A look into mental health in Sam Fox

| Senior News Editor

Givens Hall Located on the East End Maddix Cradlebaugh | Student Life

Over the course of the school year, Student Life spoke with a number of students, faculty, and administrators who detailed many of the stressors students at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts face, separate from those experienced by students in other colleges at Washington University. These stressors include professor expectations and guidance, workload, material fees, studio culture, and the demands of art.

As conversations around mental health become more commonplace, particularly in a post-COVID world, the Sam Fox administration has been intentional in the past several years in increasing discussion of student wellness among faculty, according to Carmon Colangelo, the Ralph J. Nagel Dean of the Sam Fox School. While students have noted an increase of faculty acknowledgement of student mental health, many argue that the College’s policies and courses have not adjusted accordingly.

Sam Fox has approximately 300 undergraduates in art and 200 undergraduates in architecture. Alongside regular classes, art students usually take two studios, or art classes, per semester, with six hours per studio every week. Architecture students usually take one studio per semester, or 6 hours of architecture every week, in addition to regular classes.

This piece investigates some of the most common stressors that students brought up to Student Life regarding their Sam Fox experiences, as well as how administrators and faculty are working to mitigate these issues.


Many students, particularly those in architecture, said they struggle with balancing their own health and keeping up with the rigor in Sam Fox as set by deadlines, workload, and attendance expectations.

An architecture student, who chose to remain anonymous to avoid judgment from professors and will be referred to as X, explained how deadlines are often unrealistic.

“I’ve never had a project where I’m like, ‘this is a normal amount of time,’” X said. “Normally when you first get it, you’re like ‘how is this going to be done?’”

X felt that faculty often discuss mental health, but they do not adjust their policies and expectations.

“What I care about more is them designing their actual class schedules in a way that actually allows for you to live a healthy life,” X said. “I don’t care if you give me [mental health] support if you’re already ruining my life schedule.”

Many students said that professors often turn a blind eye to students not sleeping to finish their work. Sophomore Lillie Boero, who consistently pulls all-nighters the week before architecture project reviews, said that some professors acknowledge the lack of sleep students are getting, but do not change their expectations.

“My professor first semester would always say the night before reviews, ‘Everybody go to bed, but also if you don’t go to bed don’t let it show in your review,’” Boero said. “He would give us a smirk like he knew we were all going to stay up, but he was just like hide it better, don’t let it affect your presentation.”

Boero said she believes it is possible for the architecture school to retain its prestige and take care of its students by focusing on the quality of the work over the quantity.

Regardless of how much sleep students manage to get, many still face burnout from the intensity and fast-paced nature of the work.

“I get sick after every semester,” junior Kaden Chaudhary, an architecture major, said. “And I know that my friends burn out really hard, and they have these mental health crashes at the end of the semester where they feel shell-shocked.”

The College of Architecture has the highest credit requirement of all colleges across the University, with 122 total units. Every other school at the University requires a minimum of 120 units, and the BFA in the College of Art has 121 total units.

Patricia Olynyk, Florence and Frank Bush Professor of Art, said that the challenges Sam Fox students face have been exacerbated in a post-COVID era.

“I do think some students are really struggling post-COVID to keep up with the academic schedule and to meet the challenges,” Olynyk said. “There seems to be a level of exhaustion and burnout that I’m noticing.”

Depending on the professor, class attendance requirements in Sam Fox can be very rigid. Absences due to health are sometimes only excused with a doctor’s note, and, after two excused absences, each absence means 10% off of the final grade.

“The pace doesn’t allow for letting up, so if you need a day off it’s very detrimental, and that adds to the stress and it makes it worse,” Chaudhary said. “You can’t take a day off, you can’t get sick, you can’t take time to slow down because if you do then you’ll never catch up.”

Boero explained how she sometimes finds it difficult to get time off when needed.

“Even though I had literally cut off part of my finger [in studio last semester] and I had to get stitches, I had anxiety about asking my teacher if that warranted an extension,” Boero said.

In contrast, several studio art majors described their workload as manageable, as they usually face fewer overall deadlines than architecture students over the course of the semester.

Senior Grace Byers, who has never pulled an all-nighter, described studio art as more “flexible” than architecture in terms of timelines for assignments.

“All my interactions with my teachers have been supportive — if anything too supportive sometimes — especially when it comes to fine art, people kind of stretch their timelines out,” Byers said.

Olynyk described a “delicate balance” between student wellness and ensuring student preparation for the real world.

“[The faculty] have all been students at one time or another, and we’re all very sympathetic to student struggles and mental health,” Olynyk said. “But the job of the professor is to get the student through to ensure they will have the toolkit under their belts to not only succeed, but to thrive and to be competitive in whatever discipline we’re teaching them in.”

