It’s Time to Open Duck Season

In a little over three weeks, several thousand letters will be sent out across the country bearing the Stanford insignia. 34,200 students made it known they wanted to join our ranks. Approximately 95% of those applicants will be receiving a less-than-desirable standard sized envelope. Welcome to the wonderful world of College Admissions: Arms Race edition.

When intellectual superstars from across the globe set foot on this campus for Admit Weekend, they will be greeted with smiling faces and more palm trees than one knows what to do with. It’s also quite likely that they’ll hear some allusions to the Farm-wide-disorder know as “Stanford Duck Syndrome” (SDS).

Faculty Senate members remark that there is almost a level of pride associated with SDS. It matters not your freshman dorm, VSO of choice, or favorite study space; the notion of the calm student “paddling furiously” below the depths garners near universal acceptance and the level of ubiquity normally reserved for the Band and Asian tourists.  This needs to end. It’s high time we declared a University-wide open season on SDS.

Little more than a month ago, UCLA’s Higher Research Institute released the results of its annual Freshman Survey, which was administered to 260,000 college freshmen at 420 different universities nation-wide. What did they find? Their first slide on Emotional Heath says it all: “Emotional Health Self-Rating at 25-Year Low.” Only 52% of all those surveyed said that they felt at, or above average in terms of wellbeing.

The UCLA survey should matter to us because Stanford is in the process of accepting its most “elite” class in history, in terms of the sheer number of possible candidates. These will be some of the globe’s most accomplished, polished students. But they will also be some of the globe‘s most overworked, overstressed students. That’s a big problem because it seems inescapably obvious that the admissions arms race will hardly help in the Farm’s struggle with mental health issues.

There are already massive amounts of university resources devoted to “wellness,” generally speaking. But if we have not yet achieved success in combating SDS, the increased emotional turmoil of our incoming freshmen is going to make the fight all the more difficult. There will come a point where the psychological baggage of the student body will be too dangerous to be idly slipped under the cover of sunshine and the Dish.

The first step, I think, should be to declare SDS dead. No longer should a trite phrase be used to paper over what are increasingly deep issues with student wellbeing.  Kill it. Hold a Bear-ial-esque ceremony for the disorder, presided over by Etchemendy* and *LSJUMB. Banish the term from the campus lexicon. Such symbolic actions will ring hollow, however, unless coupled with systemic changes. The two areas to focus on are admissions and the freshmen year experience.

To comment on the Admissions process without sufficient information is a fool’s errand, but the fact remains clear – Montag Hall manages to select 1700 new undergrads every year that fit certain types. Thus, student personalities (and any ensuing mental health issues) are to a degree foisted onto the campus by Admissions. There are ways Montag can alter just what sorts of students arrive on the Farm. A glance around campus reveals a cast of characters who have been reared to engage in an absurd number of activities. What if Admissions backed away from wanting all twelve boxes for “activities and extracurriculars” on the Common Application filled, and (by harnessing a beefed up alumni interview process) searched for students who are passionate about learning, and not simply mechanized multi-taskers? The concern here is how to recalibrate the process without sacrificing any level of intellectual vitality. However, picking 1700 freshmen from a pool of nearly 35,000 gives Admissions quite a bit of leeway.

Regardless of any possible Admissions tweaks, the student body will remain a collection of inordinately driven, type-A personalities whose lives are perpetually set in high gear.  However, an improved freshmen year experience could be a central way for frosh to developing an understanding about the Farm. A thorough, university-wide program should be undertaken to eliminate SDS from the land of the Frosh, or at least ease its effects. The activities fair, massive intro courses that force fall quarter freshmen to worry about their four-year plans, heck, the residential education system; all in some way contribute to a culture centered on the facade of normalcy.

How we as a university community can arrive at a point where such facades can be dropped is one daunting task. I earnestly hope that the continued changes to freshmen advising (mandatory meeting with pre-major advisers, among others) will encourage students to be more at ease with articulating just how they feel. But advising is only one part of this much larger narrative.

I suspect there is no easy out, no magic bullet to make these systemic issues simply disappear. I do know, however, that we can begin by opening duck season. If we do not, then this benign “syndrome” will cease to be just that.

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