“No more culture of stress=success”
On Monday afternoon of September 30th, I walked into the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Just a few days earlier on Friday night of September 27th, there had been a suicide in the building, the third one in a year.
Upon entering the building, to my right, there was a long white table, covered in condolence letters and flowers left by students. There were a few pens and small white notecards available for people to write their thoughts and condolences for others to read. I stood in front of this table for a while in silence, reading the notes that were left and taking a moment to myself to reflect on the tragedy of yet another student’s life lost. I was not alone. Amongst the hustle and bustle of students dashing from class to class within the busy building, a unique silence surrounded those that stood by the table with me. A few steps from the white tables were several
stands that were set-up by students who were handing out pamphlets that displayed mental health resources available for students. Good2talk, My SSP (Student Support Program), and CAMH resources were among those laid out on the tables. These pamphlets suggested that, on top of their already heavy schedules, students must take time for their mental health. A student that I spoke with expressed to me that this was of course an “ideal case” and far from becoming a feasible routine. “Engineering students actually taking time aside from their schoolwork to take care of themselves and their mental health? What a revolutionary thought!” she laughed.
As I stood there, I couldn’t help but ask myself if it was only in these moments of crisis that the prospect of self-care as a part of one’s routinized timetable is advertised and emphasized. This was one of those moments that forced students to think about their mental health and wellbeing. The memorial stands and posters interrupted the past-faced stress-induced hustle that the Bahen Centre seemed to represent on a daily basis. They were important reminders of the importance of taking care of yourself, letting students know that it is okay to take a step back in your busy day to do so. I spoke with another student, Clara, working at a booth who was handing out pamphlets of mental health resources to students. Clara shared with me how important it was for the university to realize that they were “running out of time” to fix the dominant culture of stress and anxiety that rules over academics. This was particularly evident in intensive programs, such as engineering, which Clara was enrolled in. “We work so hard, and for what? For a job? Students are losing their lives to this.” I shared how important I believed it was to be setting up booths and posters sharing student’s needs, just like she had done, and thanked her for spreading the message on the importance of mental health amongst students. She was quick to let me know these booths and posters were going to be taken down by the end of the week on Friday. They were only temporary. “Guess the whole your-mental-health-matters thing was pretty short-lived right? Back to usual we go” she scoffed.
“What should change?” was written in big blue bold letters at the top of a poster to my left. Amongst the post-it notes that called for improved access to resources, the regulation of programs, and administration accountability, someone’s note caught my eye in particular. At the top left-hand corner of the white poster board, in faded blue ink was written “no more culture of stress=success”.
This was not the first time that I had encountered the words “stress=success” amongst engineering students. Highlighted in previous conversations shared with engineering students, the mantra of “stress=success” was used to express the common struggles and challenges of their degree. In their view, going through the stress-induced blood, sweat, and tears of their engineering programs would eventually lead them to graduating with a professional engineering degree and securing their spot in an engineering job. Whether it was overhearing conversations in the engineering common room or sharing conversations with students about the daily struggles of their respective programs, I found that the mantra “stress=success” was repeated by engineering students because they believed in the narrative. I came to understand that stress played a key role for engineering students in the way that it validated their struggle in reaching an outcome that is worth fighting and surviving for.
“Toughing it out” or “crying through the pain” were common phrases used in many of the conversations that I shared with students when discussing their areas of study. Whenever I asked how exactly students were managing the strenuous academic expectations that we had discussed, my question was usually met with laughter. The answer to how they felt about “toughing it out” and scraping the surface throughout a 4 to 5-year engineering degree at U of T was pretty straight forward— “It’s just the way it is.”
As one student pointed out to me, spending all-nighters at the Bahen Centre, finding napping spots in corners of the building, “making panic attacks a routine” and “living off caffeine” were normal occurrences and a “part of the package” of what is to be expected upon accepting one’s admission into the faculty of engineering. This stress of course came with the promise of success, as the light at the end of the tunnel. However, this did not mean that the challenges that encompassed the “stress=success” culture made the experiences of engineering students any easier, especially when they lead to devastating consequences such as the loss of another student’s life.
