Mid-March brings warming temperatures, spring flowers, and an uptick in outdoor activities across Virginia Tech’s campuses. Graduate School Ombudsperson Bryan Hanson said he sees another increase each year that may not be so obvious: rising stress levels in students, faculty, and staff. This is completely normal, he said, noting that the time between midterms and the end of a semester seems to pass with lightning speed and that perception heightens concerns about completing projects and meeting obligations.

“In the world of graduate education, we are halfway through the semester. May is coming up with a major milestone, and it is natural to feel the pressure of deadlines,” he said. “It is not abnormal to feel stress at this time.”

This year, the university community, like the region, nation, and the world, has seen additional stress factors, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and political tensions.

“It is important to realize that stress levels are already at a high baseline,” Hanson said. “We need to recognize what the external pressures are that we face and how they affect our focus and ability to stay on task within each of our domains, whether that’s the education workplace, home, or our community connections. All of these can create different pressures that affect our daily behavior."

Given the combination of stress campus community members may be experiencing, Hanson emphasized the need to be upfront and transparent with the allies we have in our lives, including colleagues and classmates, faculty members, and others both within the academic community and beyond. “That’s the first way to start problem-solving this situation.”

image of Bryan Hanson in a blue blazer and white shirt
Bryan Hanson, Graduate School ombudsperson

Hanson said the concerns students typically bring to him at this time of the semester  revolve around expectations. Students may feel vulnerable if they believe they are not on what they perceive to be the same page as their faculty advisors. They may worry about compromising their academic progress, assistantships, and other obligations and milestones if they don’t meet specific goals. 

This often can be remedied through clear communication between the faculty advisor and the students, he added, and he can assist with those discussions.

He noted, too, that faculty face pressures related to funding and expectations for their students’ progress. “Both situations are equally stressful,” he said. “It’s usually those disconnects or unchecked assumptions that I see as main stress points.”

In his role, he also sees students who struggle with work-life balance at this point in the semester, juggling home and outside pressures with benchmarks and deadlines associated with studies, research, and other academic responsibilities. They often skimp on sleep, breaks, meals, and other stress-reducing activities in an effort to meet all of their obligations. He suggests that students talk with their family, colleagues, and community members about their obligations and their work flow during these weeks and seek support. Connect with your allies, he urged.

“The most damaging thing for most people is thinking they can do it alone, saying ‘I’ll bite the bullet,’ or ‘I’ll get through.’ The reality is that can cause so much damage … and can set them up for failure.”

He is a strong advocate of self-care. “Even when such things seem to interfere with progress, the hour you take will make the other time you spend on work more effective. Also, sleep and eat. Don’t work yourself to the point where you cannot focus effectively on what you are doing. Pay attention to your needs.”

Hanson recently shared with the graduate student community several tips for dealing with stress that comes from such sources as class and research pressures, relationships, and external influences. These tips may be useful to the larger university community as students, staff, faculty, and administrators head into the second half of the spring semester.

  • Reflect on the role various pressures we have within our place of work or study, our home, and our community affect us. 
  • Take a good look at obligations and prioritize them realistically.
  • Identify our support structures to help us manage the pressure that derives from these obligations and in each area of our lives.
  • Identify how our bodies respond when we find our stress levels start to reach the threshold of distress, and recognize when these responses are starting to occur.
  • Take a mental timeout when high levels of stress occur, and do what we can in the moment to give presence to these feelings and respond in ways that can de-escalate the tension that accompanies these feelings.
  • Reach out to those that we work or live with and ask for a bit of grace and the support that we need to cope with the stress.
  • Take advantage of the many resources and support structures available here at the university. 

Hanson said one of the best places for Virginia Tech community members to find resources is the #VTBetterTogether website. #VTBetterTogether is a public health campaign aimed at supporting mental health across Virginia Tech. It grew out of a report from a provost’s task force studying mental health issues and concerns at Virginia. The site contains a wealth of information, including tips and both internal and external resources to help the campus community, Hanson noted.  Students also can reach out to Hanson and the university ombuds, Mauricio “Reese” Ramos, and to Cook Counseling Center.

“I cannot emphasize enough to students: Utilize your resources,” he said. “There’s a reason they are here: to make you better.” He also noted that he and other professionals across the university are available to support and assist: 'My time is here for you.'” 

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