The 21st Century College Experience

I found this article from a tweet my friend shared and I feel very compelled to share it.

The piece is by Yale student Frances Chan who writes about her (mis)diagnosed “eating disorder”. Chan’s article struck a cord with me because it reminded me of my college ups and downs.

Chan’s story about her petite physical stature and why Yale threatened her with academic probation due to her “unhealthy” physical state is very compelling and eye opening.  This article was originally published by the Huffington Post.

Yale University Thinks I Have an Eating Disorder

“I don’t know if my body is even capable of gaining three more pounds.”

The nurse looked at me apprehensively. “It’s easy to gain a couple pounds. What I’m afraid will happen is that you’ll lose it again and you’ll just be cheating yourself.”

I couldn’t keep the impatience out of my tone. “So you’re just going to keep checking on me until I graduate?”

“If we don’t tackle your low weight now, it will kill you.”

***
In the past three weeks alone, I have spent ten hours at Yale Health, our student health center. Since December, I have had weekly weigh-ins and urine tests, three blood tests, appointments with a mental health counselor and a nutritionist, and even an EKG done to test my heart. My heart was fine — as it always has been — and so was the rest of my body. So what was the problem?

The medical professionals think I have an eating disorder — but they won’t look past the number on the scale, to see the person right in front in them.

I visited the cancer hospital on September 17, 2013, worrying about a lump in my breast. It turned out to be benign, but I received an email in November from the medical director about “a concern resulting from your recent visit.” My stomach lurched. Was the lump malignant after all?

I met with a clinician on December 4 and was told that the “concern” was my low weight and that I would meet with her for weekly weigh-ins. These appointments were not optional. The clinician threatened to put me on medical leave if I did not comply: “If it were up to the administration, school would already be out for you. I’m just trying to help.”

I’ve always been small. I’ve been 5’2” and 90 pounds since high school, but it has never led to any illnesses related to low weight or malnutrition. My mom was the same; my whole family is skinny. We all enjoy Mom’s fabulous cooking, which included Taiwanese beef noodle soup, tricolor pasta, strawberry cheesecake, and cream puffs, none of which make the Weight Watchers shortlist. I just don’t gain weight easily.

Yet the clinicians at Yale Health think there’s more to it. Every week, I try to convince my clinician that I am healthy but skinny. Over the past several months, however, I’ve realized the futility of arguing with her.

“You should try to gain at least two more pounds.” (What difference does two pounds make?)

“Come next week to take a blood test to check your electrolytes.” (No consideration that I had three exams that week.)

“I know you’ve said in the past that you don’t eat as much when you get stressed out.” (I’ve never said that.)

So instead of arguing, I decided that perhaps the more I complied, the sooner I could resume my normal life.

I was forced to see a mental health professional. She asked me all of the standard questions — how I felt about my body, how many calories I ate. I told her everyone’s body is beautiful, including mine. When I said I didn’t know how many calories, since I don’t care to count, she rephrased the question, as if that would help.

Next step was a nutritionist. The nurse passed a post-it note, saying “Here are two times for the nutritionist next Tuesday. Usually it takes three months to get into nutrition at all.” What a privilege! Now I get to feel guilty about using clinical resources in desperately short supply!

Finally, I decided to start a weight-gain diet. If I only had to gain two pounds, it was worth a shot to stop the trouble. I asked my health-conscious friends what they do to remain slim and did the exact opposite. In addition to loading up on carbs for each meal, I’ve eaten 3-4 scoops of ice cream twice a day with chocolate, cookies, or Cheetos at bedtime. I take elevators instead of stairs wherever possible.

Eventually, the scale said I was two pounds heavier. When I saw her last Friday, I felt my stomach tighten, my heart racing. Would I finally be granted parole?

“You’ve gained two pounds, but that still isn’t enough. Ideally, you should go up to 95 pounds.” I hung my head in disbelief. I’ve already shared with you the memorable exchange that followed.

She had finally cracked me. I was Sisyphus the Greek king, forever trapped trying uselessly to push a boulder up a hill. Being forced to meet a standard that I could never meet was stressful and made me resent meals. I broke down sobbing in my dean’s office, in my suitemate’s arms afterwards, and Saturday morning on the phone with my parents. At this rate, I was well on my way to developing an eating disorder before anyone could diagnose the currently nonexistent one.

It seems Yale has a history of forcing its students through this process. A Yale Herald piece from 2010 told the story of students in similar situations. It’s disturbing how little things have changed. “Stacy” was “informed that if she kept failing to reach [Yale Health]‘s goals for her, she would be withdrawn for the following semester.” Unfortunately, “the more she stressed out about gaining weight, the more she lost her appetite.”

Furthermore, a recent graduate messaged me saying that her cholesterol had actually gone up due to the intensive weight-gain diet she used to release herself from weekly weigh-ins.

It is clear that the University does care about students suspected of struggling with eating disorders. And it should. Eating disorders are particularly prevalent on college campuses and Yale is no exception. However, because the University blindly uses BMI [Body Mass Index] as the primary means of diagnosis, it remains oblivious to students who truly need help but do not have low enough BMIs. Instead, it subjects students who have a personal and family history of low weight to treatment that harms our mental health. By forcing standards upon us that we cannot meet, the University plays the same role as fashion magazines and swimsuit calendars that teach us about the “correct shape” of the human body.

