Overworked students’ dangerous race against time
- Apr. 28, 2011
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When Claire Kerwin awakens, she can see nine square markings spaced across her lower back, the fuzzy borders of residue and lint that days-old Band-Aids leave after removal. But these aren’t from Band-Aids. Each square represents a patch adhered to her skin, applying the stimulant methylphenidate to boost alertness, energy and focus. A junior in architecture, Kerwin hoped to bend the limits of time, or at least of her own body, to meet a project deadline. The patches kept her awake for 78 hours straight.
Lizzy Alonzi, a junior in computer science, spent about 30 hours each week on homework for just one programming class. Grueling late nights spent staring at screens in Eaton Hall’s computer lab wore down her mental and emotional health every week.
“It’s too much,” said Alonzi. “It’s brutal.”
Steven Heger had been dating Erin Brown for six years when he began building Formula-style cars for Jayhawk Motorsports, the University’s automotive racing team and capstone project for mechanical engineering seniors. He works 12 hours a day on the car, Monday through Friday, leaving little time for Erin, now his fiancee.
“Erin says I love the car more than her,” Heger said.
Here and at other universities across the country, time-intensive programs require students to work 50- to 100-hour weeks preparing for careers where such commitments are either compensated or illegal. Along the way, students must choose daily between their professional futures and their own health. Often, they endanger both.
“I started hallucinating,” Kerwin said of her 78 hours without sleep. “It was before a review, where you take everything you completed before a project — site plans, floor plans and so on. Those are the times you get little sleep in studio.”
Studio, the class and classroom where design models are built, plays a demanding role in the world of architecture students. They learn, work, eat and often sleep there in an attempt to bring design ideas to life as scaled-down buildings.
The patches Kerwin used were prescribed to her as an ADHD medication. Its makers recommend one per day for nine hours. She applied a fresh patch every eight hours, for three days.
That semester, Kerwin worked at studio most nights from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m., or “around eight hours a night, five days a week.” That’s 40 hours — for most, a full workweek. The actual class for Kerwin’s studio met three times each week for four and a half hours each class. That’s 13 and a half hours. On rough weeks, Kerwin would pull two “all nighters,” working straight through until morning. That’s 12 more. Adding it up, she often worked 65 hours per week, all for one class. If Kerwin opted to attend her non-studio classes instead of squeezing in a nap, that number rose to 74 hours.
But when you work 74 hours every week, something has to give.
With little time to cook healthy meals, she ate mostly junk food, preferably Cheez-Its. She rarely exercised or maintained friendships with students outside of studio. She drank so many Rockstar energy drinks to stay up one semester that, as a joke, she began pinning them on her studio’s wall. There were more than 100 cans in all. The high caffeine in energy drinks causes dehydration, and dehydration causes kidney stones, which Kerwin developed in following months.
“I wouldn’t be in architecture if I didn’t enjoy it,” she said “It’s exciting and I love it, and that’s what keeps me here. It’s just that it’s an abusive environment.”
As generations pass through these programs, traditions are established and expectations are imposed on those who follow. The result: Academic cultures where overwork is normal and the most talented, driven and dedicated students are often most at risk. Time is not on their side.
At the height of England’s Industrial Revolution, working-class men, women and children regularly worked between 60 and 85 hours each week in unhealthy conditions with little pay. In 1817, a labor reformer named Robert Owen championed the radical notion of an eight-hour workday, under the slogan “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Factory owners ridiculed the concept, but it took root.
America’s eight-hour movement bloomed in 1938 when Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act that established the now-standard 40-hour workweek as well as overtime pay. Over more than a century, developed countries across the world realized healthy and sane societies need balance, and productivity requires rest.
Yet some 70 years later, some college programs preserve a bubble in American society where overwork is not only tolerated, but enabled, nurtured and praised.
During orientation meetings, many U.S. universities tell students that for each hour spent in class they should expect to spend two to three hours outside of class studying or finishing homework.