Understanding how the mantra of “stress=success” engages students and faculty within the faculty of engineering lies at the heart of my research. I have spent the past few months exploring how the mantra itself is maintained by both the community of students and the administration within the faculty of engineering at U of T by conducting several interviews, participant observation, and shadowing students. If success is understood as a result of stress, what does this success look like? Throughout my research, I was heavily inspired by the works of both Foucault and Rosa and decided that putting the two in conversation with one another was my best route of action. What do I mean by this? By exploring Foucauldian theories of subjectification, I was able to unpack and further understand the ways in which power processes, such as the establishment of rigorous engineering programs and a strenuous workload, are shaped by governing structures of power, in this case the faculty of engineering, that elicit responses from those being governed within them. In the case of engineering students, the elicited response to be explored further is the mantra of “stress=success”. More importantly, I was looking to delve deeper into how this particular mindset in an academic setting is heavily embedded in, as Rosa puts it, “the times we live in” (Rosa, 2013, p. 8), telling us that simply breezing through a post-secondary degree doesn’t get you anywhere. As such, the past three months have been dedicated to investigating my central research question and puzzle: How is the mantra “stress=success” engaged in the faculty of engineering? Throughout my research journey, much of what I found highlighted the ways in which the lives of students are heavily impacted by this mantra on a day-to-day basis. In other words, it has come a part of their daily routine. The “stress=success” mantra binds students together to form a collective identity by developing a “all in this together” attitude towards the stresses that define their engineering programs. What I have come to understand is that, while engineering students recognize the mental and physical damages of following the mantra, for them, it is easier to follow the status quo mantra as a collective badge of honour instead of attempting to redefine the status quo of how an engineering student at UofT is meant to be understood.
What is the engineering student?
“There is an emphasis on the lectures as an engineering student that you don’t have time. And I think it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even in our orientation to engineering class they say that as an engineering student you don’t have time. We get it all the time”. – Louise, first year engineering student in track one.
Notorious for their heavy-duty timetables, strenuous work hours, sleepless nights on campus, and excessive stress, these are just a few of the characteristics that capture who the engineering student is. These are descriptions that engineering students recognize about their collective identity as a student body. Additionally, the zombified persona of a stressed-out engineering student has also become a well-known archetype amongst students outside of the faculty. How does this embodied identity of stress, that captures the engineering student play out on the ground? More importantly, how is it continuously governed and maintained? These questions led me to Louise, a track one engineering student in her first year at the University of Toronto, St. George (UTSG).
I first met Louise this past fall, through a mutual acquaintance. At the time, both of us were right in the mist of midterm season, so I was pleased that we got a chance to meet during such a busy time of year. Prior to meeting Louise, I had asked her to provide me with her weekly schedule so that we could arrange a time in the week for me to shadow her and spend the day with her. This was my way of getting an insight into what a possible “day in the life” of an engineering student looked like. Monday to Thursdays were pretty loaded for Louise that week, with exams and assignments, so we decided that Friday was the best time to meet and would also give us a chance to speak at the end of the day without Louise having to rush off and finish a problem set for the next day. I arranged to meet her at her 9AM linear algebra class to kick off the day. Beginning my Friday morning rather earlier than usual, I made sure to grab some coffee to keep me going until 5PM. By midday, I realized that I had been a little more optimistic about coffee’s abilities. Much of the day consisted of bouncing from class to class, with about a two-hour lunch break in between Louise’s morning and afternoon classes. I invited Louise and a couple of her friends out to lunch, but they said that they simply did not have time. They had an assignment to hand in online later that afternoon and had all fallen behind, something that Louise told me was a big no-no, yet quite normal for engineering students. One of the biggest tips that had been repeated to Louise and her friends by several professors and upper year students was not to fall behind, under any circumstances. However, a tip of this nature seemed almost ironic from the perspective of Louise and her friends. It was almost impossible not to feel like they were constantly behind due to their heavily scheduled line up of assignments and exams that were never-ending, especially during the month of October as Louise shared with me. “Because you have a midterm every week, you’re perpetually behind on everything else. It’s just the way it is”. Louise and her friends kindly thanked me for my invitation and went off to go and study at a nearby library.
