Brian Woo-Shem

Mechanical engineer, tech wizard, cartoonist, writer, creator of things.

Student Stress Is Not Worth It

By Brian Woo-Shem

Unabridged version of the letter I wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle, published today (“No need to stress out,” last letter here).

I was reminded of my own struggle with managing my workload and mental health through school when reading an excellent editorial on student stress by Nadav Ziv (“It’s not OK when COVID is restful,” San Francisco Chronicle, Open Forum, July 15, 2022).

Though I’ve been thankful to have avoided COVID thus far, the shutdown gave me uneasy relief from the endless chase of grades and awards that have become a too-common aspect of the college experience. When everything ground to a halt in 2020, for the first time in years I suddenly had free time to myself. After a few weeks of initial shock, I got back to projects I had abandoned for too long. I was living a paradox: engineers like me need to be creative, but getting through engineering school drained my creativity.

Since middle school, I’ve based too much of my worth on my academic performance, a path destined for failure because no matter how excellent my grades and extracurriculars were, they were not excellent enough to earn admission into elite universities. Every action was decided by what would get me into the best college, then the best job, ignoring the growing toll on my health and well-being. Chasing perfection, I worked 60-80 hours per week, cramming in extra projects and studying until even the crickets went to sleep. When friends asked me what I do in my free time, I would stare awkwardly for a moment, deciding whether to make something up or to dare explain how I just don’t have any. Throughout college, I worked more and more without accomplishing more, and the mental and physical pain mounted as I forced myself to power through yet another assignment.

Throughout the pandemic, I gradually realized what was wrong: I was sacrificing fulfillment to chase the mirage of stereotypical success. I forgot the end goal by hyper-focusing on each class, each club, each exam. A career is a marathon and as any long-distance runner knows, you must pace yourself – especially early on – or else you tire out. I want a long career doing work I love, not to make money fast and then spend the rest of my life too burnt out to enjoy it. With the “real world” finally just a year away, the prospect of another decade of overwork – as an engineer entering a competitive economy where the pressure to work day and night is commonplace – scares me more than not having a job lined up.

This year, the toll of chasing mythical success got too high. I reduced my commitments and resolved to make healthier decisions. To my relief, no horrible catastrophe fell upon my grades and my career opportunities. Instead, I found surprising benefits. Within hours of returning from a monthlong break from my graduate research, I solved a problem I had been stumped on for months. My energy and efficiency improved with a more balanced workload, such that I accomplish nearly as much as before, without so much pressure and stress.

To all my fellow students out there, if you are perpetually overwhelmed like I was, do your best to take a deep breath and be kind to yourself. I believe it is possible to achieve your goals without making yourself miserable. While I’m no expert, there is a growing movement to reduce student stress and to care for mental health, and there are abundant resources if you need them. I hope this letter can offer a little reassurance to those of us struggling with our workload, much like Nadav Ziv’s piece did for me.

Brian Woo-Shem is a mechanical engineering master’s student at Santa Clara University and a lifelong Bay Area resident.

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