A University of Central Arkansas Web page put it this way:
“According to experts, the rule of thumb is for every one hour in class, students should spend approximately two hours outside of class studying and doing homework. We encourage students to view their academics as a full-time job. If they spend 15 hours a week in class, they need to spend approximately 25 to 30 hours outside of class doing homework, making it a 40 to 45 hour work-week.”
The KU School of Engineering suggests two to three hours. An accounting program at Auburn University recommends three to four.
“I don’t know where it originates,” Barbara Barnett, associate dean of the School of Journalism, said of the rule. “But I was told the same thing when I was in college, so it’s been around for a while.”
Barnett explained the ratio’s logic, or lack of logic, with a story.
Before cooking a ham, a woman always cut off the end and threw it away. When her husband asked her why, she said her mother always did it that way. When the woman asked her mother about it, the mother said she cut off the end because her mother always did it. When the two finally asked the grandmother why she cut off the end of the ham, she said, “Oh, I just never had a pan big enough.”
Some norms pass through generations without ever being questioned.
If students enroll in an average course load of 15 hours at a 1:3 classroom-to-coursework ratio, they should expect to spend 15 hours in class each week. That means 45 hours spent on homework, a total of 60 hours weekly. If attending college were a waged job, the last 20 hours would be considered overtime. That leaves little time for a part-time job, something many students need in a sluggish economy. A 2006 study by consulting firm O’Donnell and Associates found that 49 percent of college students work part-time about 16 hours per week — a possible grand total of 76 hours spent each week.
The idea of a college student working 76 hours, mostly unpaid, defies America’s image of the typical college student — a John Belushi-type frat boy who does keg stands and crashes on couches of stacked pizza boxes. Indeed, the 2010 National Survey of Student Engagement reports that only nine percent of seniors surveyed at major research universities study more than 30 hours per week. But what the survey doesn’t explore are the vast differences between expectations of liberal arts students and those in professional programs.
A liberal arts degree equips students with critical thinking skills valued in a variety of jobs, but lacks a professional school’s narrow focus on job skills. While an English major may not study two or three hours for every hour of class, an engineer likely will. Denise Stone, a professor in visual art education, agrees.
“I’ve never known a faculty member who let a ratio keep them from assigning an amount of work,” she said.
Stone noted that heavier course loads in professional programs reflect pressures to meet stringent accreditation standards and the requisites of a job.
On a Saturday at midnight, the KU campus is a dichotomy: Two groups of students counterbalance Jayhawk Boulevard, the winding road that is the campus main drag. Near its eastern end, partying masses spill out of The Wheel and The Hawk, two longstanding bars just outside the dry campus. Young men in collared shirts and ball caps sit on The Wheel’s porch drinking Bud Light and discussing sports. Gaggles of young women in skirts and high heels navigate the steep sidewalks of Mount Oread. This is the college life shown in movies. Youth. Alcohol. Revelry.
One woman leans over, vomiting into bushes. A young man, walking away, exclaims, “Ah, drunk girlfriends are THE WORST!”
On Jayhawk Boulevard’s western end sits Marvin Hall, known by the architecture students who toil there as “the lighthouse on the hill.” Even at midnight, its lights shine brightly from all four floors. Inside, students work in their studios, designing and building models to present later that week. Dani Boyd, a senior, wipes brunette hair from her face and peers intently through thick-framed glasses at a pile of paperboard that will later look like a building. For her, that image of college leisure down the street — the friends, the partying — couldn’t seem farther away.
Leading out the back door of Marvin Hall, a concrete pathway winds down the hill to a tunnel beneath Naismith Drive. On the other side is Eaton Hall, where silent students sit at long rows of computers, typing. They’re computer science majors writing code, training to be software designers and web developers. David Jones, a junior, built a music program from scratch that lets users make original compositions. Lizzie Alonzi designed inventory software for hospitals. She stayed up two days straight creating it. The trick with coding is that it tolerates no mistakes. You have to get it just right, even if that means working Saturdays past midnight.