She said that achieving this balance is key in any career.

“It’s always about finding that balance where you’re getting the work done but you’re not pushing yourself over a dangerous edge,” Olynyk said.

Colangelo highlighted the importance of striking a balance between artistic rigor and student health.

“It’s known in [art and architecture] that that rigor has existed and needs to be there to a certain degree, but not at the peril of the students’ health and wellness,” he said.

Sophomore Sophie Floyd, a Communication Design (ComDes) major, is involved with a mental health coalition within Student Union in a student effort to help mental health accommodations across the University. The coalition joined together in efforts to create a “cohesive definition of academic leniency” in professor policies in regards to mental health days and absences.

“We’re currently trying to communicate with professors and deans of the different schools about how they react to leaves of absence, people needing mental health days, or needing work to be slowed down for their mental health, and it’s been hard to get across to different professors,” Floyd said. “People are very set in their ways in the administration.”

Floyd also described feeling “stunted” in these meetings as she struggles to compare the experience of Sam Fox to any other school.

Boero explained how passion within Sam Fox is a driver of many of the sacrifices students make.

“If we did not all love it the way that we do, we wouldn’t be okay in sacrificing our [mental and physical health],” she said. “There’s a lot of love for that [architecture] program, despite the mental health struggles that might come along with that.”

Professor guidance, grades, and the demands of creativity

While experiences vary across different professors, many students expressed a need for increased transparency in class expectations and grading.

Although assignments with a lack of guidance are meant to encourage creativity, junior Orion Strayer, who is majoring in architecture, described how this can cause confusion. 

“The biggest thing that is difficult for me in Sam Fox is that they don’t teach you how to do things, they only tell you to do things,” Strayer said. “Sometimes they ask you to do things that the professors don’t even know how to do.”

In contrast, first-year Sophie Lee, majoring in ComDes, said that her professors have been “really helpful” as they are receptive to students.

“The teachers that I’ve had so far have been really understanding if I have a hard time coming up with certain concepts for projects,” Lee said. “They’ve been really good about facilitating new ideas for me or helping me get through my creative block.”

Another point of contention among students is the stress surrounding the perceived subjectivity in grading. Usually, students receive a singular letter grade at the end of each semester, many times without additional feedback. Unlike other schools at the University, syllabi do not contain grading scale breakdowns. 

It is widely known in the art world that grade point average (GPA) does not impact future job opportunities, and it is a students’ final portfolio that matters. Regardless, Floyd expressed difficulty in separating herself from the assigned importance to grades in high school and other University schools.

“It’s hard to conceptualize getting letter grades and having a GPA, because I just don’t know what that letter grade means,” she said. “I have no concept of how [the professor] felt about my art.”

Strayer said they often felt baffled after getting positive feedback all semester and then receiving a poor grade, and attributes this to unclear grading expectations.

Constance Vale, the chair of undergraduate architecture, said that the administration is in the process of adding mid-semester grades to all studios. She encourages student and faculty communication to remedy any grading issues.

“[Grade dispute policies] are on my mind regularly because it does cause the students a lot of stress, and there is a lot of ambiguity in design,” Vale said. “I would say that is almost inevitably at the crux of the question when there’s a grade misalignment between the students’ expectations and what the faculty’s grading has been.”

Sophomore Mona Li, an architecture major, believes that a clear rubric would be detrimental to creativity.

“Having a rubric would set rules to what your design should be, which shouldn’t be the case because designs are supposed to be your personal expressions, your creativity, and it shouldn’t be bound by a box,” she said.

Strayer agreed, but supports the idea of having a procedure to fall back on to give students increased clarity of their assignments.

Colangelo said that while art is subjective, faculty have clear metrics for grading. Over the course of forty years of experience, he has noticed that professors grade higher than before.

“For the most part, I think students are graded fairly, and if anything, we probably grade higher than we used to,” he said.

He also pointed out that students can submit a grade appeal if they disagree with their assigned grade.

Strayer said that grade appeals usually do not work.

“Everyone I know who has done a grade appeal hasn’t gotten it, and what they say is grades don’t matter,” they said. “It’s not that they’ll disagree with your argument, but they’ll say they won’t change it because it doesn’t matter.”

In addition, several students said that professors and outside reviewers in architecture can be harsh in their critiques of student projects.

“I’ve heard and seen professors tell students that their work is looking pretty sh*t,” Chaudhary said. “The students seem like they can’t do anything right because the professor will just tear down whatever they work on.”

Vale said that the legacy of the most extreme critiques in architecture, such as setting students’ work on fire, are no longer present.

