Squeeze Play

Squeeze Play - Spring 2007

Slayter Hall, during fall Semester, feels a lot like watching television during election season. You can’t escape the ads. they’re plastered over every available surface—posters, papers, and banners clamoring for attention and begging for time. everywhere you look, it’s “meeting tonight!” or “Come join us!” or “get involved!”

No refuge in the elevator either. Within its tight confines, ten signs advertise ten different campus events, all of which look immensely interesting. If only there were time. unfortunately, all of them take place within the next day or two.

More opportunities await outside. there, if the weather’s nice, your head isn’t spinning, and you actually have free time, you can peruse the messages chalked on the sidewalk or learn about any number of social or political causes, all of them valid and compelling. Today, there’s a student handing out flyers for animal liberation league. If you belong to a greek organization, you might also start rallying your team for delta gamma’s annual anchor Splash or Sigma Chi’s derby days.

Coffee, anyone? Or perhaps a few minutes in a sensory deprivation chamber?

There’s no way around it—the level of involvement outside the classroom at denison is a little intense. Consider this: there are a whopping 133 organizations on this 2,100-student campus. The list of options is daunting—academic organizations, fraternities and sororities, religious groups, cultural clubs, performance groups, club sports, social charities, and political causes of every stripe. Hobbies are also widely represented: video games, poker, Japanese animation, investing, martial arts. One group, “Somnambulance,” is even dedicated to combating the insulating effect of intense extracurricular involvement by keeping its members abreast of world events. and these are just the organizations supported by the Denison Campus Governance Association (DCGA). That’s not counting varsity sports or any groups operating outside official purview. no wonder Slayter Hall is so blanketed.

And no wonder so many daily planners at denison have every line filled in. there’s a term for this phenomenon. it’s called “over-programmed,” and plenty of students at denison are quick to apply it to themselves. the term itself sounds like a computer error. But is it as negative as it sounds? What’s lost and what’s gained in keeping a relentless schedule?

Sleep is one of the first things to go. “lack of sleep is like a badge of courage for some kids,” says ryan Hilperts, associate director of student activities. “it’s almost an honor issue. One of our priorities is to point out that some holistic piece of their life may be missing. But the folks who are hyper-involved are usually okay because they’ve made that decision consciously.”

There’s also great value in reducing stress, in enjoying free time, mental focus, sufficient sleep, and healthy caffeine levels. a big part of the ideal college experience includes learning to play an instrument, dabbling in poetry, and curling up with a good book on the lawn. But for some, denison’s culture of engagement is crowding out those unscheduled, finer things in life.

As faculty have oft warned their students, that culture can also crowd out the primary ingredient of a college degree: coursework. this was one piece of advice that chemistry professor and then-faculty chair Chuck Sokolik shared with the Class of 2009 at its induction ceremony: “nothing should deter you from getting the best education that we have to offer. this means that you must put class attendance first above all other things. you must place doing homework above everything else… limit yourself to just a few other diversions. at the campus involvement fair next thursday, when all 100-plus student organizations try to convince you that they need you, say ‘no’ to all but those two or three that are most important to you.”

Extracurricular activity is a long-standing hallmark of the Denison experience. But in this high-octane culture of engagement, what stands to be gained…and lost?
Extracurricular activity is a long-standing hallmark of the Denison experience. But in this high-octane culture of engagement, what stands to be gained…and lost?
“Students here want to be involved,” says John Beckman, associate dean of students. “They want to be seen. There’s always a fear they might be missing something.”

Still, most students didn’t come to Granville to be wallflowers or bookworms, and they find a way to manage academics, activities, and a social life. “Students here want to be involved,” says John Beckman, associate dean of students. “They want to be seen. There’s always a fear they might be missing something.”

Denison graduates have a reputation for doing great things, for occupying positions of leadership, innovation, and responsibility in whatever fields they pursue. As Beckman puts it, “It amazes me what they do when they leave, and how soon they do it.” There’s much to be said, he adds, for a college experience that honestly prepares students for busy lives and professional careers in an increasingly stressed-out world. After all, it’s not as if life gets any less complicated after graduation.