A stone’s throw behind Eaton is Learned Hall, the oldest engineering building, where Jayhawk Motorsports is housed. There are fewer computers here, more grease and machinery. On any given night, Tim Moran, a senior in mechanical engineering, is here, working on the car’s powertrain. Despite enrolling in just nine credit hours to allow for the class’ time commitment, he spent the entire night in the shop three times this week, each night mustering a few hours of sleep on a ratty, worn couch near the back. When Moran works until 3 a.m., but has to be on campus at 8 a.m., the drive back to Eudora seems pointless.
“Why waste 30 minutes of sleep when I can stay here?” he said. “If I go three or four days without sleep, I’ll crash for eight hours, which is oversleeping.”
Cameron Bryant, another student on the project, unwraps a sandwich from Jimmy John’s as Robert Sorem, associate dean of engineering and the sponsor of Jayhawk Motorsports, approaches.
“Hey, go wash your hands before you eat that sandwich,” Sorem says.
“Nah, it’s good for your immune system,” jokes another student.
“Yeah,” Bryant says, smiling, “We never get sick.”
However, Bryant remembers the semester when Red Bull sponsored the team, donating large quantities of energy drinks to the shop. Bryant drank three cans each day to stay awake during long days at the shop. This lasted until the day a tightening knot in his stomach buckled him over and he was rushed to the hospital. When the doctor blamed too much Red Bull and too little sleep, he put Bryant on a strict diet, something inconvenient to shop life.
“Will this kill me if I don’t follow it?” Bryant asked.
“No,” the doctor said, “you’ll just live in pain.”
“OK,” replied Bryant. He chose pain.
Sorem said that the health effects of long hours, poor diets and high stress aren’t discussed much in the shop. He trusts students to know their own limits and manage time accordingly. “Certainly the expectation is two to three hours at KU for every credit hour you enroll,” he said, citing the oft-cited ratio. “Ten to 12 hours is expected, but it’s more than that. Some spend 90 hours easy, others 20. What matters is you commit up front.”
Steven Heger leans over, swiftly cleaning barrels of metallic stripping out of a machine. He pauses for a rare moment, scratching his light-red beard.
A dry-erase board above Heger features feminine handwriting that reads: “Erin Brown is the best thing that ever happened to me.” He proposed to Brown, a senior and member of The Kansan’s editorial board, last December, on their seventh anniversary as a couple. Both from Wichita, they met as dance partners in a high school pop choir.
Heger’s passion used to be baseball. He played as a freshman at a small college, but an injury ended baseball and led to a transfer to the University, where Brown had enrolled in journalism. Heger enrolled in the School of Engineering, and for those first years they were inseparable.
“We saw each other every day, ate at the dining hall every night together. It was never a question that we would see each other,” said Brown. “A lot of things changed though.”
To say Heger is passionate about the cars would be an understatement. “I spend more time here than anywhere else,” he said. “I love this place and everyone that comes in here.”
The motorsports shop carries undeniable camaraderie and has replaced baseball as the outlet for Heger’s drive and focus. Bryant, who Heger met last year, will be the best man at his wedding. The shop carries great expectations, too. Each of the 15 seniors on the project has specific assignments. When those are done, they’re expected to continue coming in to pick up loose ends. It’s not uncommon for Heger and his teammates to not go home until 4 a.m. — if at all. As the car’s deadline approaches, the hours grow longer and he sees his fiancee less.
“We’ve fought more often because of the car,” Heger said. “She doesn’t understand I can’t be home. And that’s hard.”
Heger originally guarded Sundays as the one day he and Brown would spend together, finishing homework, buying groceries or simply relaxing. But as the car nears completion, he’s been working Sundays, too.
“Am I jealous of the car? It was hard at first,” Brown said. “This rhythm has become the norm for us, these crazy schedules of not seeing each other. But I love him and he loves doing all that.”
Brown worries about Heger’s health, too. Last spring, at age 21, he was diagnosed with diabetes, which calls for a specific diet and rest. “He likes to pretend he doesn’t have a breaking point or human limitations,” Brown said. “That worries me.”