By the time it reached 4:30 in the afternoon with 30 minutes left of my civil engineering class, the students around me were dreary eyed. Two people in front of where Louise and I were seated had fallen asleep, while two students behind us shared what their Friday night plans were. The lighting in the classroom didn’t exactly help keep students wide awake either. We sat in a medium to large sized lecture hall, with around 10 to 12 rows of wooden seats lined up with counter-top desks. The lighting in the room was rather dim, which even made me feel a little sleepy at that point in the day. One feature of the room that I noticed in particular was the absence of windows. Louise joked about how this must be a way of reminding engineering students why they were here in the first place; to take notes, listen, and simply be there. One of Louise’s friends, Alyssa, who was sitting two seats down from me, was drifting in and out of sleep, hunched over in her seat with her head resting in the palm of her hand. When I looked over at her, she half-smiled and was blinking her eyes to stay awake. “Honestly, by even Thursday afternoon, everyone runs of out of steam” she laughed. Friday was just another day to get through. By the end of the day, I had a chance to sit down and speak with Louise one on one, as the brief conversations we shared throughout the day were confined to small talk in classrooms.
While my day may have started at 8AM that Friday, Louise’s started far earlier. Living in Mississauga, Toronto, Louise wakes up at 6 AM every day to get ready for school in time to make the Go-Train and get downtown for her 9AM classes. After particularly late nights, Louise manages to catch an extra 30 minutes of shut eye before rushing to the train station, and sometimes has to eat her breakfast either on the go or in class. Her days end close to midnight on a “good night”, given that she is able to wrap up her work before the early hours of the morning. Enrolled in 6 courses, she finds that she spends most of her nights “studying for an exam that can either make or break your mark”. Upon entering her faculty orientation, Louise and her friends were advised to treat their engineering as a full-time job. However, the workload that Louise encountered on a day-to-day basis appeared to her as going far beyond a regular 30 to 40-hour work week. “You typically spend I think 40 to 50 hours a week. They’re like ‘it’s a full-time job’. So that includes all your classes, tutorial and studying on your own, that sort of thing. But it really does add up to 50 hours a week. I think I spent 8 to 9 hours a day just studying” she shared with me. By the time another week rolls around, it’s time for Louise to do it all again. “You’re always on the go, landing internships, doing this, doing that, always on a timeline, getting stuff done. You embrace stress”. Going on her second month of school, Louise shared that “embracing stress” had become a daily routine.
When I spoke with Louise, she shared me with me that the week before had been a bit of a challenge for her, as she was recovering from the flu, causing her to delay the usual hustle that takes over most of her days at school. For Louise, catching the flu did not come as a surprise as her series of late night studying eventually caught up with her. However, while getting sick as a response to stress was nothing new to engineering students like Louise, it was definitely something that they could not afford. Like many of Louise’s friends in her program, she is a part of an engineering group chat, specifically for track one students. The week that Louise was sick, she said that many people in the group chat were asking if anyone else was sick. Both midterm and flu season were in full swing. “One girl was like ‘get well soon but you don’t have time to get sick” said Louise. When I asked her if she ended up making it to most of her classes that week, she laughed and assured me that school comes first, and that it really comes down to the course load and what it demands of her. “The grind never stops”.
This expression resonated heavily with Tom, a third-year engineering science student at the University of Toronto St George (UTSG) who finds himself deeply entrenched in the stresses of his program. I met with Tom early in the morning sometime in the middle of October after being introduced through a mutual friend. He told me that he had spent the night in the Bahen Centre scrambling to study for his exam the next day. Needless to say, he was very tired. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and some food from the cafeteria downstairs, which he highly appreciated. “This is my fuel” he said as I handed him over his cup of coffee. For Tom, pulling all-nighters at the Bahen Centre was nothing out of the ordinary. As he puts it, this was “the only way to get through it all”. Tom spends most of his time in this building, particularly in the engineering science common room located on the second floor. His classes usually run throughout the day between 10AM and 4PM, where he spends the remainder of his hours studying and tending to various assignments. Most nights, Tom sets up shop in the engineering science common room an hour or two after his last class of the day and stays there until 2 to 3 in the morning. He assured me that he was not alone in this, and that many engineering students go about their nights in the same way. “Some students really never leave this room. It’ll be 3 in the morning and we’ll all still be here, getting the work done that needs to be done. It’s what we do to pass” he said, “I basically live at Bahen”.