She said that as architecture in particular is extremely public, students must develop an “attitude of iteration,” or repetition, for the real world.

“There’s just something that places architecture in the public realm in which you have to develop a kind of tenacity and resilience,” Vale said. “It’s just at the core of architecture to be agile and rethink how you’re going to approach a project.”

Sophomore Joohee Kim said she switched from architecture to ComDes after her first semester because of a lack of interest and professor support.

“[The professors] would tell me to do something, so I would work on it for a couple weeks, and then they’d be like, ‘Oh no, just change it to the other idea that you had a few weeks ago,’ and that happened a couple of times,” Kim said. “I was just very frustrated with that.”

Kim also said that she dropped architecture because she did not realize what the major would actually entail.

“In the first year, we don’t really do much architecture because you’re trying to learn basic skills,” she said. “One time we had to make this body device for a month and I’m just like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I’m not a fashion designer.”

Chaudhary said that professors should be more clear about the purpose of assigned projects, as students are often working on seemingly unrelated projects to architecture without knowing why.

Floyd also began as an architecture major before switching to ComDes, a change she attributes to the lack of support in architecture as well as her preference for visual art and graphics. Like Kim, Floyd felt ComDes professors to be more helpful than those in architecture.

“I feel like [professors in ComDes] are a lot more flexible and a lot more willing to see your creativity blossom in a way that architecture just didn’t,” she said. “All of [my studio directors] have been pretty receptive and conscientious of deadlines and communication across different groups, so I feel like art school does it pretty well.”

Byers said that professors for studio art majors are generally sensitive to student emotions.

“This year especially, I’ve really been vibing with my professors and what they ask of me, as well as the ways that they help me,” Byers said. “I’ve had a blast.” 

Finally, many students attributed the lack of sleep often experienced in Sam Fox to the fact that art is time-consuming and is never truly finished.

“I will put as much energy and time and effort into a project to make it to a place I am comfortable with–even if that [replaces] my sleep and my mental health,” Floyd said.

Sophomore Grace Demba, a studio art major, emphasized that given how time-consuming art is, it is important for each individual to make sure they are taking care of themselves.

“You’re not going to find a school where your art is not going to take a really long time, and I think you just have to have really good time management skills, [and] communicat[e] with your professor in order to keep your mental health at its best,” she said.

Student efforts to increase communication with professors include the Architecture Student Council (ASC) which advocates for the “academic, social, and resource needs” of undergraduate architecture students through student advocacy and event organization. Vale cited the administration’s liaison with ASC as a way in which to further transparency between faculty and students.

A fashion student, who chose to remain anonymous to avoid impacting any student or faculty relationships and who will be referred to as Y, cited the difficulty of striking a balance between creativity and well-being.

“These all-nighters, they’re not good for anyone’s health, but they’re helping further that portfolio,” Y said. “So what’s the balance between supporting students and taking care of them, but also still making sure that they’re creating this work that will help them in their careers?”

Material fees

In registering for each class, there is a material fee listed that students must pay that covers any materials the professor expects the student will need. Across all majors, students expressed frustration as the fees only cover a portion of their work, with the rest having to be paid out of pocket

An architecture student, who chose to remain anonymous to avoid possible conflict with other students and professors, explained that while Sam Fox is extremely collaborative, what does “stir up competitiveness” among students are the materials, since the costs of purchased materials can lead to disparities in the quality of projects. For example, students that can afford to buy their own 3D printers can get a project done exponentially faster than those who cannot.

Li explained the “psychological stress” behind material costs and the cost of having to Uber to purchase these materials, even if one can afford it.

“The toxic part [of Sam Fox] is that if you don’t use these fancy materials, your project is not going to look as nice, and that essentially is the quality of your work,” she said. “If the quality of your work is not good, you failed as an architecture student.”

Demba described the material fees as “ridiculous.” In addition to an $80 material fee, she spent $150 on printing and $600 on painting supplies last semester.

Byers echoed these feelings, describing studio fees as very “frustrating.”

“I would say the studio fees would be fine if we felt like we were getting more from them, but I think it depends on the year,” she said. “I’ve had some classes where I felt like the studio fee was really helpful and ended up giving me more for my dollar, but then sometimes I feel like I’m getting ripped off.”

The Sam Fox School Student Opportunities Fund exists to help students with need-based financial aid afford the cost of materials. However, many students said that the grants take too long to process within the tight deadlines they are given.

Y revealed that, as a scholarship student, they had applied for four appeals this semester, and only received one response in time for the funds to be used.