Through the strain put on their relationship by Heger’s program, they keep their eyes focused on fall. Heger will attend competitions for the car all summer, but the wedding is Oct. 8.
“My mom has suggested we drive off from the wedding in the formula car,” she says, half-joking. “But you can’t fit two riders in it.”
At the entrance to Eaton Hall’s Self Computing Commons, a large, 5-foot dry erase board reads in bold red: “NO FOOD, NO DRINK.” A nearby poster reiterates, adorned with blurry images of Pepsi cans and pizza: “WARNING: No food, or chewing tobacco products in the labs! Third offense: Disciplinary meeting with the Assistant Dean of Engineering.”
Within 30 feet of the entrance, however, two students sit hunched over Gateway laptops, one eating fruit snacks, the other drinking a large Mountain Dew. When a program creates enough demand for its facilities to never close, certain rules are ignored. During the long hours at Eaton, smuggled food is both a welcome diversion and a sustaining necessity. In the back corner of a room full of Linux computers, Lizzie Alonzi, Jason Chen and Claire Bangole spread their wares.
“OK, so I brought a 5-hour Energy, a microwavable meal and my M&Ms,” says Alonzi. “Claire ordered Jimmy John’s. Jason was going to order a pizza.”
Like the mechanical engineers at Learned, the programmers occupying Eaton at this late hour share deep friendships and respect akin to soldiers who’ve served together in battle, the deep bonds of long hours and mutual misery. “The community is tight-knit,” Alonzi says. “We would do anything for each other.”
But the digital battlefield of zeroes and ones is endured in an office chair, a slower and more silent pace than the building of racecars. Keyboard clicks punctuate the silence.
Alonzi arrived about 16 hours ago, at 7:45 a.m. Banglore showed up shortly after. Chen arrived at 7 p.m and plans to work all night. They wear hoodies with sweatpants or athletic shorts, the comfort clothing of academic endurance.
“I might stay as late as Lizzy, until one, like yesterday,” Bangole says.
“To be fair, I did leave,” Alonzi says. “That’s when I got the 5-hour Energy.”
Last spring was Alonzi’s roughest semester. She took Programming II, a class densely described in the course catalog as, “Basic notions of algorithmic efficiency and performance analysis in the context of sorting algorithms.” Alonzi spent about 30 hours each week on class homework, on top of her 13 other credit hours. It’s not uncommon for a student to fail Programming II and take it two, even three times.
Her diet consisted mostly of Slim Fast shakes, not to lose weight, but for portability.
“My mental health was completely affected,” Alonzi said. “Once a week I would have a mental freak-out, saying I can’t do this major. I can’t handle it.”
As she approached Eaton daily and stood outside its glass doors, she came to resent it more. The daily demands of the labs and the school’s ambitious students breed an intense culture, a survival of the fittest. Being one of few females in an overwhelmingly male program doesn’t help. Independence brings pride, Alonzi said. Needing help brings judgment.
Once, during early-morning hours when her strained system just couldn’t make a program work, her eyes slowly welled up with tears. She dropped her head to the desk. Overloaded. Overworked. Overwrought. An older student walked over and, seeing her crumpled state, offered wisdom: “It only gets worse.”
“Charette,” a French word meaning “cart,” bears a daunting weight in schools of architecture. At the École des Beaux-Arts, the influential arts school of 1800s Paris, it was common for architecture students to work on design plans right up until a deadline. Throughout the city’s streets they could be seen on the school cart, scribbling furiously on their design plans, even in the final minutes before submitting them to professors. They were on the cart, “en charette.”
Charette, in both term and practice, passed through generations of architecture students who brought it to the professional field and shaped the culture. Now, at midnight on a Saturday, the rooms of Marvin Hall are abuzz with students en charette — working for a review later this week. A dozen or so students work in Marvin’s computer lab, focused on screens displaying 3-D images of their design. When a body passes by the open door, they all look up, a break from monotony. Others pace the unlit hallways leading to rooms where models are made.