Meet McKinlaye Harkavy ’08, a proud bearer of the “over-programmed” badge. In addition to being a double-major in political science and English, she’s also a governor in Student Senate, an active member of Kappa Kappa Gamma and Ladies Night Out, and a fierce fan of everything Denison. She works hard to maintain her record of never missing any home football or lacrosse games, Hilltoppers and orchestra concerts, or friends’ birthdays. She would emphatically deny missing any holistic piece. “I tell my friends at other schools I’m probably enjoying myself more than they are,” she says.

And that’s just the half of it. Harkavy’s main responsibility this year, besides her schoolwork, was chairing the planning committee for D-Day. The harried week leading up to the mid-October weekend festival, she described as “an emotional rollercoaster” on which she “almost died.” She repeatedly underscores her narrative with this phrase: “You have no idea.”

Yet, sitting in the lounge of the Women’s Resource Center, Harkavy’s mood is predominantly cheery, and she seems to be handling the pressure rather well. “It’s a lot more work than anyone realizes, but I would never not do it,” she says. “I like being this way, and I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

Besides, Harkavy adds, “She’s way more extended than I am,” gesturing across the couch to her friend, Whitney Adams ’07. She may be right, too. Competition in this category is stiff, but Adams may actually rank as the most over-programmed student at Denison—and proudly so.

A communication major, Adams has three classes per semester this year. She’s also coping with all the usual issues attending looming adulthood—trying to find a job and weighing life’s many opportunities. Ideally, she’d like to join a public relations firm in Washington, and she’s in the process of mailing out resumes. But for now, she belongs to Delta Delta Delta, she has a boyfriend, and she’s involved in DCGA, serving on the Rules Committee and helping to decide, in one late-night meeting after another, how to spend a $700,000 student activities budget.

To meet her sorority dues, Adams holds down a campus job staffing the Women’s Resource Center and sharing secretarial work in the Student Activities Office three days a week. Fortunately for her, these are fairly low-key duties, affording her time to study or do committee assignments. Then there’s D-Day, in which Adams has been involved the last three years. This year, she considered stepping up and running for chair. Instead, following the advice of a friend worried about her “over-involvement,” she deferred, opting to organize the “Pre-Garden” event. But even this was no picnic. Essentially, she arranged a themed beer garden and, having recently turned 21, took on full legal responsibility for an event involving alcohol.

“We’ve all had our fair share of breakdowns through this process,” Adams admits, in between bites of the lunch salad she brought to work. (Later, a friend reveals that Adams herself is not immune to these breakdowns.) “But I don’t think about it anymore. It’s just what I do.”

Shortly after this comment, her boyfriend stops by to say hello. Adams asks him very precisely what he’s doing Thursday at 6 p.m. Like a true college student of the 21st century, he whips out his cell phone to check his digital calendar. He’s free. Good, she says. Would he mind attending a D-Day planning meeting and volunteering to work security?

Her own cell phone has rung twice during this time. Both times, she paused to answer it and let Harkavy take over talking. At one point, Adams tried to enter a number into her phone’s contacts list, realized it was full, and deleted another number to make room. How many people actually fill up their contacts list? What’s more, there probably isn’t much space left on her cell phone calendar, either, not if it’s anything like her paper calendar. With appointments scheduled throughout the days until 11 p.m., one would swear she’s a lawyer or politician.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, Adams professes well-being. Weekends are strictly personal and academic, she says. No extracurriculars. Her fuel of choice? Not coffee. “I have a thing for Diet Coke,” she says. She also praises her boyfriend, saying he helps keep her sane and balanced. And she’s getting better at delegating and turning down volunteer opportunities. “I still have a social life,” she says. “Maybe I get a little less sleep, but I’m not sitting around drinking, either.” Touché. Given that binge-drinking plagues some schools, there are definitely worse problems than students signing up for too many activities.

If Denison is a laboratory for real life, Chelsea Royce Mikula ’07 has mastered the chief
experiment. For a student carrying a heavy load of responsibility, this political science and religion double-major seems remarkably calm. More accurately, she’s completely mellow, chatting comfortably in the Pit of Slayter Hall, beneath the sea of posters to which she responds by “zoning out.” As DCGA president, Mikula is the prime liaison between students and staff. It’s a weighty job that easily consumes 25-30 hours a week in addition to her three classes. “I have to go 50 million places in that role, and that’s just for one role,” she says.

