Judy Syrkin-Nikolau ’15 is a senior neuroscience major with minors in biology, computer science, and psychology. For three years she ran track— sprints and hurdles—and since her junior year she has been heavily involved in dance. Recently she helped lead a campus fund drive to support Alzheimer’s disease research. Like many other Macalester students I have met, she seems far more poised and articulate than one should be at such a young age. Certainly she is more poised and articulate than I was at a comparable point (though, to be fair, that is setting the bar pretty low).
Since arriving at Macalester, Judy has also battled depression and an eating disorder.
In this sense, too, she is like many other students at the college. That she has waged this battle successfully is a tribute both to her own strength and to the support provided by others.
Judy has not only given me permission to tell her story: she has told it herself, in a column for The Mac Weekly that I would encourage everyone to read. It is powerful, informative, and brave. (See themacweekly.com/2014/09/why-it-matters-talking-about-mental-illness). This is not the sort of story that Macalester or any institution features in its admissions materials or on its website, but it is, in some ways, as much a part of contemporary college life as the tales of academic success or splendid community service. And it is a story to which we must attend.
We must attend to it because it is familiar to any of us who work on a college campus and because it should be of concern to anyone who cares about higher education. The promise we make to the students and families who chose a small residential college like Macalester is that we will, for four years, provide a home and a supportive community; that we will attend to their needs and foster their development both inside and outside the classroom. We like to take some credit for the many accomplishments of our students. We should be equally prepared to take responsibility for their challenges. We will never be perfect, but we must strive always for perfection because the cost of failure is so high.
We must attend to it because we must understand and be grateful for the skill and dedication of those on our campuses—in counseling centers and residence halls, in the offices of deans and chaplains—who work with struggling students every day. Having witnessed this work for much of the past two decades, I cannot express strongly enough my admiration for those who do it. Their efforts are largely invisible, but they are essential to the well-being of our students; demand for their services always exceeds the supply; and we quite literally could not function as a place of teaching and learning without their presence. It is past time for us to acknowledge and thank them.
We must attend to it because, somehow, we have placed upon these remarkable and accomplished young people—our children and grandchildren, students and employees, neighbors and friends— expectations and pressures that many find difficult to bear. This is a situation I ponder as both a college president and a parent. I do not believe it is a nostalgic exaggeration to say that life for young people used to be different: less programmed, less freighted with early expectations, less constricted by the many markers of success and accomplishment. The percentage of today’s college students who leave high school on some sort of prescription medication for anxiety, depression, or an attention deficit disorder is staggeringly high. On whom must the responsibility for this situation fall? Not, I think, on the children.
So as you read about the achievements of our students in this or any other issue of Macalester Today, as you watch them walk proudly across the stage at Commencement, bear in mind that, for many of them, their most impressive victories will be neither seen nor spoken of and that they had supporters along the way without whose aid the more visible accomplishments— the honors and awards and community recognitions—would not have been possible.
January 23 2015Back to top