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  • Madison Lazenby

Thoughts from a Light Week: We Cannot Go Back

At first it seemed almost too good to be true that the weather would turn warm—in the range of 50 to 70 degrees with plenty of sunshine—during Hamilton’s Light Week.

Content warning: Suicide

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

The Crisis Text Line: text “START” to 741-741

Hamilton College Counseling Center: 315-859-4340 - if in crisis, ask to be connected to a counselor or, if after hours, press 2

But that is exactly what happened. The sun came out from behind the clouds and so did all of us out of our dorm rooms, gathering for meals on the half-walls in front of Commons, playing volleyball in Minor Field, and skating up and down Martin’s Way. Seeing the complete change in mood on campus, from cloudy and stressed to sunny and optimistic, felt like the most pleasant form of whiplash one could ask for.

To be perfectly honest, I do not know what contributed more to this moodlift: the weather or the Light Week. This is, afterall, my first Hamilton spring, as I and the rest of the class of 2023 were sent home last March before we could witness the change in season. But, most notably, after a whole year of a pandemic—that is still not over—I genuinely do not remember what a “normal” semester should feel like. Was it normal to work until well into the night before I felt satisfied enough with myself to go to bed? Was it normal to not see my friends due to how much work I had to do in such a short amount of time? Perhaps yes and perhaps no, but I know that the Light Week was a welcome reprieve for me.

I specify myself here because I know that not everyone’s “Light Weeks” were created equally. While I had a significant amount of reading cut down to the minimum for the week, many of my friends still had essays to write and midterm exams to sit. Though many students were able to get out and enjoy the newly warm weather, I know that many more students were simply not afforded the time to.

This unequal Light Week is ultimately more than simply an oversight blundering on the part of the administration, but rather an issue that gets to the heart of academia itself, particularly for “elite” institutions. Does it really make any sense that during a year of a global pandemic, half a year of unrest and demand for racial justice after public Black suffering, and a legitimate threat to our very democracy that institutions of higher education should carry on as usual? Moreover, does it make sense that the expectations should ultimately be heightened by way of a condensed semester?

To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite poets, Rhiannon McGavin, that is always rattling around in my anti-capitalist brain: the Academy has long valued the “product over the producer.” This disparity in value can take many forms, from consequences for taking a leave of absence to insufficiently resourced mental health facilities. In many cases, especially at elite institutions like those of the Ivy League and UC system (and most certainly the NESCAC), these factors are only compounded by an acceptance of constant stress among its students and professors. Many have dubbed this phenomenon a “hustle culture” that promotes competition for our suffering: that is, as Sydney Sinks of Millikin University wrote, “Who can take the most credit hours? Who can sleep the least? Who can land their dream job the fastest?”

But you already know all that. You go to Hamilton. You know about the hustle. You know about the results of the Minds for Change and Student Assembly mental health surveys. You know about how there were no Black therapists on staff until recently. What is the big deal?

As the multimedia journalism project Surviving Ivy puts it, “When schools fail to provide effective mental health support, students die.” Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among college students, and it has tragically happened at Hamilton many times over, most notably Graham Burton ‘19 in 2016, whose parents were not informed by Hamilton that he was struggling as much as he was until after his death. Many students will also remember a wall outside of McEwen Dining Hall that featured the chalk-written names of students, including Burton, who died on campus, which served as a memorial but was apparently erased last semester.

Much more recently, a first year student at Yale University, Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, died by suicide earlier this month. The condemnation of the University by its students on social media has been swift and, frankly, deserved. The Tweets range from heartbreak to outrage as they share memories of Shaw-Rosenbaum and their own personal experiences with Yale mental health facilities. One Yale senior wrote, “Imagine sending your child to the university of their dreams, only for that university to drain the very life out of them....I'm so sorry to Rachael and her family. Yale could have, and should have, done better.” Another student wrote, “as a first year, i went to YMH&C for help and left too scared to return; when i was struggling my junior year, yale sent me to the psych ward & kicked me out of school to avoid liability. they’ve never cared for their students. i’m so sorry, Rachael — you deserved so much better.” Shaw-Rosenbaum’s own Twitter account documented her struggles at Yale, from being rejected from every club she applied to be part of to having 532 pages of reading to do over a single weekend in September.

The expectations placed on students, both during and before this pandemic, have been way too high, and the support from institutions of higher learning have not matched it, in many cases instead indirectly punishing students for reaching out. Academia inherently values the product of a “challenging education” over the well-being of its students, who are the ultimate producers of this work. This can no longer be a reality. Colleges and universities need to truly believe and act like its students are human beings with needs beyond that of earning a good education. Perhaps most importantly however, students need to be able to set boundaries for themselves in terms of what is truly a good education for them.

Though it is a general statement, I think it is safe to say that all of us at Hamilton wanted to be here because we wanted an education that would challenge us. We do not want to coast by, rather we want to actually work hard for our success in school. We need to realize, however, that challenging ourselves should not come at the expense of our mental health. Being overwhelmed by our school work should not and cannot be as normalized as it is. There are many ways of learning, just as there are many ways of teaching. There can be a better way, but only if we stand up for ourselves and demand it.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

The Crisis Text Line: text “START” to 741-741

Hamilton College Counseling Center: 315-859-4340 - if in crisis, ask to be connected to a counselor or, if after hours, press 2

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Apr 02, 2021

Life is so stressful with such high expectations that we often become lost and have a hard time getting a grip just to maintain the minimum required to get through the day. Mental health resources are always important but especially during this time when young people are transitioning between being young adults to the adults that will be responsible for being a part of the world. I pray that Hamilton sees access to help is as available and revered as its rigorous academic program. It is important each day to take a little bit of time to take some deep breathes and look at the precious moments as they present themselves. If you are not able to do that, pl…

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