Bright, red pipes line the white ceilings of one such studio. Below them, Dani Boyd and Maia Hoelzinger are fast at work. Each at separate drawing tables across the room, they rarely face each other, even when they talk. But even an unseen voice is company on nights like these.
“You always have something to talk about,” Hoelzinger says. “I’ll be here ‘til delirium hits, maybe three o’ clock.”
“I’m here all waking hours, except when I eat breakfast,” says Boyd. She pauses. “Wait, I ate breakfast here, too.”
White boards intersperse with wooden cabinets on the walls. Dirty-grey titles, the kind custodial staffs rarely get a chance to clean, make up the floor beneath their feet. On top of the room’s many desks lie the staples of a student-architect: an empty 24 package of Pepsi, boxes of Kraft Easy Mac, some peanut butter. Most, if not all, of the day’s meals are taken here.
“I don’t ever cook, even though I love to cook,” Boyd says. Her go-to food in studio is Cheez-Its. “What’d you have for dinner?” she asks Hoelzinger.
“Taco Bell and coffee,” Hoelzinger replies. “I’m going to kill myself.”
After years of studio life — late nights, little sleep, and less socializing — Boyd and Hoelzinger are used to it.
“Obviously we get frustrated and have to step away or else we’ll stab something,” Hoelzinger says as she cuts model pieces with an X-Acto knife. “There’s too many sharp objects in here.”
When studio gets especially demanding, Boyd and Hoelzinger have used prescription stimulants, too.
“It gets tough,” Boyd says. “I’ve enjoyed Adderall the times I’ve done it.”
Adderall is another pill-form ADHD treatment used on college campuses as a stimulant, either for partying or marathon studying.
“I don’t take Adderall recreationally,” Hoelzinger adds. “I wouldn’t waste it on that.”
For students in time-intensive programs, drugs and alcohol serve two purposes: to speed up or help cope. Kerwin said prescription stimulants are easy to find: “If you’re a dealer and want to sell Adderall, you go to the architecture school.”
Other drugs play a role, too, she said. “There’s a lot of marijuana usage, just for relaxing. You go in front of the computer just stoned and working on floor plans.”
Staci Ashcraft, a junior in architectural engineering who says she studies about 70 hours each week, sees the need to numb academic pressures. “You push yourself so hard one day and you know you have to do it again the next,” she said. “But you always know the alarm will come too soon. A student I know in chemical engineering drinks every night when he finishes. He’s like, ‘My mind’s just blown, and I have to cope.’”
Students can be impaired on campus without food or drugs, said Nancy Hamilton, an associate professor in psychology who researches sleep deficiency. “Data suggests that sleep-deprived driving is as bad or worse than being drunk on performance,” she said. She added that the effect could apply to any routinized activity, whether cutting boards for models or building racecars. Hamilton also said sleep deficiency — for most, anything less than six hours —weakens immune systems, enables stress and starts a vicious cycle in academic programs.
“It’s a self-defeating culture in programs like engineering and architecture particularly, with accumulative acquisition of knowledge,” she said. “In architectural terms, if your foundation is bad and you build on a bad foundation, then your building is going to collapse.”
Nick Fratta, a junior in architecture, said sleep was the first thing to go when student workloads get demanding. By its nature, sleep deficiency becomes an overarching burden that splinters into other problems. “You reach a breaking point, physically,” he said. “Everybody seems to fall apart.” He said one friend sanded a wood model in her sleep. Another crashed facedown into the project on his desk during the morning’s most critical hours. Fratta uses classmates’ coats as makeshift blankets to sleep under tables and in hallways. Prepared students bring sleeping bags.
Hamilton said lack of sleep drains the immune system, too, and Fratta agreed. “When a deadline is approaching, I get sick. Without fail,” he said. The studio model by nature keeps sleep-deprived students together in the same room for days on end, all with lowered immune systems, all handling the same door knobs and shop tools. Few have time to bathe or even change clothes.
