Harvard Students Just Can't 'Slow Down'

“Do you support women’s rights?”

“Would you like to travel to Uganda?”

“Do you sing? You don’t have to. Just sign here!”

“Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Welcome to the freshman activities fair, where first-years each September are accosted by a series of perky upperclass students who sound oddly like the Spare Change vendors and religious proselytizers they avoid in the Square.

The activities fair for the Class of 2006 last week was no different. The attempt of nine first-years to navigate the fair as a group fell apart in minutes: Three veered off toward the musical organizations, another made straight for the Undergraduate Council table and, one by one, the remaining stalwarts fell victim to the recruitment pitch du jour.

In some ways, the dizzying maze of the activities fair is an unsurprising sight on a campus where about 250 extracurricular groups exist and where new organizations are founded each year.

Joining and leading these groups is a way of life for many Harvard students—but whether that way of life is a healthy one is open to debate.

On The Go

Nearly 40 percent of undergraduates are involved in music or the arts and almost 60 percent are involved in public service activities at some level, according to the 2000-2001 Harvard College Report by Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68.

Government concentrator Michael B. Jobbins ’04 is a case in point.

Jobbins—an officer in the prefect program, director for a Phillips Brooks House Association program, production manager for the Demon, president and founder of Harvard Lovers of the Garden State, term-time dorm crew worker, facebook designer and intramural representative for Pforzheimer House, and Institute of Politics and Harvard Model Congress member—says he routinely skips classwork and sleep to work on his extracurricular activities.

He rescheduled his interview with The Crimson last week to work PBHA’s introductory fair.

“When I went to the freshman activities fair, there were just so many things [I wanted to do],” Jobbins said. “What I tell my prefectees is that everyone signed up for things and quit. I just didn’t quit.”

While Jobbins’ extracurricular life may be more extensive than is the norm here, his approach to extracurriculars is common enough that Lewis encourages students to slow down and seek help for stress at the beginning of each year.

Lewis advised students to choose one “major” and one “minor” activity in which to participate in a letter he wrote to incoming students this summer.

And in another letter, Lewis urged students to seek help and counseling for stress.

“Harvard students complain of being ‘overwhelmed’ on too regular a basis,” the letter reads. “[A] survey last year showed a third of students felt overwhelmed at least 11 times during the prior school year, an average of more than once a month.”

Running on Empty

Harvard is densely peopled with students like Jobbins who fill their days with time-consuming extracurriculars, maintaining the hectic high school schedules that helped them get into college.

Such “joiners” are almost compulsively busy: They can’t say no to a project that interests them, they rarely—if ever—back out on a commitment and they regard sleep, leisure and other hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle as bargaining chips in the war against their limited time.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says these students are a product of the achievement-oriented culture that pressures young people to accomplish as much as possible, sometimes sacrificing happiness for the sake of success.

But once these students achieve what is often their ultimate goal, admittance into a prestigious college, why then do they continue to run themselves ragged?

Some students say they join activities to burnish their resumes and get pre-professional training, all in the hopes of securing that dream job. For others, however, a variety of short-term motivations replace the former goal of getting into college.

“It’s a sense of habit—we’re used to being so busy and now it’s such a part of who we are that we don’t know how to slow down,” says Ann S. Chernicoff ’03, whose activities include Harvard Hillel, Model Congress Europe and the prefect program.

Lauren E. Bonner ’04, a former presidential candidate for the undergraduate council, says she wants to take full advantage of her time at Harvard.

The underlying cause though, she says, is genuine interest in various activities.

“I get really excited about the possibilities, and it’s hard to turn that enthusiasm off just because you want to sleep,” says Bonner, whose activities include working with the Harvard College fund and fundraising for AIDS.

“You have people who are almost unable to do things half-heartedly. You have people who are interested in a million things. Put those together, and you know why students can’t stop themselves from being involved.”

And for some, it’s simply a matter of chance.

“I could just as easily be doing Satire V or The Crimson, the same for [PBHA program] Dearborn, I guess,” said Jobbins.

Mixed Messages

The University’s various responses to dealing with joiners are, at best, unclear. Well-meaning catchphrases like “slow down” and “taking time off” have made frequent appearances in recent official publications targeted at students, but they are nearly always accompanied by—and subservient to—the University’s extollment of achievement.

For example, Lewis’ “Slow Down” letter reads: “I do not mean to discourage you from high achievement, indeed from the pursuit of extraordinary excellence in your chosen path. But you are more likely to sustain the intense effort needed to accomplish first-rate work in one area if you allow yourself some leisure time.”

Fitzsimmons, in his letter to incoming students urging them to consider taking a year off, wrote: “We want to do everything possible to help the students we enroll make the most of their opportunities, avoiding the much-reported “burnout” phenomenon that can keep them from reaching their full potential.”

All Work And No Play...

If burnout doesn’t claim a joiner, though, stress most certainly will.

Charles Ducey, director of the Bureau of Study Council (BSC), says he has seen far too many Harvard students who are stressed in his time here. The BSC alone sees 800 students a year for individual counseling or therapy, he says, with University Health Services treating far more.

“Harvard students are excellent at what they do and so they take on too much,” Ducey says. “They have an internal critic that pushes them to do too much.”

“I think the internal pressure to do everything is commoner here than in many other colleges where students just may not be as perfectionistic,” he adds.

But Bonner says she thinks that “stress drives us. I work on stress.”

Social Studies concentrator Genevieve M. Sheehan ’05 agrees that the side effects of being overcommitted can be exhilarating.

“After, say, an all-nighter, that’s such a great feeling that, for me, all of the awful time management problems are worth it. It’s almost a sick satisfaction,” she says.

What makes it worth it for Sheehan is the thought that, ultimately, there may be a future payoff.

“I can always see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

The other students interviewed for this article echo Sheehan. But few of them can specify what the light at the end of the tunnel is.

Fitzsimmons has a clear, if idealistic, conception of what that light will be:

“The flip side of [the joiner] is that these are people blessed...with the opportunity to make a difference in the world,” he says.

Jobbins, the senior with the list of extracurriculars a mile long, isn’t so sure that’s the case.

“Harvard extracurriculars teach you to be corrupt. That’s the exact same thing that will happen in the corporate world, and I’ve been doing it since my sophomore year,” Jobbins says.

“I think that’s why Harvard people do so well. People help their friends, and who are you friends with? Your college buddies.”

A Frosh Start?

Though the motivations and effects of having an active extracurricular life are murky, the Class of 2006 has just begun to navigate those waters.

Rather than the themes of burnout and stress that upperclass students emphasize, several first-years say they are excited about the wide-open possibilities.

“It makes you feel like you can do anything you want,” said Seth H. Robinson ’06, clutching an inches-thick assortment of multicolored paper after he’d run the gauntlet.

“It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s cool,” said Jennifer G. Raymond ’06, who

spent an hour walking through the fair and signed up for about 20 e-mail lists.

In an e-mail, Sam M. Johnson ’06 wrote, “I ended up signing up for just about every activity under the sun...I figure I can sort them out later.”

—Staff writer Joseph P. Flood can be reached at flood@fas.harvard.edu.

— Staff writer Divya A. Mani can be reached at mani@fas.harvard.edu.