In higher education, many extracurriculars, friend groups, interests, and majors can result in exposure to completely different college experiences and cultures. The major a student chooses has a very large effect on their college experience, friends, and of course their career. I am a former Aerospace Engineering student, current Game Design major, and I can speak to the sheer difference in cultures from Engineering as a whole to any other major. While I chose to switch for my mental health, I have also interviewed another student who has chosen to stay in Engineering. Matt Hauser is a sophomore Mechanical Engineering major. While our experiences vary slightly, the similarities show some negative trends in the culture of Engineering specifically, but also those in some wider STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors.
Mental Wellbeing in STEM
As I mentioned, I switched from Engineering to take better care of my mental health. I had been experiencing major symptoms of stress, like over or under eating, skin issues, headaches, and depression. Matt says, in regards to his mental wellbeing in Engineering classes, “I’ve experienced a lot of stress because of my engineering classes, particularly in this current semester where I’m essentially teaching myself my statistics, solid mechanics, and thermodynamics classes. I’ve been able to handle it for the most part though and I’ve maintained good grades for almost all of my classes.” I relate to Matt’s experience in the way that we both know how much stress can come from these classes.
With that, I found the Engineering classes to be rather lacking in accommodations for mental health as a whole, which Matt agrees with. Not everyone can handle the stress brought on by these majors and reaching out to advisors for help often leads to rude responses, if they respond at all. I believe this lack of attention to mental health is a fundamental flaw in Engineering. Matt has also seen how others may struggle with this stress, saying “I can tell that a lot of people in my classes can’t handle the stress as well as I can. The stress hasn’t had a [long] lasting effect on my mental health, but I’ve known some people who unfortunately haven’t had the same luck.” The majors are too much to handle for a lot of people and there is a culture, which I write about later, that makes the people who switch or drop out to be “weak” or “quitters”.
Matt, who is in a position to handle the stress better than some peers, has to say, “There’s been a lot of days where I under eat because either I’m too stressed to bother with it or I’ve got tunnel vision on my homework/studying. During my finals week [last] summer, I almost fainted while I was studying because I’d gone nearly 2 days without eating a proper meal.” These symptoms are viewed as rather normal within STEM, but can be dangerously harmful to the long and short term health of the student. I, again, had similar experiences to Matt here with forgetting about food because of needing to meet a deadline. It is worrying to hear these dangerous symptoms of stress and how little is done to prevent or help it. Engineering students have a 35%-49% risk of eating disorders, as compared to 10%-23% in other students.
Toxic Culture and Isolation
Students in STEM had to work very hard to get to where they are, with STEM colleges usually having single digit acceptance rates. The difficulty of getting accepted into college and the classes that must be taken often lead to an isolated experience in college. Many will get a sense of superiority based on this notion of needing to have worked harder to get to where they are, which is reinforced by the schools themselves. Many times schools will tell the students they are above other students, as early as orientation. The combination of these experiences very easily lends to an “us versus them” style environment.
Matt discusses why he stays in Engineering: “I definitely think that being an engineering major means I’ll have better job security and financial stability in the future than most people. I also think that being a mechanical engineering major gives me more versatility than other engineering majors in the eyes of employers.” This highlights another important factor in the isolation of Engineering culture, not only from other majors, but even within the different disciplines. It is true that Engineering disciplines have different pay rates and job security, and do often rank as some of the highest in those categories. However, this further conflates a sense of better-ness and is often used to attack those who switch or drop, or who are planning on it. Furthermore, making ourselves or others feel lonely can lead to depression, anxiety, or the risk of substance abuse.
When I switched, I heard my fair share of condescending comments and ideas people had about that move, from peers and councilors, which did make me feel isolated and lonely. But, I switched my major to something I am passionate about and my mental health began improving and I began enjoying school much more. It is important we all take a step back and really decide if what we’re doing is what we want or what is expected. And if we see others making decisions to better themselves, we should support them to the fullest.
STEM majors are great opportunities for students to study fields they are interested in and have the potential to be the forerunners of. Those who are passionate about what they are studying will succeed in their majors and, likely, their career. However, college is about new experiences and learning, in and outside of classes. Finding new passions and pursuing them should be actively encouraged and supported by students and faculty. Unfortunately, STEM lacks in mental health resources leading to a toxic “us versus them” culture which perpetuates isolation and loneliness amongst those of whom STEM is not a passion, but just a pathway to “success”. This culture exists solely because of the lack of support for these students and could easily be solved by increasing advising and mental health resources available to these students.
About the Author:
Gavin Schmidt (he/him) is a sophomore at the University of Central Florida studying Digital Media with a concentration in Game Design. After seeing how mental health can affect the people he cares about, he began to have a passion for understanding and taking care of the mind. He believes that understanding this can greatly increase anyone's quality of life, and assisting people in their journey is greatly rewarding. Outside of school, Gavin is an active student leader in UCF's Marching Knights Marching Band, and enjoys playing board and video games with his friends and family.