Seniors Speak: We, the Burned Out

IMSA is a demanding place. It’s a fact that all us students know. But is it too demanding? In the thirteenth Seniors Speak entry, an anonymous writer argues why it is.

We, the Burned Out

Submitted Anonymously

Sometime ago, amidst the chaos that was first semester senior year, I was sitting at a table in the IRC with a handful of my friends, chatting and working on homework. In the middle of a discussion on IMSA courses, a senior declared, “When I grow up, I want to teach at IMSA.” In response, a junior shook her head, looked at the senior, and said sadly, “Don’t come back, IMSA’s dying.” If this were the first time that I’d heard that sentiment, I probably would have brushed it off as one person’s opinion. Yet the sheer prevalence of this sentiment among students, and even among teachers, impels me to believe that there may be a cause behind the junior’s tragic declaration.

After gathering viewpoints from various students, parents, and faculty members, I would not quite agree that “IMSA’s dying.” Our school continues to give us an unparalleled, free education, one far better than what many of us would have received at our home schools; it remains a special place where the brightest Illinois high school students can seek academic challenges, make lifelong friends and share memorable experiences. Yet, that does not mean that IMSA is perfect, in fact, many seniors feel that they have not achieved their full potential during their three years at this academy. A teacher I spoke with confided that the classes he taught used to be much more difficult and explore topics far more in depth. However, in recent years, he and his colleagues were forced to “dumb down” the curriculum because students were so busy that they simply could not keep up. Why the stagnation? An old Gmail status from a classmate sums it up best: “there’s a difference between igniting and nurturing minds and burning them out.” Although students begin by aiming for the former, the end result is evidently the latter.

Every year, IMSA attracts a slew of the best and brightest students in Illinois, promising to nurture their talents and transform them into “creative, ethical scientific minds that advance the human condition,” yet by the time these students walk off the stage as seniors, they’re exhausted, drained, and have lost their motivation to dream big. I myself entered IMSA as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sophomore, seeking to delve deep into my classes and devote myself to a plethora of extracurricular activities. Today, I’m passing down clubs in relief, putting in the minimal effort required for the grade, and am barely able to muster enough will power to write this article.

It’s not just me; for instance, three years ago, I recall a group of sophomores envisioning ways that they could make their community a better place, and as a result, starting a club known as “Waffleosophy” to make waffles for EXODUS kids. They made entertaining videos in their free time, and even started a traditional junto club. The world was truly their oyster and they demonstrated what the state’s best and brightest could accomplish when placed with like-minded peers into a ceiling-less (both figuratively and literally), creative space. Yet, by the time junior year rolled around, these imaginative, enthusiastic sophomores had become tired, stressed juniors, and by first semester senior year, they were zombies. One example of this decline is the drastically decreasing voter turnout for Student Council and Class Club elections; last year, about half of the juniors ditched SCC elections. Similarly, the number of sophomores who attend Great Minds events vastly outnumbers that of juniors and seniors. While all students enter IMSA with a desire to learn and make a difference, their outlook conspicuously undergoes a drastic transition to apathy.

The cause? Being stretched out too thin. Although students are warned against overloading on challenging classes, the competitive nature of IMSA students combined with their unusually high intellect and the pressure of college admissions can set off an arms race of course loads and extracurricular activities.

Yet, when there’s not even enough time for students to finish homework, for instance, worksheets in a math class that aren’t graded, there’s definitely no time for students to seek a deeper understanding of the subject material. I recall that as a sophomore, I would often go into my math teacher’s office to ask for different types of problems to solve, simply because I found the subject fascinating. Yet, when I foolishly believed I could handle eight academic classes and an off-campus SIR my first semester junior year, my curiosity and desire to learn took a nosedive, to the point that my sole goal was to scrape an A-.

Similarly, high achieving IMSA students tend to overload themselves with extracurricular activities and leadership positions. Yet, they discover too late that what started as passion can become a burden when there’s not enough time to devote.

It’s a vicious cycle: the less time students dedicate to something, the less invested they are, and hence, the more apathetic they become. With so many commitments, it’s impossible for even the most adept multitaskers to focus, until finally, they lose track of why they came to IMSA in the first place. Thus, the mission upon which IMSA was founded, “imagination,” “inquiry,” even “learning,” is relegated to mere rhetoric, an idealistic dream in the clouds which students lack the energy to pursue. After all, there’s no time or room to think, and barely enough to breath. Couple the workload with the new rules added every year, like a noose constantly tightening around students’ necks (although this could be the subject of another, entirely different article); it’s no wonder that the innovation soon came to a halt.

I am not bitter about my time at IMSA, in fact, I couldn’t be more grateful; without attending this academy, I likely would not have been accepted to the college of my dreams. However, there’s no question that the problem of stagnation is real, serious and multifaceted, and no single party should be blamed; I admit that I chose to over-commit myself, overstretch myself, and consequently, drove myself to the brink of insanity. In order to help alleviate the situation, genuine efforts on both the students and the administration are required.

While my quest to gather opinions on IMSA’s culture was disheartening, it was encouraging to discover that there was no shortage of proposed solutions. One teacher suggested that the administration impose a limit on the number of extracurricular activities a student can participate in, so that they are unable to drive themselves crazy. Another recommended dividing up the school year into three trimesters, in each of which students take fewer classes, to allow them to devote more time to each class and still take the same number of classes each year. For every problem a student or faculty member brought up, they offered several well-thought out solutions, and if we remember Student Council’s “Sleep and Stress Forum,” it’s clear that many people have spent time thinking about this issue. Yet, whether too stretched out to be able to devote more than a few minutes time, or for fear or losing their job, members of the IMSA community are vastly silent until behind closed doors. I know that although I, for instance, have wanted to write an article like this for the past two years, it is only in my second semester senior year that I’ve finally found the time.

Admittedly, each of these proposals has pros and cons that need to be weighed carefully, but regardless of what the ideal solution may be, the fact remains that it is imperative to begin a real, open discussion between students, faculty, and administration on how all branches of the IMSA community can work together to help prevent students from burning out, so that we can realize the mission upon which IMSA was envisioned. Without first advancing the IMSA condition, it will be impossible for IMSA to advance the human condition.

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