Notes on being Less Than “Fine” at the University of Illinois

Wiley Jones
Nov 4, 2015 · 4 min read

Written by Luke Frye, edited by Wiley Jones


For my first few years here, whenever a new or prospective student asked me advice about college, I said the same thing everyone had told me: learn time management. Structure your time so that you can do every single one of the incredible things on campus. Attend class with brilliant professors, use the high quality recreational facilities, and make memories with your friends. Keep a planner, write reminders in your phone and on your hand, join clubs, because college is a huge wake-up call and the best time of your life, etc etc.

I don’t say that any more.

Sure, time management is essential to any well-adjusted human. College is a huge wake up call, and can most certainly be the best time of your life. That’s what everyone says and is not hard to believe, and it’s because of that that I don’t say it any more.

I tell them to take care of themselves.

Take an afternoon off. Read a magazine, watch your favorite movie for the 20th time, waste hours playing video games. Do something that is as unproductive as it is therapeutic.

Telling an adult to waste an afternoon is like telling your waiter that you want two sets of silverware. They might smile, nod politely — maybe even do it — yet have no idea why they’re doing it. Throw away the afternoon? What about the 3 meetings I have tonight with my RSO’s? What about my homework due next week? The entire afternoon there is a burning sensation in the back of your throat. And so your back stays straight and jaw remains clenched.

I know that feeling. That guilty, anxiety-inducing feeing of wasting perfectly good time. I’ve spent entire afternoons staring at an unfinished assignment, no idea how to complete it but absolutely CERTAIN that if I were to temporarily give up that I would be flushing every cent of my tuition money down the toilet (along with the single-ply toilet paper they so graciously provide us with here).

This mindset is exhausting. It’s unhealthy, really, and no one wants to talk about it — especially in college. Sure, we get the occasional email about tutoring sessions (ironically named CARE) where you’re (I image) expected to go, sit in a circle and talk about your deepest fears. This isn’t creative. It’s not going to break any of the social stigmas associated with mental health. It’s lazy, really, almost as if the university is acknowledging that there is a problem and then covering themselves by offering “group therapy”.

More than unimaginative, it’s simply not going to work for most students. Granted, I am someone who has had an incredibly hard time vocalizing “feelings”. But I promise you, asking the typical student about their “feelings” will accomplish nothing. They’ll tell you that they are fine. No one wants to be less than fine, because that would imply inferiority relative to their totally capable and stable peers (competitors).

Students deny being less than “fine” all the time.

It’s very visible in the classroom. No one asks questions in college. I’ll sit through entire classes where the professor will fill up a chalkboard with abstract theorems in unfamiliar notations, as everyone is attempting to absorb the information. Admittedly, I’ll walk out of many of my classes completely lost. Lots of times it takes hours, even days of doing practice problems or reviewing the notes before I could tell you what I’m learning about.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Blank stares as we pack our bags at the end of class, frustrated expressions as we all attend the review session the day before a test. The only-slightly-joking jokes heard in passing. We don’t ask because that would be admitting defeat. Admitting it was all a waste of time and money.

A dangerously wrong conclusion.

Not only is that conclusion wrong, it is dangerous. Alienating students, promoting feelings of inadequacy, amplifying fear every time they pass Go. This year at the University of Illinois we have had more suicides in this first semester than ever before — and we’re barely halfway through. The university doesn’t talk about it. Now, I’m not advocating that we broadcast numbers and marginalize lives to statistics. But an acknowledgement of this dangerous trend would at least be a step in the right direction.

Automated emails filling our inbox. A room of 150 of students and a research professor absentmindedly teaching as he waits to get back to his experiment. We crave someone to be in our life showing we are important, adequate — even exceptional. Rarely does college make me feel exceptional.

Location of the solution.

It begins in the classroom. How? I can’t speak to a comprehensive solution, but I can explain what it will look like.

A professor of mine, who I regard as the best of my college career, knows every student’s name. All 150 of us. If he asks you a question, he’ll address you by name. If you provide the wrong answer — a mortifying experience, let me tell you— he focuses on why you made that error, not the fact that one was made. He’ll confirm that you understand the correct answer and then move on, his positive opinion of you unchanged.

The isn’t a sustainable solution, but underlying sentiments will be what the comprehensive solution is built upon: empathy, solidarity, vulnerability, even intimacy. Not every student feels fully human in a classroom. Nameless, assigned ID #s, filling in bubbles that are right or wrong. Numbered scores and percentages without written feedback. The solution will look as human as the experience it seeks to inspire.

Take care of yourself, please.

Here at Illinois, no student should feel less than human — less than “fine”. In the classroom be more than a NetID and set of test scores. Outside of the classroom, take care of yourself.

Wiley Jones

Written by

UIUC ’17 — http://wileyjones.com — aspiring ____________?

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