When College Just Becomes About Pressure, Everyone Loses

I went to summer camp with Eldo Kim, the Harvard student that officials arrested earlier this week for sending fake bomb threats to avoid a final exam.

We hadn’t talked in a few years, since high school ended and we set off to colleges on either extremes of the country. When a mutual friend messaged me a couple days ago, asking, “Have you heard about Eldo?” I assumed that Eldo had won a prestigious award or secured an impressive internship.

As far as I knew, he had always been brilliant.

When I responded in the negative, the friend sent me the link to a Boston Globe article. I didn’t even click the link and read the article’s text; the headline was enough to stop me in my tracks. Eldo Kim was responsible for Monday’s bomb scare at Harvard, which had prompted University officials to evacuate buildings on campus and cancel certain final exams that were due to take place.

What?

I was in the middle of progressing through my own set of finals, coffee-saturated and sleep-deprived. For a few seconds, I couldn’t process the headline as more than what it was — a block of text, morbid and heavy, on my computer screen.

Later, I read more articles that detailed what exactly had happened, trying hard to stomach the fact that Eldo — who, at 15, giggled at dirty knock-knock jokes and hit on girls with SpongeBob-inspired pickup lines — now had his picture splashed across CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and more.

According to the Crimson, Eldo used an online application called TOR to generate a fake IP address and another called Guerilla Mail to send four anonymous emails under this new IP. Two went to Harvard officials; one went to the president of the Crimson, the student newspaper; and the last went to an unspecified affiliate of the University. The emails indicated that bombs had been placed in four buildings on campus — cautioning officials to “be quick for they will go off soon.”

Eldo sent the messages at 8:30am. He had a psychology final at 9am in Emerson Hall, one of four bombsites listed in his emails. Per his plan, he didn’t end up taking that final. Instead, he was taken into custody and charged with a federal crime that, at worst, could earn up him to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In the police affidavit, Eldo claimed that he faked the bomb threat on his own and his sole motivation was delaying that final exam.

Eldo was stressed out — police and news reports seem to indicate that. Maybe he just didn’t feel well prepared for his exam. Maybe he was struggling with the three-year anniversary of his father’s death — after a long and difficult battle against cancer. Regardless of his reasoning, it must have been predicated upon stress.

Possibly, he thought that delaying his final would prevent him from receiving a bad grade. He could have more time to study. He must have thought that his life hinged upon that final in some way — that one F, D, C, or even B could have dire consequences for his long-term aspirations and career goals.

The sad irony is that he ended up ruining his own life in an entirely different way.

***

I thought about this a lot as I finished the rest of my finals — taking the exams or turning in the papers that would allow me to finally draw the semester to a close. Those fake bomb threats were an isolated example of idiocy on the part of one student. However, they indicate the amount of mental duress that most college students experience each time finals approach.

On Tuesday, I ran into a classmate during one frenzied 4am session at the library. He was usually very relaxed about school — taking a “chill with it, go with it” stance on all things academic. However, with bloodshot eyes and trembling hands, he looked like a creature from Hell that day.

“Steph, I’m dying,” he said, six feet and three inches of neurotic anxiety so palpable he could’ve given Woody Allen a run for his money. “My final is in four hours, and I don’t feel ready at all.”

This classmate chose to cope with his stress by sitting down, thumbing through more of his notes, and drinking disgustingly high dosages of caffeine. However, his sentiments — like Eldo’s — reflected the high-stakes, high-pressure environment that higher education can often become for certain students. Usually high achieving, he was tripping and stumbling as he navigated the academic rat race.

For students like Eldo, the pressure can be too much.

For most students, it creates an unhealthy mindset that lends toxicity to their work ethic — going to class, taking exams, and completing assignments becomes less about understanding the material than it is about receiving a particular grade. Grades matter for them, and when these students feel as though they are toeing the line between an A, a B, or disaster, many drive themselves mad.

Take a stroll through any college library during finals week for a glimpse at bleakness. Students pull all-nighters — coffee cups stacked next to their textbooks, their hair tangled and knotted into birds’ nest frizz, and the sweatpants they’ve worn for three days in a row smelling faintly of tacos and agony. They push themselves because their assignments, exams, and grades seem to carry so much weight.

How do we fix this?

How do we relieve pressure from higher education and allow it to become more conducive to its intended purpose: learning above all else?

How do we keep students from working themselves to exhaustion in order to avoid one bad grade and how do we show them that the impact of an imperfect GPA is far less severe than they’d imagined?

How do we remind students why they came to college in the first place? TC mark

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