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Barely hanging on

<h4>Ahmed Akhtar / The Daily Princetonian</h4>

Ahmed Akhtar / The Daily Princetonian

Recently, there was an email sent to faculty by the administration with the subject line, “Important Memo about End of Term Student Stress.” The contents of the email encouraged professors to at least acknowledge the unbearable stress that we’re currently facing. However, this is an email that we see coming too late, too lackadaisically, too inadequately.

This is not “end of term student stress”; I’m barely hanging on.

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This is a sentiment that, based on the horrifying depression and increased anxiety that overwhelms Tiger Confessions (the private Facebook group for anonymous posts by Princeton students), I think much of the student body resonates with.

During midterms week, my grandmother died unexpectedly. Around this period, I had two papers for my English classes due, a reflection for one of those English classes due, a Molecular Biology exam, and a German exam. The night I got the news that my grandmother died, I was in the midst of making final edits to one of my papers. I still had two major edits to get through, and it was 8 p.m. The next three hours were a bit of a blur: I was physically unable to write.

That paper was submitted two hours late. The reflection I had due for another class shared a similar fate. Upon receiving that reflection days late, my instructor informed me that this was the only time they would accept a late assignment. Two weeks later, not only do I still feel ashamed to have submitted the assignment late, but I have been buried in an unfathomable fury since I received that response. For the days following that message, I felt ashamed that I could not somehow force myself to work. I figured that if I had wanted a better response, I should have told my instructor or my DSL that my grandmother passed.

Yet, I can’t help but consider how ridiculous that is: as “unexpected” as my grandmother’s death may have been, the phrase “unexpected” seems so unfitting. In this time of vast devastation and death defining every corner of our lives, what about death is so unexpected? Why should I have to disclose death? Should it not be assumed?

My grandmother and I weren’t particularly close. It was a difficult relationship, characterized by my “abominable” queerness and my family’s toxic dynamics. Mostly, the sacrifices I’ve made in regards to our relationship have been the only source of the grief I’ve faced in the past couple of days, and much of it has absolutely nothing to do with her. Yet, as innumerable students are losing loved ones they were actually close with, the University maintains this expectation for students to put their grief on display before professors will even consider awarding any leniency.

Similarly, even after Dean Dolan sent that email, my friend — a fellow ’24 — sent an email to her professor asking if she could receive a short extension on her paper. The response she received to this email was essentially a regurgitation of the syllabus, “No late work will be accepted for your course project (e.g., the podcast or interactive project) or writing exercises except under extraordinary circumstances. You must have a letter from the Dean of your college that is supportive of your choice to submit your project late. Late work accepted under these circumstances will be subject to an automatic 20% penalty.”

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This professor’s audacity in replying with such an outrageous reply makes me wonder whether he’s existing on another planet separate from the rest of us. Are we not living through “extraordinary circumstances” every single day right now?

And yet, this comes after we see the administration informing professors that students are struggling with “stress.” They send pointless emails telling students to take walks outside and connect with friends. They promote mental health stickers and phone wallets across campus as if that will somehow relieve the burden so many of us face. Truly, if this school cared at all about my mental health, they would reconsider sending me emails: my mental health would be greatly served without having to bear witness to outrageous, vain emails that gaslight students and place the blame of not being able to protect one's mental health on students rather than the institution.

When I decide to heed this advice and “take a walk,” who does my assignments? Who ensures that my future is secured, because I sure as hell don’t have a safety net? Please, Princeton, if you don’t intend to actually take steps to alleviate what often feels like an immense burden, leave me alone. Stop sending me emails.

I’m doing my part: I see a therapist and journal every other day. Yet, those are the only things keeping me from the very edge of an absolute mental breakdown. Even after “going on a walk” and sitting in the sun, by the end of most nights I feel so numb and tragically confused as to where the day went because I barely remember any of it. Other days, I’m buried under the uncompromising grief of my depression and anxiety, unable to leave my bed even for classes. 

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So many students already suffer from mental health issues and now also have to suffer the burden of an administration that time and again has shown it does not fully grasp the urgency of the crisis we’re experiencing, and whose lack of concrete action may only be interpreted as this administration’s complete ineptitude.

Weak trickle-down suggestions from deans to directors and then faculty are not nearly enough when faculty all too often respond similarly to my friend’s professor. Such an unwillingness to show up for students should make us question whether any of these administrators deserve their positions of power when they refuse to fulfill their most basic task of listening to students and acting on our behalf.

The mounts of coursework in addition to frequent exams and 15-page papers have become another unbearable price of existing. Until you’re willing to actually lighten this load, stop sending me emails. I’m not facing “end of term stress”; I’m barely holding on, and I would love for you to leave me alone if you aren’t willing to help.

This struggle is one faced by our entire community, including graduate students. We’re experiencing what my therapist refers to as “collective grief,” as we worry about whether our Black siblings will survive an encounter with the police at their college in Upstate New York or whether our Asian-American and Asian friends will be victims of violent vengeance. No amount of “taking a walk,” pasting mental health stickers on my laptop, or reading anti-racist books will shift that reality. So, I beg, unless you’re willing to lessen our load, leave us alone.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to reflect that University administrators promoted the Mental Health Initiative’ stickers and phone wallets but were not responsible for them. 

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