Calling for a Cultural Shift: The Sterilization of the Mudd Experience

There is a common misconception that the Harvey Mudd College experience should be centered around academics. The faculty, the administration and even the students expect Mudders to work hard in their classes and do whatever it takes to succeed. These expectations have built a culture that encourages students to sacrifice their other, non-academic interests in favor of copious amounts of homework, stress, sleepless nights and a singularly focused lifestyle that continues after graduation.

Often, Mudders are forced to give up their interests because they don’t have the time to pursue them. For example, many people express interest in joining clubs at the annual club fair, but as the school year progresses, the pressure to succeed academically trumps any interest the student may have had. Similarly, many students give up art, music, sports and other activities because they find it is too difficult to balance with their schoolwork.

This pressure to prioritize class work above all else derives from a number of places: the incentive for high grades to excel intellectually and an impressive GPA’s influence on a student’s eligibility for internships, research experience, jobs and grad school positions. Parents can also be a source of pressure. They don’t want their children “slacking off” while they dole out $65,000 per year for them to be here.

Many students claim that giving up everything for academics is part of the Harvey Mudd experience. By saying this, they are subtly claiming that it’s what you need to do in order to be a “true Mudder.” It’s expected that you will stay up late studying and, on a semi-regular basis, elect to forego spending time with friends or attending some kind of event for the sake of finishing an assignment or two.

This is a terrible philosophy. Rather than having a culture that encourages students to balance their interests and schoolwork, we have one that expects students to sacrifice everything else for academics.

That’s not how the college experience should be. College is a unique time in life, with access to resources and experiences that aren’t easy to come by after graduation. It should be a place where students are encouraged to grow and find the things about which they are passionate. Students should join clubs, go to interesting lectures, get involved in their community or take part in any number of the enriching experiences that are available. The activities, organizations and opportunities that HMC has to offer have the potential to change lives, ultimately shaping who we are and what we do.

Being in an environment where students can pursue their true interests without overbearing pressures makes the overall college experience better for everyone. By interacting with people who are passionate about different things, students are exposed to diverse activities and might develop interests they hadn’t considered before. That kind of environment also provides more support for students who are already involved in non-academic pursuits.

HMC, as a community, needs to take action to encourage students to find non-academic activities to involve themselves with. We need to produce scientists, engineers and mathematicians who are fully participating in society so that we can truly understand the full impact of the work that we do. At the very least, we shouldn’t discourage students who want to pursue non-academic interests. Students who want to play sports, make music and art or work on personal projects should be able to do so without making a significant sacrifice.

The solution to this problem is not simple. It will require more than just lowering the number of classes needed to graduate. Already, many Mudders acquire more credits than needed to graduate simply because they wanted to take more classes out of personal interest. But what drives this overachievement? Personal choice in combination with HMC’s ubiquitous high-performance culture.

What’s more, since the Imposter Syndrome is so prevalent at HMC, students are afraid to openly criticize what seems to be a cornerstone of the Harvey Mudd experience. There is a significant fear that admitting you are unhappy with the workload here is equivalent to saying that you don’t belong here.

We need a cultural shift in order for the situation to remedy itself. Students must accept that a life filled with nothing but homework is not healthy, or at least could be much better. Students who are tired of giving up on their passions should feel empowered to pursue what they want, challenging what is considered to be fundamental on our campus. Before anything else, the student body should choose whether it wants a diverse community filled with people pursuing their interests or one with the same limiting environment that we have allowed to define us.

Michael Saffron HM ’15 is a senior computer science major from Los Angeles. He is currently the President of ASHMC. The opinions expressed are solely the author’s and do not represent the views or opinions of the Associated Students of Harvey Mudd College.

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