In a national study, 62 percent of college
students admitted problems with anxiety and stress. Pomona students are
By Stephen K. Wagner
When Kara Toles ’07 arrived on campus, she was already at an emotional
disadvantage. The Texan, now a junior, was unfamiliar with the
community, felt less prepared than her classmates and was haunted by
family crises back home. The neuroscience major struggled through early
prerequisites—especially chemistry, a building block for her major. “I
felt lost, alone, and broken,” she said. “I’m sure that I would have
transferred if it were not for the support that I got through my
sponsors and other peers in my sponsor group.”
She found her year, to say the least, stressful. In that, she wasn’t
In a 2003 study of 13,000 college students by researchers at Kansas
State University, the percentage of students with stress and anxiety
problems nationwide rose from 36 percent to 62 percent over 13 years.
The American College Health Association in a 2004 National College
Health Assessment reported 19 percent of the nation’s students had
suffered with depression during the previous school year, 12 percent
exhibited anxiety disorder, 3.7 percent had substance abuse problems,
and 2.3 percent struggled with bulimia. More than 15 percent said their
depression affected them academically.
Against that national backdrop, it is no surprise that Pomona students
also seem to be living more stressful lives than ever before.
“What I see are students who are very busy, very scheduled—tons of
activities,” said Richard Lewis, associate professor of psychology and
neuroscience and coordinator of the College’s Neuroscience Program.
Lewis and Nicole Weekes, an assistant professor of psychology, are
conducting a study investigating the relationship between stress and
memory under a National Science Foundation grant. “I assume it starts
very early as kids grow up in that kind of environment with parents who
are successful,” said Lewis. “It seems to lead to a more stressful
In addition to a typically heavy academic workload, many Pomona students
pour themselves into concurrent activities: athletics, jobs,
internships, volunteer work, student committees and social events.
Without blinking an eye, students can fill most hours of the day and
“I’m seeing things along the lines of what people have labeled the MTV
generation,” Lewis said. “During the academic year, scheduling time with
students becomes horrendously difficult because of their schedules.”
It’s a lifestyle made even more frenetic by the instantaneous
connections of the Information Age. From dorm rooms to classrooms,
students are talking and text messaging on cell phones, e-mailing and
instant messaging on computers. Students can utilize their time more
thoroughly and completely than during any other period in history. A
byproduct of this 21st-century phenomenon is increased stress.
“College students are under different stresses and more stresses” than
students of 10 or 20 years ago, said Weekes. “As we become more
technologically advanced, the technologies that were supposed to give us
more free time are actually diminishing our free time.”
Suzanne C. Thompson, a professor of psychology, has assessed the rise in
student stress levels during her 23 years at the school. For the past 10
years, she has asked students to complete a stress self-assessment, and
the results have surprised her.
“I always have five or six students who score really high—it makes me
aware there are a lot of very stressful things going on in their lives
that we don’t necessarily hear about in the classroom,” she said. “It
does seem that students are under a lot more pressure.”
At a college like Pomona, of course, much of that pressure is
self-inflicted, and may well be a natural result of the type of highly
motivated students who make up its student body.
According to Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions, the
typical freshman enters Pomona with a combined SAT score of about 1,470.
A straight-A average is typical, and more than 85 percent of incoming
freshmen are ranked in the top 10 percent scholastically at their high
“Since I came here in 1985 the SAT requirements have gone up and up and
up—now, we’re about as high as you can get,” Lewis said. “As a result,
I’ve seen differences in students versus the natural change you might
expect to see over decades. Personally, I don’t think all of those
changes are good ones.”
Poch traces the heightened levels of stress back to high school, where
the growing competition to secure spots at elite colleges is causing
students to ratchet up their résumé of activities.
“I’m a little worried about how admissions offices in general have
struck such fear into kids that they are trying to cover every base
simultaneously,” Poch said. “As a result, they try to present
extra-special attributes: they have to be a three-sport athlete, play
four obscure instruments, have won the science fair, etc.”
The proliferation of families with two parents who are professionals
puts added stress on offspring to follow in their footsteps. Even
high-achieving students are feeling added pressure to work harder and
And today, thanks to technology, the campus no longer provides an escape
from parental pressures. Many Pomona students now remain in constant
contact with their parents, though not necessarily by choice.
“We’ve had students using computers in class, and up pops an instant
message from mom and dad,” Poch said. “Even if it’s only to say ‘Hi,’
the inference may be, ‘What are you doing, are you studying, why aren’t
you studying?’ That bothers me, and I’m sure it puts stress on the
student as well.”
“Dealing with students who feel stressed is a big part of what we do all
the time,” noted Dean of Students Ann Quinley. “Not every student swims
like a fish when they arrive on campus. We talk to them to understand
their issues and help them sort out their concerns on an individual
Help may come from fellow students or from a member of the staff.
Faculty also weigh in frequently. Weekes urges her students to get
regular exercise and to consider giving up quantity for quality in their
drive to rack up college activities.
“It depends on what the student is stressed about,” Quinley said.
“Resident advisers and sponsors are trained to recognize sources of
stress in students and are the first-year students’ initial advisers. If
a student is anxious because of course load or an academic reason, the
faculty adviser or dean’s office is there for them. If a student’s
parents are getting a divorce or a student is experiencing homesickness
or has an eating disorder or has free-floating anxiety, the principal
place for counseling is Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services.”
According to Rebecca Kornbluh, Monsour’s director, an average of 22
percent of Pomona College students receive some kind of assistance from
the center each year for problems ranging from procrastination, panic
attacks and alcohol use to stimulant abuse, sleep problems and
depression. Of The Claremont Colleges, only Scripps College has a higher
percentage of students who visit the center.
“We see the full range of problems—everything from relationship
break-ups to suicidal major depression,” Kornbluh said. “There is no
‘typical’ student. Generally across the country, there is a trend toward
increasing severity in mental health problems on campus.”
For Toles, the solution was the development of a support structure, with
assistance from Peer Mentoring and other social programs. Others,
however, continue to struggle.
Imani Brown ’04 discovered the key to managing the stress she faced
during her school years as she participated in numerous campus
activities. As a senior, Brown, who recently entered the Howard
University School of Law in Washington, D.C., worked as a resident
adviser, was active in the Women’s Union, and participated in a range of
activist efforts, all the while balancing a challenging academic
Balance, Brown said, is essential.
“Deciding what your priorities will be, spending time with friends, and
taking time for yourself just to find some peace is important,” she
said. “Otherwise, you can snap very easily.”
Given that one clear marker of a student’s ability to handle stress is
academic success, Weekes believes the vast majority of Pomona students
are finding successful ways to cope with their stress.
Poch agrees, estimating the dropout rate among the college’s 1,500
students at well below one percent. “People work hard here, but I don’t
think they’re exploding,” said Poch. “I know there are kids who at
various points need to talk with (a counselor), or who feel the pressure
of an exam or paper, but I think that’s different from something that’s
chronic. While some students seem to have that chronic anxiety, I don’t
think the school’s the source, and I don’t think it’s a hugely
On the plus side, he added, busyness and the learned ability to manage
stress and juggle tasks can be good preparation for managing high-stress
careers and ultimately succeeding once a student leaves Pomona.
“Our students take harder classes, heavier loads, have leadership roles,
do internships, and study abroad in more interesting places,” Quinley
“By and large they do well. These are terribly successful kids.”
Stephen K. Wagner is a freelance writer living in Claremont,