Then again, she made sacrifices to accommodate all that running around. She gave up official duties in Pi Beta Phi. She also went lighter on D-Day. Her involvement this year consisted of working only the day of the event itself. And for Homecoming, she restricted herself to arranging for an elaborate chocolate sculpture. “There’s definitely the opportunity to overdo it here,” she explains. “But you can’t excel in six different organizations.”

“I’m getting more out of being president than I would from getting a 3.5,” says Chelsea Mikula. “This is how I’ve been my whole life. It’s not stressful for me. It’s how I like things.”

Admittedly, Mikula “freaks out” when she has too much free time. Overall, though, she’s happy. When stress mounts too high, she goes for a run or visits her family. “I have Chelsea time,” she says. “I put my life back in order, then I come back.” Her grade point average may be a little lower than her ideal, but, she says, “I’m getting more out of being president than I would from getting a 3.5. This is how I’ve been my whole life. It’s not stressful for me. It’s how I like things.”

Not everyone prefers the crazy life. Across the quad, Jennifer Grube-Vestal, associate dean of students and director of academic support, is preparing to advise a student who’s feeling a little overwhelmed. It’s one of roughly 700 such meetings she holds every year under the broad heading of “academic support,” addressing everything from slipping grades to study skills and time management.

Her goal is the same in every instance. “I let students come to their own conclusions,” she says. “I just raise the questions. I engage them in a conversation. I’m like a vehicle’s ‘OnStar’ button. They can check in and make sure they’re going in the right direction. Or they’ll come in when the airbags accidentally go off.”

Funny, Elizabeth Doerschuk doesn’t look like she needs OnStar assistance. If anything, as she enters Grube-Vestal’s office, she’s a model of professionalism, dressed in business attire from her student-teaching assignment earlier that day. This is someone who knows where she’s going.

Yet there’s duress beneath the surface. The history and education double-major admits to feeling “off-beat” and suffering panic attacks under the crush of senior research, three academic honorarium organizations, a demanding job as a residential quad leader, and organizing a conference for high school science teachers on the topic of evolution—an effort that grew out of her independent summer research project. (While academic in nature, summer research projects are not mandatory and therefore regarded by some as extracurricular.)

True to her word, Grube-Vestal engages Doerschuk in a simple, friendly conversation. She’s empathetic and supportive, full of questions, stories and analogies—more like a coach than a formal, standoffish dean. It’s working. You can almost see the pressure floating away.

Together, they’ve reached a rather brave conclusion. Rather than attend graduate school, the typical, safe path for a history major, Doerschuk has decided follow a slight tangent into some form of event planning, consulting, or public relations. Her work on the conference has pointed her in this direction. Big score for the extracurriculars. “The conference should be stressful, but it isn’t,” she explains with evident glee. “Actually, it’s fun. That’s the stuff that’s really making me happy. After realizing that, it was like a weight had been lifted.”

But Doerschuk still has plenty of other responsibilities. As the head residential assistant (RA) overseeing a block of five North Quad residence halls, each with its own RA, she has to lead or attend eight meetings a week. That’s in addition to her studies and her student teaching job. And you thought your weekly office meeting was a burden.

But Doerschuk still has plenty of other responsibilities. As the head residential assistant (RA) overseeing a block of five North Quad residence halls, each with its own RA, she has to lead or attend eight meetings a week. That’s in addition to her studies and her student teaching job. And you thought your weekly office meeting was a burden.

Today, it’s a group meeting. Doerschuk has invited four other RAs to her apartment-style dorm room. For hospitality, she has opened a bag of pretzels. Make no mistake, though. This is strictly business. There’s a formal agenda, and it’s clear she put a lot of time and thought into this.

Doerschuk commences with a few icebreaking games to get the RAs talking, then asks them for their reports from Homecoming weekend. There are plenty of laughs as the meeting progresses, with tales of broken windows, smoking violations, and tornado alarms, but somehow, Doerschuk always distinguishes herself as the one in charge, the one fully reliable adult. Maybe it’s her new-found sense of direction.

After the meeting, it’s dark outside. Working adults are at home winding down. If Granville had a rush hour, it would be long over. But the day is just getting started for busy students like Adams, Harkavy, and Doerschuk. They’ve still got homework, sorority meetings, and presentations in Student Senate. They won’t get back to their rooms until 10:30 or 11 p.m. Just thinking about it is exhausting. By the way, did anyone stop for dinner? Well, sort of. They ate—but they certainly didn’t stop.

Published March 2007