When Tom brought me to the engineering science common room, he was quick to point out the left-over Starbucks coffee cups and empty bowls of ramen noodles left behind on some of the desks where students were working that morning. He laughed and said that this was left over “rubble” from the night before. On the day that I spoke with Tom, I happened to have had a late-night class and a meeting that lasted until around 9:30 PM. After I had wrapped things up for the night, I grabbed some food from a hot dog stand nearby and began walking home. As I passed by the Bahen Centre, I decided to walk in and take another look at the common room. I recognized some of the faces in the room, particularly those of 4 people, including Tom who was there with some of his friends. The other 3 students had been there when I first went in earlier that day. Spread out on the table were various water bottles and, once again, a slew of Starbucks coffee cups. When I asked Jeff what his plan was for the rest of the time, him and his friends smiled and laughed: “I’m not leaving anytime soon” he said
While both Louise and Tom came from two different programs and years of study, both of their experience as engineering students at U of T captured a common essence—that the “grind never stops” in the path to success, even if it is running you down. Tom’s ritualized habits of frequently spending all-nighters at the Bahen Centre highlight some of the pressures that come with the “package deal” of being an engineering student. As Louise highlighted, falling physically ill due to sleepless nights of strenuous work and high levels of stress is no excuse to get out of an engineering student’s academic responsibility to “tough it out”. In this sense, the strenuous 50 hours or more work weeks and stress that accompanies students like Louise and Tom are not only a part of the challenges of “tough[ing] it out” faced by engineering students, but have become a part of the general expectation of what it takes to fit the mold of an engineering student at the University of Toronto. The process of embodying the identity of the “stressed but successful” engineering student taps into what Foucault would refer to as subjectification; how human beings are made subjects to power structures that govern over them (Foucault,1982, p. 777).
The long work hours and stress that engineering students go through, in hopes of success at the end of the tunnel, can be understood as power processes that govern their collective identity. As Foucault puts it, power “is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action. A set of actions upon other actions” (Foucault, 1982, p. 789). How might we come to interpret this when it comes to the engineering student? They are placed in an environment that is governed by high expectations imposed by the faculty and by the Engineering Accreditation Board of Canada. By going through the sleepless nights and poor mental and physical health, these expectations and challenges are acted upon by the subjects which they govern; the engineering students. Why? We can begin to relate our answer back to the mantra itself; “stress=success”. These challenges are absorbed by engineering students and become a part of their identity.
The Faculty and Accreditation board does not command students to study all night, but it induces them to do so. It shapes their present and future actions. A professor, for example has the power to mark assignments and assign grades in the same way that the faculty has the power to structure timetables, assignments, and accreditation expectations for students to meet. Students such as Louise and Tom are aware of the power that these structures have in impacting academic expectations, performance, and possible future opportunities, such as attaining an engineering job. In this sense, to govern is to structure the field of action of others.
Power, in this case extends beyond the physical structures of engineering buildings such as the Bahen Centre and, instead is diffused in the implementation of rigorous timetables, high course loads, and a common sentiment of stress shared among students, bringing them together. It is everywhere, but nowhere. It becomes deeply embedded in individuals and their understanding of self as engineering students and what this collective identity means. Power individualizes by operating on individuals through the governance of institutions, such as the faculty of engineering within U of T, and ideologies, such as “stress=success”, that student subjects internalize from above and on the ground amongst their fellow peers. For students such as Tom and Louise, “embrac[ing] stress” is very much necessary and a part of what they understand to be a part of the collective engineering identity.
