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Student government seeks to address student burnout ahead of uninterrupted spring semester

| Wednesday, October 21, 2020

In light of news that the spring 2021 calendar for Notre Dame will not include a mid-semester break, and as the student body enters the eleventh consecutive week of classes, students have expressed concerns about another uninterrupted semester.

Acknowledging current feelings of burnout, student government reached out to the student body asking for feedback “on how to make the spring semester less strenuous without a break,” according to an Oct. 13 email.

Help, stress, rest and sleep were some of the most frequently used words in students’ feedback.

Courtesy of Rachel Ingal

Student government made a data visualization graphic in order to identify patterns in student feedback. Help, stress, rest and sleep were some of the most common words.

An attached suggestion form allowed students to share their feelings and offer ideas on incorporating breaks or other innovative opportunities for rest in next semester’s calendar. In the first 24 hours, the form received over 800 responses, which have since amounted to almost 1,000.

“The message they really sent to us was that there is a significant need for some sort of break, some sort of relief to that pressure that students are feeling — they’re under major academic stress,” senior Rachel Ingal, student body president, said.

She said the responses have given student government quantitative evidence of what they had been hearing from the student body, and this is information they can share with the administration.

Many students, she added, were vulnerable and honest in their answers, something the student government was grateful to see.

“[The form] really allowed us to hear directly from the students, so that we can better amplify their voices when we go into meetings and share exactly the language that they’re sharing with us,” Ingal said.

Some of these meetings have already occurred. Two weeks ago, student government talked about mental health with the Board of Trustees, whose members were interested in rectifying these issues, Ingal said.

The Student Advisory Group for Campus Reopening met last week with vice president and dean of the graduate school Dr. Laura Carlson, vice president and associate provost for undergraduate affairs Fr. Hugh Page and provost Marie Lynn Miranda. They discussed the winter session and spring semester calendars, as well as the possibility of including a break in the latter.

The Campus Life Council (CLC), which Ingal chairs, also brought together heads of the Student Union, rectors and representatives from the Division of Student Affairs last week to talk about mental health on campus.

Chief of staff and senior Aaron Benavides said “doing this is top of the list right now [for student government], because it’s something that is affecting all of us.”

(Editor’s Note: Benavides is a former news writer for The Observer.)

Acknowledging the uniqueness of this semester and the toll of academic demands, the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being (McWell) hosted Restoration Week Oct. 12-17 to offer students opportunities to relax in the absence of a fall break. In conjunction with other campus groups, McWell prepared events such as yoga, prayer, special meals and more.

However, students mentioned being unable to attend Restoration Week activities due to steady academic pressures and busy schedules.

Although Restoration Week was a necessary effort, junior Kieran Emmons said, he was only able to reserve a McWell restorative space once because two papers kept him busy most of the time.

“[Restoration Week] activities ran up against, ultimately, our well-being,” Emmons said.

Junior Ashton Bieri experienced a similar situation.

“I had a paper last week, and then a paper and a midterm this week. So, going to the Restoration Week events wasn’t my top priority,” Bieri said. 

Various optional opportunities for relaxation have also seemingly been unable to assuage student anxieties of experiencing similar feelings of burnout next semester.

“If the spring semester continues in the same way, I don’t predict that I’ll feel any better about it … A lot of it feels like running against a brick wall,” first-year Adamari Rodriguez said.

First-year Luzolo Matundu also said she is concerned about not having days off in the spring semester, which she expects might be harder in terms of workload as her second semesters in high school often were.

“It’s going to be colder in the beginning — that definitely means less time outside and probably less time with other people,” Matundu added. “So those are all factors that might not lead to something great next semester.”

Despite current general feelings of mental fatigue, students had various ideas on how to make up for a lost spring break, some of which they shared in the student government’s feedback form.

In her form response, Rodriguez said, she discussed alternatives to a week-long break, such as giving students three-day weekends or ensuring less homework is assigned certain weeks.

Emmons echoed a need to coordinate restorative activities like Restoration Week with professors in advance, so faculty can adjust syllabi accordingly to give students “some concentrated breathing room.”

While Benavides said he thinks “dead days” — for which no coursework is assigned — might be the easiest solution, he said sporadic days off each month would reduce the chances of people traveling and possibly bringing the virus back to campus.

Bieri suggested incorporating a kind of “snow days” approach, which would build upon the concept of “dead days.” Students would wake up on certain random days to find out classes had been canceled. 

“Then, people wouldn’t really have time to make plans and go and travel or anything, but we’d be able to just take that time and restore,” he said.

“Some sort of sporadic break schedule is something we’re going to advocate for,” Ingal said, recognizing the need to curb travel plans.

Student government plans on sharing students’ concerns and ideas with committees such as the Student Advisory Group for Campus Reopening, the Academic Council and the Faculty Senate.

“I think now we’re well equipped to do that, and I think the provost does want to be a partner in having this conversation,” Ingal said. “I believe that there’s a lot of goodwill there. So, hopefully, that will be able to bear fruit by next semester.”

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a junior from Guayaquil, Ecuador majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Sustainability. You can find her on Twitter @adrianamperezr.

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