Last week, Undergraduate Student Government President Austin Dunn announced that the fall break proposal — a crucial element of his presidential platform — may be implemented as early as the 2020-21 school year. Fall break would come in the form of a two-day break during the eighth week of the fall semester.
According to Dunn, the proposal passed through USG, Graduate Student Government and the Academic and Faculty Senates, in addition to receiving President C. L. Max Nikias’ support, but awaits implementation. The 2020-21 school year is the earliest that this proposal could be implemented, as the committee responsible for establishing academic calendars does so three years in advance. But unfortunately, this does nothing for current students, many of whom will have graduated by the time the proposal is in effect. Furthermore, three years is a long time to wait for change that students have been fighting five years for, rightfully citing mental health concerns.
“Without a consolidated midterm schedule and the absence of a break, students soon begin to feel overwhelmed,” Dunn told the Daily Trojan.
As USC’s academic calendar currently stands, between the Labor Day weekend in September and Thanksgiving break near the end of November, students have 56 instructional days without any break. Additionally, all classes have their own schedules and syllabi, which can become overwhelming by the middle of the semester. Dunn cited substantially higher demand for counseling services at the Engemann Student Health Center between weeks 8 and 10, well known to the student body as midterm season.
In recent years, USC has amplified its messaging around mindfulness and the importance of taking care of mental health. Indeed, studies like one conducted by eMenthe between 2013 and 2016 reveal how mental health can affect physical health. Others, like one by Columbia University’s National Center for Mental Health Checkups, demonstrate a correlation between mental health and academic performance.
Among competitive, top-25 universities, USC has the longest academic semester, whereas schools like UC Berkeley, Georgetown University and Rice University each offer students at least three fewer days of instruction in the fall. Like other top-25 universities, USC affords its students quality educational resources and opportunities unique to elite institutions. But these resources and opportunities will be underutilized as students struggle from burnout, sleep deprivation, stress and anxiety.
Poor mental health and physical exhaustion can affect the rates at which students pass classes or get the grades they need to qualify for prestigious internships and opportunities. If not out of concern for student well-being, the University must at the very least recognize how not helping its students take care of themselves could affect its reputation as a networking empire in the long run.
All prior attempts to pass fall break proposals ultimately ended in failure, primarily due to hesitation from the Faculty Senate, which has claimed that students would “take advantage” of fall break rather than rest. This argument is particularly difficult to understand — be it through getting ahead or catching up on work, or resting, the goal of fall break is for students to take advantage of the time they have to take care of themselves.
In either case, the success of this particular proposal marks a crucial step in the right direction. Due to the University’s rigid policies for planning academic calendars, according to Dunn, it is all that student government can offer at this time. But put simply, mental health is worth making exceptions for. If student health truly is a priority for the University, then this proposal must be enacted ahead of the 2020-21 academic year. Students who are presently enrolled in the University and are grappling with anxiety and plain exhaustion deserve fall break beginning next year. USC must recognize that mental health is an immediate issue, and one worth making compromises for in order to help students.
Fall break may not be a cure-all solution to the nationwide epidemic of anxiety and mental health struggles on college campuses. USC must invest more in its health center to offer wider access and shorter waiting times for counseling and other health-related services, and open up dialogue with teaching faculty and students to learn about student needs and potential compromises to help them both. But without a doubt, offering students a pocket of time to recollect themselves and breathe is the first step.