The University Of … Stressed-Out Students

College students increasingly describe how the pressure to perform well is wreaking havoc on their well-being. Research even shows a worrying trend toward psychological conditions related to the strain. Here's how to prevent the worst.

Just too much
Just too much
Anne-Ev Ustorf

MUNICH â€" Lena Zimmermann doesn't like to think about her first semester at the University of Hamburg. She missed her family and her hometown in Nordhessen. And she felt overwhelmed by the challenge to get her studies done.

"I put myself under so much pressure because I wanted to do well," the biology student says. "I could barely sleep." She wasn't feeling well, and almost every weekend drove the 400 kilometers back home to visit her parents. By the time the first Christmas holidays arrived, she thought about dropping out.

There are many clichés about college life: that students party a lot, study a bit, enjoy their youth. But for most students, life is far from this happy-go-lucky description. According to a recent German government survey, half of all students are totally stressed out, and a quarter say that it's impossible to overcome the pressure with common relaxation techniques. One-fifth have even been diagnosed with psychological conditions such as depression, stress disorders and chronic anxiety.

For the survey, Germany"s largest health insurance fund gathered feedback from its 190,000 student members and questioned 1,000 of them more deeply about their lifestyles. There were many more psychological diagnoses compared to a 2009 survey. There's a similar trend in other European countries too. In Austria, 61% of students reported being stressed out in 2009, with 30% saying their academic performance had been affected by trouble concentrating.

The Times sounded the alarm in the UK when 20% more students at the country's most prestigious universities reported seeking psychological counseling. "In Germany too, the introduction of bachelor degrees has increased the demand for psychological counseling," says psychoanalyst Hans Werner Rückert, head of the University of Berlin's psychology department.

The growing number of cases like these can be explained in part by the particular challenges of this stage of adulthood. "Between the ages of 20 and 30, you are confronted with a number of development tasks, and a crisis every once in a while is part of the process," explains Professor Günter Reich, a psychotherapist at the University of Göttingen. Many young people struggle to find their independence after leaving home and their parents. "Problems during the first semesters are common," he says. "Students with social fears especially often feel socially isolated. Later, there may be threshold situations such as difficulties when writing their thesis or nerves around exam time. Then comes the challenging transition from student life to work life. This can be stressful, especially if there is a lot of uncertainty concerning the professional future."

University benches at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität â€" Photo : Facebook page

Where grades fail

The years of study are no longer a process of trial and error where you get the chance to learn how to deal with your fears and identity crises, Reich says. These days the academic experience is characterized by extreme pressure to perform and the ticking off of compulsory modules. Those who don't perform during your bachelor studies won’t be accepted for their masters, which Reich says is silly. "Grades don't say much about one's qualifications," he says. "Therefore, there's a lot of pressure and fear, and there's no true perception of the bigger picture."

It's not easy for students to escape the stress trap, but Reich suggests cultivating social contacts early and gravitating toward group projects over solitary work. It's easier to cope with new experiences and pressure as part of a collective. Moreover, it helps to relieve pressure. It's never been as important as it is now for students to find a work-life balance , he says.

There are many ways for students to try to make their bachelor studies a more humane experience. "The system is rather flexible," says the psychoanalyst Bückert. "Usually there is a way of negotiating with the university which exams need to be taken each semester. It is even an option to take two more semesters to do your bachelor."

And if the pressure becomes too much, there are academic help desks that offering counseling. But it's also a duty for universities to train professors in detecting psychological or social stress soon enough, so that students can be offered appropriate help.

Sometimes, like in the case of Lena Zimmermann, just talking helps. She attended one of her professor's office hours and told her about plans to quit her studies. The professor succeeded in dissuading her. Zimmermann recalls that her teacher told her that she felt the same way in the beginning. "She suggested I give it another try," the student says. "She also took away my fear of not being good enough. In the end, she suggested I move into a shared flat."

That's what Zimmermann did, and her roommates quickly became her substitute family. Now she's not far from graduating. And she has even bigger plans for next year: to earn her masters degree in Sweden.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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