Doing the math on last semester

| Forum Editor

When I found out that last semester’s GPAs were the highest in Wash. U.’s history, I felt like laughing. On the back of one of the most difficult semesters to be a student, it felt appropriately absurd that the numbers would indicate that everything is going fine. But numbers don’t say everything. Perhaps this number can be cited as a reason to be proud of, or at least kinder towards, students’ performance during the uniquely awful circumstances of last semester. But it doesn’t explain the students whose mental health took a turn for the worse last semester. It doesn’t encompass the students who finished out the semester in quarantine housing, or those who lost loved ones over the holidays and had finals due the next week. It doesn’t account for the people for whom two weeks after finals before starting the next semester wasn’t enough to stave off their burnout—or worse, the people like me, who took multiple incompletes for their classes last semester and never got a break at all.

So instead of GPA, let’s look at some other numbers that more accurately summarize the wellbeing of students during last semester.

Two. That is the number of days we had off last semester, both for Thanksgiving. I, like many other students at Wash. U., spent them working.

Three is the total number of incompletes that I took after spending the entirety of last semester drowning. After the all-nighters and the emergency naps, the late submissions and the subpar work, I hit a point last semester where I simply gave up. The classes that I had loved only made me feel anxious. The work was overwhelming, the world was overwhelming and most of all, I was tired. Because I was unproductive, I felt worthless. Because I was isolated, I felt alone. Because I had class the next morning, and a paper next week and an exam next month, I didn’t reach out for help.

Fourteen is the number of days (give or take a few depending on your finals schedule) that we were given between the end of finals and the beginning of this semester to recharge for the spring. For me, that number was zero, because I was still finishing all of the assignments that I had given up on only a few weeks prior.

Now, starting a new semester and trying to surround myself with structures that will prevent me from returning to the place that I got to last semester, I look back on the fall semester as a warning. I look back knowing that had I not taken those incompletes, there was no way I would have been able to successfully complete a January finals week after the semester I had. I look back proud (and a little astonished) of my peers for having record-high GPAs amidst a pandemic and an endless semester from hell, but also knowing very well how little that number accounts for in terms of mental health, happiness and general well-being.

When plans for the fall semester were released last summer, many members of the Wash. U. community, particularly students, expressed their concerns. We were worried about what not having substantial breaks would do to our mental health. We were stressed about opening campus while other schools were already closing from outbreaks. We were overwhelmed by syllabi that indicated more work, rather than less, for the upcoming semester. We were isolated by the prospect of studying from home; we were daunted by the idea of living in single dorms on a half-empty campus with diminished prospects of fulfilling social needs.

Now, looking back on the fall semester and knowing just how harmful it was to my mental health, I know not only that we were right to be worried but that we should have been listened to. I know how quickly the bad things can add up.

Of course, nothing about last semester was ideal. No one would have preferred for the semester to pan out the way that it did. Nonetheless, we cannot forget what the result can look like when students’ well-being is compromised. Unhealthy as our mindsets were during last semester, they were only reinforced by a school calendar that left little to no space for mental breaks. Every student should be able to trust themselves, but more importantly their school, to create an environment in which they can learn and thrive.

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