It was particularly interesting for me to understand this untamed and stress-induced “grind”, as it pertains to the engineering identity, as indicators of the social climate of the everyday or, for lack of better words, the way the cookie crumbles. What do I mean by this? We can begin to think about how the normalized mindset that recognizes stress as a fundamental part of the path to achieving success for engineering students ties into what Rosa understands as being a key aspect of the “times we live in” (Rosa 4). In this case, “the times we live in” are ones where one’s success is validated by the struggles that they endured to reach it. Taking Rosa’s approach into consideration, I was better able to understand the way in which engineering students understand their time within the faculty of engineering is heavily interconnected with the social structures that govern them from above—the Faculty of Engineering and the Engineering Accreditation Board of Canada. How students are meant to understand the academic expectations set out for them, career goals, and the value of the light at the end of the tunnel once completing their degree, at the cost of their mental wellbeing, all tie back into a lager discussion of Rosa’s division of time into three categories; “everyday time, lifetime, and epochal time” (Rosa, 2013, p. 8). I paid particular attention to how “epochal time”, this being the “times we live in”, trickles down to impact our lifetime and everyday time. When I say, “epochal time”, I’m thinking of questions such as “What does it mean to be an engineering student in 2019 at U of T?”. Stemming from this, we can begin to understand how questions such as “What kind of job in engineering do I want” (lifetime), and “How am I going to study for this midterm with all the problem sets that I have?” (everyday time) are essentially responses to the overarching question of what it means to be an engineer at U of T in 2019. Needless to say, the “times that we live in”, ones where the mantra of “stress=success” governs the mentality of many engineering students, has significant impacts on the way engineering students perceive their subjectivity. Living off caffeine and ramen noodles, staying up late at night, and the unaffordability of missing class with the fear of falling behind are reflections of the “epochal” time that structures the everyday lives of these engineering students.
“It’s an engineering thing”
What is particularly interesting about the constitution of the “engineering student identity” at U of T is the sense of community that wraps around it. I started off my research by asking the question “Who is the ideal engineering student?”. Following several conversations amongst engineering students themselves, I quickly came to realize that my question was flawed. The thought that the ideal engineering student would be one that is on top of their studies, is organized, is involved outside of classes, and gets a sufficient amount of sleep every night is perceived among students as more of a utopic imagined identity than one that actually materializes on the ground. “I rarely see people taking time to themselves. I’m actually quite curious when I see people just sitting, having coffee, having a good time. It’s like ‘wow you seem to be done with everything, which Is crazy” says Louise, who expressed that scrambling through one’s studies was a much more common picture to be expected.
Instead, it is the engineering student who hustles through poor health, stays up all night, and scrapes the bar of a pass or fail that the engineering community has familiarized themselves with. The engineering student that suffers through the blood, sweat, and tears is the valorized type. There is a sense of community found in this suffering. As expressed by Tom, “If you’re not suffering, you’re really not doing it right. It’s an engineering thing”. While Tom may stay up into the early hours of the morning on most nights, most of the time he is accompanied by many of his classmates, his team if you will. They are able to laugh at the commonality of their struggles in a way that brings them together. In this sense, the “stress=success” mantra becomes a coping mechanism amongst students.
While engineering students recognized the toxic nature of this mantra and mindset, as a community, it is easier for them to follow a mantra that holds them together than disabling it and forming a new norm. It is both a problem and a solution; it brings people together to form a sense of community but continues to create elevated unreasonable pressure and mental suffering amongst students. “It’s almost like you’re drowning and you’re trying to stay afloat. Which I think is the worst part” says Louise. For many, holding each other up and trying to stay afloat is a community effort. While forming communities of support makes them acting subjects, they are still subjects whose possible range of actions are set by structures. As Foucault suggests, their actions do not put them outside power but, instead are formed within its matrices.
The Faculty- “You’re going to have a lot of work to do and you’re going to know what that is”
While understanding how the “stress=success” was engaged with amongst students, exploring the other side of the equation, that being the faculty’s response, was an important contributor. To what extent is the faculty aware of the mantra? How do they respond? Drawing on Foucault once again, I paid particular attention to his theories of biopower (Foucault, 1984, p. 260). I found myself digging deeper into an exploration of the faculty of engineering as a governing structure of power. What does the faculty do about its struggling students? Does it embrace them/help them make it through their programs, thus translating to “make live”, or let them scramble through it and even drop out, as the program is not for everyone, translating to “let die”(Foucault, 1984, p. 262). What I found was a mix of both.