To remedy this issue, Strayer and Li are working to launch the Sam Fox Marketplace next semester, with hopes of creating a more “equitable and sustainable” community. The marketplace has a “three-pronged approach” to confront material fee costs: a material shop on campus, a second hand platform for students to exchange materials, and an affordable exhibition that sells Sam Fox art to fundraise for the organization.

Culture and comparison

Many students discussed the challenge of not comparing their work with those around them, particularly because everybody’s art is visible in studio. While architecture is a major notorious for its intensity, competitive studio culture is prevalent across majors, as described by interviewed students.

Floyd brought up how in Sam Fox, there is “no room to conceal” projects, which can augment pressure on the student.

“This year has been difficult because you see all your peers’ work on the wall and you can point out, ‘Oh, I didn’t spend enough time on this and they spent a ton of time on theirs,’ and that’s full of pressure in itself,” she said.

Simultaneously, she recognizes these comparisons are crucial to helping students improve and learn from each other’s work in a “self-driven” process.

Regardless, almost all interviewed students expressed gratitude for the collaborative community that exists within Sam Fox.

“The way that we are able to come together and lean on each other — seriously — the friends that I’ve made in architecture are friends I’m probably going to have for the rest of my life,” Boero said.

Vale encourages students to learn from their peers in studio without comparison, saying that the alternative of students working alone would lead them to feel more behind and lost.

Studio cultures vary from year to year and within friend groups, according to interviewed faculty and students. Byers explained that in her cohort of BFAs, sleep is a significant priority.

“Everybody [in my cohort] has a certain amount of passion and stamina, but I think it’s just not really within our culture to not sleep because of each other,” she said.

Demba discussed how cohort culture can manifest into comparisons between students.

“Being a Sam Fox student can be very manageable and rewarding, but I think some students will push a grind culture onto others, and be like ‘Oh I was in the studio all night, what were you doing?’” she said.

Studio culture also varies depending on the expectations set by the professor. Y explained that some professors believe that a lack of sleep is just part of being in art school.

“I know some professors that really do try and make it so that you can do all your work or at least most of your work in class, but there’s other professors that think that [all-nighters] are part of studio culture and that you should be doing that because that’s what it means to be an art student,” they said.

Boero described how some professors do not evolve to new teaching standards that differ from the intensity of their own experience as undergraduates.

“First semester, I had a professor [who] I think came up in architecture at a very different time, and he to some extent felt like part of the culture, part of the rite of passage of becoming an architect is suffering for it,” she said.

Colangelo believes that while faculty sometimes reflect the expectations they grew up with, most evolve their teaching in accordance with today’s expectations. Senior Lecturer Sage Dawson said that she is always hoping to grow as an instructor, as she demonstrated when she had to alter her teaching during the pandemic.

“I think I’m someone who’s very flexible and shaped by the experiences around me,” Dawson said. “I always hope that my teaching and my growth as an instructor and ability to connect with my students is always improving.”

Administration and faculty efforts

Many students and faculty have noticed the increased awareness and conversation surrounding mental health in Sam Fox. Specific efforts on behalf of the administration include regular suicide prevention training workshops for faculty, as well as sessions that inform faculty how to direct students to wellness resources like group therapy and support groups.

Olynyk noted an increase in mandatory training for faculty on mental health, COVID, and diversity and equity workshops in the past three years.

“It’s hard to believe, given their omnipresence, that anybody could have avoided workshops on the mental health crisis and higher education today,” she said.

One recent administrative initiative includes locking buildings from midnight to 6 a.m. to encourage students to leave studio. Several students felt this action missed the point of the issue, saying that students now stay all night because they don’t want to be locked out when they leave.

“I think the intention was good by the professors, but it shouldn’t be on the professors to lock the doors,” Chaudhary said. “I think the prerogative is for the students to take care of themselves.”

Chaudhary said students can be “hypocritical” as they call for mental health resources but complain at not being able to stay up late.

“If you’re not doing everything you can to take care of yourself, like if you’re actively practicing poor everyday decisions that put stress on you and make it so you don’t sleep…then how much can you really blame the administration?” he said.

As President of ASC, Chaudhary helps oversee the facilitation of conversation between faculty and students. He believes there is fault on students for cultivating a culture of staying up late, and on professors for not being transparent with their expectations.

Vale said that student wellness is a priority for Sam Fox administrators and faculty.

“I really, really care about the students’ mental health and wellness,” Vale said. “I don’t know a single faculty member that isn’t concerned and doesn’t want to see the students be safe and healthy.”

Olynyk said there is an “overwhelming” effort in Sam Fox to address mental health issues.

“I don’t know what else we could be doing that we’re not doing right now,” she said. “For now, I think the school has made a pretty impressive turn toward trying to address mental health issues.”

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