“It’s a horribly unhealthy lifestyle,” said Blake Thames, a senior in architecture who spends 80 hours each week on coursework. He’s in what’s commonly known as a competition studio, with deadlines every few weeks rather than months. Accordingly, he’s pulled more all-nighters this year than his previous years combined. It’s a Christmas tradition for him to be sick the first week of every winter break – the grueling toll of finals week on his immune system.
The lack of sleep compounds a program’s ever-present stress and anxiety, Thames added. This is a national trend. An annual Higher Education Research Institute survey released earlier this year reported record lows in the emotional health of college freshmen. In contrast, students rated their drive to achieve as higher than ever, pushed by rising tuition and unemployment rates, analysts said.
In a studio full of cutting blades and power tools, sleep deprivation can mean more injuries. Sliced and nicked fingers are commonplace, the scars of which decorate the hands of many architects in the field today. “Our rule is: If it bleeds longer than three hours, you should go to the hospital,” Kerwin said. The only first-aid kit is in Marvin Hall’s craft shop, she said, which closes at nine each night. Some students treat cuts with super glue and masking tape. Kerwin recalled one student who sliced his finger during a project, leaving a chunk of his skin on the floor. Emergency room trips are avoided; not for monetary expenses, but for lack of time.
“No one likes pulling all-nighters,” said Thames, “but it becomes a sign of dedication.” Like the engineering program, architecture schools’ low acceptance rates and grueling expectations produce an environment where neglect of physical and mental health is the norm. Students log the hours spent on a project for bragging rights, and each all-nighter becomes a badge of honor. The costs of such a culture, however, can be high.
In 2000, an architecture student at Southern University in Louisiana who pulled two all-nighters prior to a review died in a head-on car accident. The event prompted the American Institute of Architecture Students, the discipline’s national student organization, to form a “Studio Culture Task Force” to promote discussions about unsafe expectations and how schools can look for alternatives. Their findings report that 73 percent of architectural students agreed they “often feel isolated from others outside the architecture school,” and 80 percent “found the workload at architecture school overwhelming.”
Now the AIAS wants to eliminate the all-nighter from architecture education and, ultimately, the field itself, with the understanding that today’s students will run tomorrow’s firms. In 2005, the National Architecture Accreditation Board began requiring schools to draft and post studio culture policies that acknowledge and address unhealthy learning environments. Changing centuries of practice, however, takes time. “The idea of working all-nighters is engrained in the culture,” said AIAS Vice President Danielle McDonough. “Ten years may seem like a long time, but it hasn’t fully caught on yet.”
Nils Gore, interim chair of architecture, said he doubted centuries of tradition could change. “I think AIAS’ venture to kill the all-nighter is hopeless,” he said. “You might make small changes to nudge them here and there, but I think it comes down to the person’s work ethic and their personal drive.”
That personal drive came from cultures of competition in professional schools, which evolved to draw out strengths in students preparing for the professional world. Students interviewed for this story all stressed a genuine love for their discipline, whether it be computer science, mechanical engineering or architecture. Indeed, their passion is the only thing that could carry them day-to-day.
Yet that same personal drive helps perpetuate the culture, to their own detriment. Each person has only 24 hours every day, with finite mental and physical capacities that sometimes go neglected until it’s too late. In December 2009, a KU junior in architecture was working late into the night in the Marvin craft shop before a review when she injured herself on a table saw, severing multiple fingers.
The event sent shockwaves through the school. Newer, safer table saws replaced the old machines in Marvin Hall. The dean sent out a letter promising a new policy. Professors urged students to guard themselves and get more sleep. For a while, change was on the forefront. Ultimately, however, the reality and rigors of the program prevailed and the work culture remained. Two years later, the workloads of the University’s most competitive programs continue to dominate the lives and health of the students they’re intended to advance.
Yet history shows that if a culture of overwork and time constraint is to be changed and healthy balance promoted, refocusing that personal drive is of the utmost importance. Though it took more than a century to see their cultural change come to fruition, when more than 40,000 workers of America’s labor movement gathered in Chicago on Mayday, 1886, a new song was on their lips:
We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the flowers.
We’re sure that God has willed it,
And we mean to have eight hours.
Edited by Joel Petterson