Chelsea Asplund/The AS Review

For some, college used to be a lush, stimulating world where students could expose their minds to new ideas and discover what they want out of their lives.  But now, more so than ever before, college is a competitive race to see who can get done the fastest and who can get a job first.

Choosing a major used to depend on the age-old question: What do I want to do with my life, and what kind of person do I want to become? Now, this starry-eyed question has boiled down to: What can get me a job, and what can get me the most money?

These kinds of questions, along with other school-related anxieties, have contributed to a rising stress level affecting college freshmen across the county, according to a new survey.

The survey, titled “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” revealed that stress is taking a serious toll on the emotional health of college freshmen. It also revealed that while students’ emotional health is down, their academic ability and drive to achieve has reached a record high.

The survey, conducted by University of California Los Angeles’ Cooperative Institutional Research Program, involved more than 200,000 incoming freshmen at four-year colleges nationwide, and showed that the number of students who say they are emotionally healthy has declined by more than 10 percent over the past 26 years.

Wellness Outreach Center Coordinator Catharine Vader said the survey represents the reality college students are living in right now.

“There is a lot of unrest and turmoil in the world, and that is very unsettling. I’d like students to look at what gives them meaning and purpose in their life,” she said. “What gives them joy and happiness and makes an average day great? I think to connect with other people can alleviate some of that stress and also put a perspective on a person’s life.”

While stress has driven students\u2019 emotional health down, their drive to do well in school has never been higher, according to the new survey. Photo illustration by Joe Rudko/The AS Review.

Freshman Ashley Williams said the pressure to choose a major that she not only loves but that also pays well has been enough to keep her tossing and turning at night. She said she is currently looking into humanities-related majors, but the pressures of picking something more stable are getting to her.

“I definitely feel pressure to pick something I’m not passionate about,” Williams said. “It’s not all about making money, but I don’t want to continue struggling.”

Williams, who came to Western from Colorado, said being an out-of-state student has also contributed to her stress. It is that new, uncharted territory that takes time getting used to, she said.

Vader said a key to managing stress is perspective. There will be always be difficult times, but what really matters is how we look at those situations and decide to deal with them, she said.

One example, she said, is when students do poorly on a paper and go to a professor for help. As the professor criticizes the paper and offers advice, students can look at the situation in two ways: one, they’re a terrible writer and they will never succeed, or two, they are learning a lot through this advice and will do better next time.

It is that shift in focus that can help students control their stress, Vader said.

“Our minds are very powerful, and I think we really need to look at how we think and what we think and how we look at the world,” she said.

For freshman Alexa Peters, her biggest and most stressful challenge has been transitioning to college life on a social level, rather than an academic one.

“I have had a really hard time meeting friends. I’m an outgoing person and coming from high school where it wasn’t hard, it’s been so hard coming here and being one in 14,000 people and wondering: Where do I belong here?” she said. “It’s a big adjustment.”

Vader said that many students correlate their stress to obvious factors, such as an overwhelming amount of homework or finances. She said social connections play a big role in students’ stress, something of which many may not be aware. Vader added that just going out and meeting new people is a great way to relieve stress.

“In my experience, getting out and connecting with people in a positive way is a wonderful antidote,” she said. “It not only helps how you feel about yourself and helping society, there are studies that show it actually helps your immune system. People who have social connections and connect with people are less likely to be depressed or stressed.”