Saving the world, making the grade

By Allison Vandenberg-Davis

A few years ago, the Newsweek-Ka­plan College guidebook named Macal­ester one of a group of New Ivies, “col­leges whose first-rate academic programs, combined with a population boom in top students, have fueled their rise in stature and favor among the nation’s top students, administrators and faculty—edging them to a competitive status rivaling the Ivy League.” Seventy percent of Mac students were among the top 10 percent of their high school class. “Much of their iden­tity may be understandably tied up in the understanding of themselves as smart and academically gifted. Once at Mac they become part of…a restricted range of the population represented by equally gifted others,” said Ted Rueff, Associate Direc­tor of the Health and Wellness Center’s Counseling Services. “Sometimes there is the tendency to push oneself very hard to maintain their standing.” At the same time, Macalester students are known for being “fairly relaxed and easy going, high achieving, hardwork­ing, and unpretentious,” according to The Princeton Review. Does Mac’s competitive standing among other academically rigorous col­leges create an equally competitive atmo­sphere on campus? Some students and faculty don’t think so. “I cannot recall a single instance in 16 years of teaching at Mac in which a student sought to do better than someone else in class. The bar they really wish to clear is the one they set themselves,” said Professor David Chioni Moore of Interna­tional Studies and English. While acknowledging the change in his own standing from high school to Ma­calester, Mitch Paquette ’16 said, “I don’t think anything’s really competitive. Peo­ple are always willing to help each other out.” Many people interviewed gave simi­lar answers when asked about Mac’s com­petitive academic atmosphere in general. Math professor Vittorio Addona com­pared Mac to his undergraduate experi­ence at McGill University, where he said that students would help each other with classwork to a point, but “you always wondered whether they were holding something back,” he said. As a professor at Macalester, he said he hasn’t seen that attitude at all. He has witnessed students seeking an internship or job at the same company helping each other with inter­view practice. However, it appears that some depart­ments are more competitive than others, and professors do not always recognize more subtle competition among students. Neuroscience major Brett Camp­bell ’15 has noticed a difference between classes in the humanities and those in the hard sciences. “In the humanities it’s ‘everyone should learn about this and everyone de­serves the opportunity to,’” he said. “In the math and science classes it’s much more exclusive.” Asad Zaidi ’15, a biochemistry major, said with a laugh that where there is com­petition at Mac “it’s like everything else in Minnesota: passive aggressive.” The Economics department is also more competitive than other departments in the social sciences, according to Eco­nomics major Alisha Roopchand ’15. “I’m constantly comparing myself to the class average,” she said, noting that her Econ professors usually let the stu­dents know where they stand in compari­son to other students. But according to Roopchand and sev­eral other students, the real competition at Mac is extracurricular. “There’s competition on who’s the busiest,” she said. “Who’s doing the most volunteer work. ‘I took this gap year, I went there over the summer,’ that kind of thing.” “There’s definitely a pressure to do something more than your academics,” Paquette said. “It’s kind of an unfair pres­sure because some people are just trying to get by in school.” “If you’re not saving the world, you’re a f—up,” Omar Leal ’15 said. “It’s not a bad thing, though. People here care about what they’re doing.” Counseling Director Rueff also noted that stress and competition are not always negative. “Increasing levels of stress are shown to correlate with increased performance to a point. But too much stress, and the per­formance drops off.” He advised “having compassion for oneself, embracing learn­ing for learning’s sake and a little trust that it will all work out. Doing your best and then letting go.” refresh –>