report (in Dutch) by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), which revealed that 51 percent of students have mental health issues, made those concerns grow even more. Looking to pay more attention to the wellbeing of its students, Utrecht University introduced the so-called Wellbeing week, during which students can learn how to meditate, study, and find a balance in their stressful lives. I certainly see the importance of being taught how to be more resilient when one has to perform under stressful conditions. It seems, however, that this approach is only controlling the symptoms of a much larger problem, erasing the role of the university as the cause of all this stress. That is lamentable.
Since 2017, DUB, the independent news website of Utrecht University, publishes an annual list called Promising Fifteen, in which excelling students can pat themselves on the back. The narrative in this article is as follows: you are not promising until you win something, manage something or accomplish something exceptional. Even more absurd is the fact that, in 2021, the youngest ever person to go to space, whose daddy spent millions to buy him a ticket to Jeff Bezos' polluting rocket, was granted promising status. Apparently, a "promising" status can be bought, too.
I find it quite damaging that a university magazine goes out of its way to present this narrative. First of all, this type of narrative creates unrealistic expectations among students, since many of these success stories are the fruit of chance. Success can come your way through a random act that suddenly produces a certain result. Besides, one should not ignore the fact that being born into a certain kind of nest or environment can provide you with (or buy you) access to achieve success in our society.
Secondly, the definition of promising that’s used in the article is highly debatable. After all, why are these fifteen students so promising? Many students are going to follow their own path to development, without necessarily achieving the successes talked about in the article. Finally, it glosses over the mental state of the promising student, keen on constantly excelling. Are these the mental examples we want to measure ourselves against?
Utrecht University should be setting realistic expectations for its students and guiding them towards them. Instead, it chose to highlight these fifteen students on its Instagram account. These images are so unrealistic that they may actually trigger or worsen mental problems. This comes in stark contrast with all the mental health and wellbeing stories highlighted at the top of their Instagram page, which teaches mindfulness tricks to deal with the stress subsequently generated by the university itself. No, I don’t want to learn how to withstand cold showers to beat stress. Get lost.
Of course, it’s not just UU that’s pushing this narrative. Young people are going through all kinds of problems (climate, housing, Covid) in a competitive, neoliberal society. The expectations (whether self-imposed or not) they face are sky-high. It is simply distressing that there is not enough money available for students to develop themselves, and occasionally to fail, which means they're being deprived of the means to shape their own path.
I acknowledge that the university is finding itself in a difficult predicament: little money, but high expectations. What disappoints me, however, is that it seems as though UU is not aware of the impact messages like this can have on its students and their mental health. It's like pouring water into a bucket full of holes, as decisions like this make the university partly responsible for students' poor mental health.