Here were some of the results that I found troubling:
- 39.6% of children surveyed feel that they do not have had enough to eat on most days
- 67.3% have had diarrhea at least once in the past month
- Less than 60% believe they can control what happens in their life
- Half of students reported that violence is common in their community
- 44.4% believe that witchcraft is a probable cause of mental health issues
- Over 40% of students said they would refuse to be friends with someone who is HIV positive
- Almost 20% think Hepatitis B can be transmitted through hugging
- Almost half of female respondents agree that menstruation interferes with their learning and a similar number report knowing someone who has dropped out of school because of an inability to control their periods.
These numbers present a number of issues that I feel we need to focus on moving forward, especially stigma around mental health, HIV and menstrual hygiene. However, we also made a number of pleasing discoveries as well. The vast majority of students in the Oyam district, for example, describe themselves as happy, strong and smart. They are self-confident and determined to continue their education. These students are talented and intelligent individuals who refuse to get discouraged by challenges and want to give back to their community.
While I was reviewing this data I made a comparison to what I thought people in my community would say they feel, especially my friends and peers. I came up with words like depressed, stressed, tired, and hopeless. Why is it that I feel like this? Why, in one of the most privileged neighborhoods in the world would I perceive people to be so stressed? What is it about our society that pushes people to such hopelessness, while the people living on the bare minimum manage to be optimistic and happy with each new day?
These questions reminded me of a program my school has been running over the past year – Stanford University’s Challenge Success Program. The program is based on troubling statistics indicating that American youth are severely stressed about their academic performance. It aims to reduce stress and improve wellbeing for students by challenging how we as students define success in education. The program encourages us to push for a community where success is defined by happiness and not the grades we receive. Sounds good but when I recently went on a trip to visit Stanford I was told that I needed to take 6 AP classes representing different subjects, receive straight A’s, and score in the top percentile on the SAT/ACT to be considered as a recruit in my sport. In other words, I found that Stanford’s admission standards (as described to me by a Stanford coach) don’t mimic the Challenge Success mission. While I understand that high performing schools want high performing students (and that Stanford is the most competitive of any of the schools out there), it seems that universities across the nation are constantly increasing their expectations on incoming students.
Our youth are stressed because the expectation placed on us by universities, parents, and coaches is to be the very best. A perfect student and athlete. But is that even enough? What special ‘thing’ do we have that makes us unique? And how will we communicate that in a few short paragraphs in our application essays when the time comes? When you have four years of your life where you are expected to make no mistakes and outperform all your peers so that you can attend a school that will provide you the best shot at a successful future, it makes sense that American teens would be stressed. As long as admissions is judged by who takes the hardest classes, gets the best grades, and receives the top scores, students will be stressed out and telling them to just relax is probably not going to work.