I was scheduled to have a mental health appointment at 9:00 a.m. and a weigh-in at 10:30 a.m. this past Friday. But I’m done. No more weigh-ins, no more blood draws. I don’t have an eating disorder, and I will not let Yale Health cause me to develop one. If Yale wants to kick me out, let them try — in the meantime, I’ll be studying for midterms, doing my best to make up for lost time.

***

 

I was in shock after I read this article. I thought the health center at the University I attended was garbage (my poison oak rash was misdiagnosed as a severe case of bed bugs, then radiation poisoning, then bed bugs again) but this seemed like an entirely different scenario. Chen’s second to last paragraph really got me thinking about the services that Universities offer for their student. Chan said, “…because the University blindly uses BMI [Body Mass Index] as the primary means of diagnosis, it remains oblivious to students who truly need help but do not have low enough BMIs … By forcing standards upon us that we cannot meet, the University plays the same role as fashion magazines and swimsuit calendars that teach us about the “correct shape” of the human body.”

Everyone is built differently, every single human body is totally different. Medical theories, beliefs, practices, studies.. everything changes so drastically every year that it’s hard to believe what your current physician is telling you.

It’s also hard to determine whether Yale actually care’s about the health of it’s students or is the University trying to uphold a physical image for the donors, the alumni, and the board of trustees? What image is not only Yale, but Universities across the United States trying to send its student population? What’s the message the Universities are sending to potential students?

To credit Yale, at least there are programs (good or bad) that are implemented to at help treat, and attempt diagnose a physical ailment. I’m not sure where the line is crossed, however, when Yale forces students to “gain weight” based on inadequate and outdated tests. It’s clear that problems like eating disorders do exist, especially at an ivy school like Yale where expectations and standards are much higher than other Universities.

It’s important to remember that Colleges and Universities within the United States are businesses, geared towards making money but also offer higher education and technical skills for those who attend. Often times its hard to depict whether an educational institution is prioritizing the student’s interests first, or prioritizing the University’s interests first. At this day and age when College is considered a “right” and not a “privilege” for high school graduates, and the amount of potential college attendees has increased by 6 million youths since 2000, its not surprising that  an educational institution will put its own financial needs before its student body.

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Moving in a different direction, Chan’s article also got me thinking a lot about my own college experience- I reflected on all of the times I went through hardships during my college days. I remember all the times I witnessed people struggling during college. Chan describes herself as very petite and skinny, and I remember seeing girls across campus that probably look just like Chan does now, and it was easy to spot the people who were roughing it… walking by themselves usually at a steady pace, listening to music and/or head down, never smiling, eyebrows lazy. I remember feeling sorry for them, feeling pity because I assumed they had some issue, personal or academic, and I wanted to empathize with them, let them know that the sun is always shining behind the clouds.

College can be and is a difficult time of transformation for everyone. I know from experience. It’s easy to get depressed, home sick, develop an eating disorder, take narcotics or become a raging alcoholic. For a lot of young people, college is the first real time that they experience total, unrestrained freedom. (Also probably the first time that some students don’t have their mother’s forcing Lexapro and Vyvanse down their throats.) I call bullshit on anyone who didn’t struggle through their College experience in the slightest bit because figuring out who you are is hard. It’s really hard. Even if you were a communications major, you struggled. You have so many outside influences from professors, peers, roommates, parents, opposite genders, constantly pushing their own agenda on your own. It’s easy to become trapped with an undesirable roommate, a group of friends, or general area of study.

Long story short, you make College what you want it to be. College for me was an amazing experience, once in a life time, literally. It should be this way for everyone, and often times its not, as Chan showed me with her article. I sympathize with students who have a difficult time physically and emotionally during this experience, many whom have a job and pay their way through school. As I did. Naturally my parents helped me out when they could and I was never sleeping under the bridge, but there were times I struggled. And I’m not talking about eating ramen and water for a week, struggling. I’m talking about stealing food and coffee from the University cafeteria because I’d rather spend the my last $5 on a pack of cigarettes than pay for a half-sandwich at Subway, struggling. If you’ve been there, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I rarely went out on weekends, I couldn’t afford a frat, nor would I pay for it. I had a legal connection for Marijuana so I sold weed to my immediate friends on the side to pay for my gas and groceries. I was never unhappy. I was content. I just had to work, make sure I was ahead. I had to stay focused. I did not work through school for “fun” or “the experience”. I didn’t have a job to boost the word count on my resume. I worked because I had to. But I also enjoyed it. I sold bud because it was the quickest and easiest way to get extra money when I was a full-time student and worker. I enjoyed that too because I could see and socialize with my friends on a weekly basis. And even working two jobs, my parents still sent me money every month so I could make rent. College was a struggle, but I had a grand fucking time and I’m pretty sure I got all of the education and experience I needed.

Bare in mind that there are still millions of American youths who do not and will not ever have the opportunity to attend a College or University. There are countless people that will never experience the “gloried babysitting” of attending a 4 year university. I always keep in mind that there is always someone else who is less fortunate, someone else who is fighting their own battle, someone who is literally is sleeping under the bridge, at this very moment.

So remember, if you’re an alumni, an attendee, or a potential college student, be grateful of your opportunity. Let it all hang out. Whether its work, college, a relationship, or anything worth having, always put as much time, energy, and effort into that thing that you expect to receive back.

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You can follow Frances on Twitter at @160chan.