Redefining Success on College Campuses

Community, collaboration, and calling can help struggling college students thrive again.

Young adults who are culturally considered to be at the prime of life are experiencing dwindling mental and emotional health. In fact, the phenomenon among college students is well-documented: one in five college students is seeing a counselor or therapist while more than a third recently described themselves as so depressed that it was difficult to function. High-pressure college environments often cost students their mental and emotional health, and sometimes their lives. A 2015 New York Times opinion piece drew connections between perfectionism and suicide while telling the story of Kathryn DeWitt, a then-freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn, which is my alma mater, knows this problem all too well: by the end of 2016, 12 Penn students took their own lives in a span of less than 4 years. Sadly, many other college campuses share similar stories.

How have America’s college students become so unwell? Behind students’ quiet suffering, I believe there are at least three contributing factors that must be addressed to reverse this downhill trend.

First, consider what it means to be successful in our society. What are the initial signals that a person is successful? Job title or organizational affiliation, educational pedigree, and the appearance of wealth usually tip us off. On the surface, success is too often limited to some combination of prestige, personal achievement, and relative wealth. Indeed, this is precisely what many college students seek to gain from a college degree. Higher education is undoubtedly a path to upward mobility — even I went to college to increase my earning potential — but how much more can colleges prepare students for living meaningful lives?

If students could redefine success by what it means to thrive, they might experience college and life after graduation differently. Living a meaningful life, choosing a fulfilling career, having deep relationships, being connected to others, and prioritizing personal well-being (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) are too often eclipsed by surface-level successes.

A second related cause of students’ lack of wellbeing is that many have built their self-worth on achieving these narrow definitions of success. After long strings of winning that bolster their confidence, their identities collapse when failure inevitably comes. Certainly, students shoulder high expectations to check the right boxes: perfect grades, multiple extracurricular clubs, community involvement, the right social circles, a high-profile job or grad school placement by graduation, and, for those worried about staying financially afloat or padding resumes, 10 to 20 hours of work each week and enviable summer internships. The pressure doesn’t let up, and students who miss the mark are feared by parents and even peers to be lost or lazy, foolish or failing. Many sink in sands of inadequacy, depression, anxiety and stress. “You’re not good enough” is the message that cycles in their minds.

And yet, students who have spent their lives trying to check all the right boxes are unsatisfied. Recent research shows that students’ desperate attempts to be “successful” do not match their desires: almost half of college students prefer purposeful jobs to ones that offer status and money. However, few students are encouraged to think differently about navigating college and career. In fact, only 3% of students are having the kind of college experiences that lead to fulfillment after college, which are highly dependent on mentorship relationships.

This leads to the third critical factor: the need for rest and relationships.

In an achievement-oriented life where proving oneself is primal, time is a luxury not often used for rest nor for more pressing, hidden needs. As one Ivy alumna told me, “We probably all needed counseling, but no one had time to go.” In hypercompetitive environments full of impressive people, there is little space for rest, connecting with others or confessing the need for help. It is easier to maintain a façade, evidenced at some colleges by Penn Face and Duck Syndrome, shorthand quips for the tendency of students to mask their hard efforts at perfection. This is when mental, emotional, and physical well-being are most drained, for isolation, busyness and exhaustion take their place.

How can students fill up again? The answer is both simple and difficult: authentic relationships. The answer is simple because it’s proven — Gallup recently confirmed that mentorship doubles the likelihood of student well-being both during and beyond college, whether that mentor is a professor, a career services counselor, or a peer that encourages them to pursue their goals and dreams — and difficult because relationships are not always easy to build.

Building authentic relationships takes courage, vulnerability, and honesty. Over time, openness and accountability can free people to be themselves. Conversations about success can come more naturally. College students can ask each other to consider what makes a successful and good life, then push one another to pursue those visions. They can name and discard burdensome and unrealistic expectations of both themselves and others. They can reflect on their values and how to form their lives according to them to help craft a sense of calling. More of them might then embark on post-graduate life and careers anchored by more personal significance than ones that send them chasing primarily after fancy titles and dollar bills only to struggle to find meaning later in life.

College students can cultivate new campus cultures with this intentional vulnerability, which encourages interdependence and cohesiveness to disarm the isolation and perfectionism that competitive college environments breed. What if students could replace competition, comparison, and isolation with collaboration, calling, and community?

Student solidarity in this effort is essential: an arms race only ends when all competitors lay down their weapons. Some students are already doing incredible work to change their campuses. Last spring students from all eight Ivies commissioned the first mental health consortium, Unmasking the Ivy League: A Conference on Mental Health, to discuss and dismantle the expectations they bear. Groups like Active Minds bring students together to discuss mental health, reducing stigmas of weakness in the process. Students have begun peer-counseling programs, such as Penn Benjamins, to encourage vulnerability and understanding. Their commendable examples should continue to be followed at colleges around America to make student well-being a more ubiquitous reality.

College administrations can also redouble their efforts to support students. For example, career services offices and professors might consider offering vocational reflection workshops in collaborative cohorts (Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has explored a similar model in its T-groups and its Design School in a class called Designing Your Life; at The Wharton School Professor Richard Shell holds a popular philosophy-based class called The Literature of Success). Many administrations have also enhanced their focus on student health by offering free wellness programs, adding more counselors to student health staffs, and hosting conversations to de-stigmatize mental illness and promote healthy rest.

May community, collaboration, a sense of true calling, and new definitions of success be just the start of what helps college students thrive again.