Addressing student well-being must account for the burdens of student life

The demands of university make prioritizing studies or health a difficult choice

Yoga and puppy therapy are nice . . . if you have the time to spare. Photo: Andres Chavarriaga / The Peak

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

It’s a common refrain, meant to be a balm on the stressed souls of university students: don’t forget to take some time for self-care. Public health campaigns urge students to make time for exercise, meditation, and puppy therapy. We’re cautioned to visit the doctor as soon as we feel something may be wrong, and told to remember to take a break every hour from our sedentary studies to stretch.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that the university has an active interest in the health and well-being of its students. However, with the way the university system itself is currently structured, these efforts amount to platitudes next to the systemic pressures faced by post-secondary students.

It is often hard for university students to take time out of their study schedules for self-care. The university recommends that students devote two to three hours of studying outside of class time per unit, per week. So a student taking the minimum nine credits each to qualify as full-time would usually clock nine hours of in-class time, plus an additional 18 to 27 hours of studying. This means at least 27–36 hours total — a figure that is obviously much higher for students taking more than three classes, classes with a higher unit count, or classes with more demanding coursework. 

To be fair, it isn’t always necessary to put that much effort into studying in order to graduate from SFU. However, for students who rely on scholarships or need competitive GPAs for graduate school, such a studying schedule is not just suggested; it is mandatory. 

Other hidden time sinks in university include the daily commute, which most students at our widely dispersed commuter school are familiar with. Similarly, students’ time is also crunched by the hours they need to work to meet the cost of living, which even student aid doesn’t necessarily fund adequately. Most post-secondary students in British Columbia must devote some number of hours working each week to make ends meet. This also does not include volunteer or social hours.

In short, it comes down to a choice: do you spend your time on becoming successful in university, working to pay for university, or on meditative yoga? Looking at the options, it’s easy to see why students may not feel able to prioritize their mental or physical health.

When students are forced to take time to visit a doctor for an ailment, the necessity of providing proof of illness via a doctor’s note can also be problematic. Setting aside the cost of obtaining a note from clinics and specialists off campus, there are limits to how useful this may end up being. Many students operate on tight schedules, and pushing assignments back a few days, even to recover from an illness, typically means a doubling of the subsequent week’s workload. This also assumes that the illness takes place outside of the end-of-semester exam period when professors are more restricted in how much time they can offer in extensions, given their own deadlines for submitting grades.

At this point, students have the option to withdraw under extenuating circumstances (WE), but this, like any other withdrawal, involves quitting the class entirely. WE also only applies in cases of extreme hardship, and requires WE office approval. This could potentially affect student aid and scholarships, and requires additional paperwork to apply for a tuition reimbursement. It also extends the length of time a student is in school, as it would require those classes to be retaken. 

Additionally, the need to provide proof of illness via a doctor’s note does not necessarily account for the exhaustion and anxiety created by carrying the emotional load of a personal illness. Stress has been proven to interfere with learning and memory, but these secondary characteristics of an illness or injury are harder to capture in a doctor’s note describing a single event. 

Thus, it doesn’t matter if a doctor’s note buys a student a week of recovery time. It still doesn’t address how performance may have been affected leading up to or following the recovery, especially if treatment was delayed or is protracted. Students lucky enough to have an understanding professor may have this additional burden of illness accounted for, but this is hardly codified university policy.

In short, the academic and financial burdens carried by university students make it such that they may be less willing or able to prioritize health and well-being. The efforts made by SFU to promote better mental and physical health among its students don’t adequately address these structural barriers. Thus, while well-meaning, students may ultimately end up being more stressed by trying to fit these additional elements into an inflexible system. 

This is unfortunate, as university is only a temporary state, while the experience of living in one’s body lasts a lifetime.