One individual in an administrative position, James, assured me that the faculty was very much aware of the stress and challenges that students go through. In response to these challenges, James and some of his colleagues encourage students to take part in activities outside of school and engage in subjects independent to their academic program while still meeting accreditation expectations. “There is a minimum path that they can go through which makes sure they meet accreditation individually (…) but on top of that, they can still take a minor in courses in areas of interest to them on top of their other stuff. So, if that student is interested in music, they could take a certificate and minor in music theory while they’re doing their courses in engineering” says James, “We’ve got 80 plus or 100 plus clubs (…) we’ve got students on varsity teams right? And students who have just spent the last six to eight weeks in Australia racing their solar car (…) so they’re doing all this sort of other stuff on top of it (their studies)”. As James told me, there were certainly options out there for students to get involved outside of their busy schedules that would ultimately provide them with some breathing room. While all of these opportunities sounded fantastic, I couldn’t help but question the feasibility of it all. With a 40 to 50-hour work week, was getting involved with clubs, varsity teams, and possibly other fields of study actually an attainable option?
“You’re going to have a lot of work to do and you’re going to know what that is. And so, the key to success is always going to be your ability to self-manage your time and balance that with whatever else you’re interested in” responded James. For students, they were expected to realize on their own how much they could actually handle outside of school. I thought about students like Louise, who was barely able to find time to spend with her friends and family, let alone join a club. She was feeling this way just after one month of school being in session. While these opportunities existed, their purpose was perceived almost as an illusion of freedom amongst students and far out of reach. As Louise shared with me, “there’s just so much you want to do but everything is about school (…) I think there is this fear that if you join a club, or if you go out with your friends or spend time with your family that you’re missing out time on studying, that could potentially save your mark”. At the end of the day, whether or not engineering students joined varsity teams or 1 out of the 80 to 100 clubs mentioned by James was up to them while simultaneously deciding whether or not they could afford the possibility of falling behind.
Concluding Reflections – “Dedication is the key to achievement”
The mantra of “stress=success” is very much recognized amongst both students and faculty yet has become a challenge to tackle. From the perspective of students, experiences of stress on the route to success in the form of a future job and a successful career is unnegotiable and essentially a “part of the package”. One way or another, the stress and suffering that students go through, in the form of sleepless nights and the deterioration of their mental and physical health, is almost expected when taking on the role of an engineering student at the University of Toronto. There is a sense of validation in “toughing it out” to the finish line. As shared by Tom, the U of T engineering experience would not be the same without suffering through the stress as a cohort. In taking out the stress part of the equation, how might success be measured? These are some of the questions that I ponder now, perhaps leading me further down a line of inquiry in the future.
While there may be possible remedies intended to alleviate students of their stress, in the form of clubs and other activities beyond academics, students perceive these opportunities more as risks of falling behind. In this sense, advertising that there are stress-alleviating options out there only begins to scratch the surface of the problem at hand—the normalization of stress and suffering on the path to validated success. I draw our attention to a sign that I came across during one of my days at the Bahen Centre (fig. F); “Dedication is achievement”, written in big black bold letters. As I read the word “dedication”, I couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of the sign and its placement in this building where most engineering students spent their days. Perhaps it was meant to be a reminder to students that the stress that they were experiencing was all going to be worth it in the long run. Something for students to think about as they walked past the sign in the early hours of the morning after their all-nighter.
The toxic nature of the “stress=success” mantra is recognized amongst students and the faculty of engineering itself. It is a frame of mind that students engage with every day, and is carried with them beyond the grounds of U of T. It is embedded in how the engineering student identity is understood. In this sense, it has become naturalized and perceived as a part of the “times we live in”—where “grind never stops” on the path to success. Power has worked upon engineering students to form them as subjects who accept “stress=success” not just as normal but as an identity and a badge of honour. While the mantra itself is recognized as being unhealthy amongst students, founding a sense of community around the collective suffering that “stress=success” entails has become far easier than attempting to disable it and start a new normal. With this in mind, how has mantra continued to persist?
Tom offers an answer:
“Complacency. Everyone accepts that this is just how it is, and they just keep doing it that way. This isn’t just the faculty we’re talking about but the students as well. I don’t know if it’s something that you can stop.”
Foucault, M. (1984). Right of death and power over life. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault
reader, (pp. 257-272). New York, NY: Pantheon Books
Rosa, H. (2013). Social acceleration: A new theory of modernity (J. Trejo-Mathys, trans). New
York, NY: Columbia University Press. (Original work published in 2005).
Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4), 777-795. Retrieved from