Response to Zinsser’s “College Pressures”

This week, I will be responding to the reading by Zinsser, “College Pressures”. Interestingly, I had already read this piece when I was a TA for a Freshman 101 class. For that class, the emphasis that he places on the highly competitive atmosphere in New England Universities was of particular interest. While I am not able to reference any experience with Universities outside of New York, I do find myself agreeing with Zinsser’s assessment that Universities in the Eastern states are absurdly competitive and push many students to their breaking points. As a TA, I witnessed this pressure first-hand, often having students come to me feeling defeated and ready to give up because they were on the bottom of the curve in all of their classes. I feel that this new environment that we are seeing emerge in institutions of higher learning is a microcosm of what is happening to the youth of this country as a whole. Changing economic conditions, the shriveling job market, the harsh expectations placed on recent graduates trying to join the workforce, are all factors putting many young Americans under debilitating stress and affecting their quality of life negatively.

While I do recognize the fact that many of these pressures hurt us instead of enrich us, I am also guilty of playing the game. Zinsser mentions in his article that peer pressure is a big factor in the mounting obstacles against college students. This is because individuals will take on too much in order to make themselves competitive, but it does not stop there. Instead, the stakes rise for everyone else, and individuals are left to once again find a way to one-up the competition. I would identify as someone who is stuck in this cycle, and also someone who perpetuates it. I feel extremely competitive towards other students who wish to enter the same career field as me. While I do help others find opportunities like labs to work in or help them get into internships, at the end of the day, I am always using them as a reference – what I need to be better than. As a result, I am now in three labs, an internship and committed to 8 hours of volunteer work a week. As it is, I have barely enough time in my schedule to eat or return phone calls from loved ones. However, it still doesn’t feel like enough, and I feel regret for all of the opportunities that I will miss because there are simply not enough hours in the day.

These feelings of regret and the need to one-up those around me are also related to pressures that come from within myself (self-induced). I have always been high-strung and neurotic, but I never cared much about school until I got into college. Even during my first semester, I coasted by with very little effort. However, when I realized that there were many students whose talents exceeded mine and that my vision for my future could never happen unless I was competitive enough to get into a graduate program, things quickly changed. I became a straight “A” student overnight, and eventually got to the point that anything less than an A would be unacceptable and completely impossible to deal with. I then took on hours in labs, at times working as many as 20 a week. Any failure, any moment of weakness, causes me to come down very hard on myself. My goals for my future are to pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and commit my life to my practice and research. Although I could still practice clinically with a less-advanced degree, I find myself giving in to the smug desire to be able to consider myself a “doctor” and to have the freedom to practice independently of others. I want to believe that one day I will be one of the top in my field, and that I will create actual change in the treatment of anxiety disorders and PTSD. I feel that this pressure to perform is enormous and excessive, because I know that I would have difficulty accepting any other end result.

These expectations that I hold myself to are far removed from any kind of parental pressure, although my mother is very proud of what I’ve done so far.  However, my mother puts more emphasis on pleasing family members, which causes me a lot of stress due to family obligations. Much of the limited time I do have is spent appeasing relatives with weekly visits when I’d rather be relaxing. I am also under a lot of financial pressure (as most of us are), although this has been constant throughout my life and instead acts as more of a motivating factor than a stressor. Growing up in a poor rural town with a single mother has allowed me to experience the stress and hardship associated with not having enough money to live comfortably. My mom and I were always stuck in the income bracket where we barely had enough to survive, but with only two of us in the household, we were surviving enough to not qualify for assistance. When I finally had the opportunity to go to college with the help of my grandparents, (who have been a blessing in my life and have helped me get where I am today), I knew that this was my only chance to change my situation. With their help, I have managed to not have to work as much, and instead focus on gaining research experience, trying to get published, and achieving a high GPA. Much of my determination to one day obtain a Ph.D. and make a secure living stems from the desire to not have to deal with financial hardship in the future. While I don’t think that I will be wealthy, I hope that I will finally experience financial stability, and see how much simpler life can be when money is no longer an object.

While Zinsser makes many good points, I think that he is missing part of the picture. I agree with his assessment that we are no longer creating well-rounded people through a University education, rather restricting students to a narrow-minded focus on their fields and depriving them of knowledge related to art and the humanities. However, what Zinsser is not recognizing is that it is not the students, nor the Universities who are responsible for this lack of enrichment. Rather, I believe that it goes back to mediocre primary and secondary school educations where the curricula for arts and humanities are anemic, as well as attitudes among professionals in the medical and science fields. I think that he is not giving enough consideration to the fact that graduate programs and potential employers are no longer looking for well-rounded people; instead, any study in the arts or humanities becomes a waste of time that can be spent gaining the clinical and research experience necessary for being considered for such programs.

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One Response to Response to Zinsser’s “College Pressures”

  1. klucenko says:

    Thanks for this very rich response, Liz. I think the practice of “one-uping” is very real in college (and, I;m sorry to say, post-college). Regarding the crisis in the humanities: there are compelling arguments that support and challenge that position. There’s been much written lately about the “decline” of humanities education, and while I respect data (esp. data that shows a decline in the numbers of Humanities majors/graduates), I think it’s a complicated narrative. What do you make of this article and the study upon which it’s based (which states that employers are looking for grads with a more broad-based education?

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