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How engineering students are enduring more than a mental health crisis

Engineering students have it hard—and it’s more than just “too much homework.” Uhanthean Ravilojan reports on engineering students dealing with extreme stress, sexism, alcohol dependency and more

During Orientation Week, engineering students across Canada plunge into pools of purple dye, staining their skin violet. The event commemorates the purple-clad engineers of the Titanic who stayed on board to delay the ship’s sinking. 

That tradition illustrates the engineering program’s strong sense of community and culture.

“From the outside, it looks like we’re all crazy,” says fourth-year aerospace engineering student Shelly Daniels*, “but a lot of the people who are in this program are very passionate about [the tradition].”

However, behind the tradition of purple paint soaked students, engineering students’ culture revolves around immense academic pressure. “It’s the idea that if you’re not struggling in the program, you’re not working hard enough,” says Daniels.

Jared Leiman, a third-year computer engineering student, remembers frequently considering dropping out during his first year. “[I’d] wake up at 5:30 a.m. to hop on the train, go to class, get home at 9 p.m. and talk with my parents about how I was not smart enough (…) to stay in the program,” says Jared. 

Leiman isn’t alone in that feeling and experiences like his create a culture of suffering among engineering students.

“There’s a belief that engineering is hard so we all have to suffer from mental health [issues],” says Ryerson Engineering Student Society president Prakavi Rajapratheepan. “There’s a lot of joking around it. They say, ‘it’s engineering, you’re supposed to be suffering, stressed out and mentally unstable.”

The glorification of stress fuels a sense of elitism toward liberal arts majors

For Farrah Choudury, a third-year civil engineering student, humour can provide comfort. “Engineers use it as a coping mechanism to better handle stress,” she says.

However, according to Daniels, stress is not only common among engineers—it’s also a form of social currency. If they’re not stressed, they’re seen as lazy. 

She says if a student can easily maintain a high GPA, then they’re also expected to be doing side projects extracurriculars, or they’re not pushing themselves hard enough. 

The glorification of stress also fuels a sense of elitism toward liberal arts majors. Daniels says that engineers often believe that they’re better than arts majors because, [in engineers’ eyes], they work harder and earn more money after graduation.  

Choudury, who respects students from all majors, says that “[a lot] of engineers will say [that] a liberal arts degree is really easy.”

On top of stress, drinking is sometimes considered a go-to for engineers dealing with stress. Daniels started drinking in her first year, has heard older students ask younger students, “What, you’re in engineering and you don’t drink?”

The need to be a high performer can even prevent students from participating in class. According to Choudury students in engineering were much less likely to speak up and risk giving the wrong answer, especially when compared to high school. “If someone asks a dumb question in uni, [people] think, ‘Oh, that’s the dumb kid.’ In high school, they think he’s just someone else asking questions,” she said. 

“It’s very common for someone to answer a question incorrectly…and for people to look around and say, ‘Oh my God, what is that guy doing here?'”

Daniels thinks this stems from a fear of judgment. “It’s very common for someone to answer a question incorrectly or ask a ‘stupid’ question and for people to look around and say, ‘Oh my god, what is that guy doing here?’ (…) I know it’s stopped me in the past from answering and asking questions,”  she said.

Daniels also feels there are “underlying layers of sexism and misogyny and judgement in our program.” She said she is constantly ignored and interrupted by her male peers. She once had a lab partner who tried to do all the work on his own, even asked other male classmates when he needed help instead of asking her.

Choudury said some professors treat students differently based on gender, shaking the hands of male students and asking them how their day was while acting aloof towards female students. 

A study by RTI International in collaboration with L’Oreal USA and the Heising-Simons Foundation asked women in STEM fields if they found gender discrimination to be a career obstacle. Ninety-one per cent of respondents said yes.  

Thankfully, what sets Ryerson’s engineering programs apart from others across Canada is its support culture. 

Ryerson students are much less competitive than in other universities, says Choudury, and are willing to share notes and study together.

Rajapratheepan is working to create an atmosphere of openness by reaching out to first-year students during Frosh and encouraging them to reach out to older students if they need guidance.   

Students also find that maintaining a social life is difficult because of their course load. 

“You basically end up withdrawing from most social situations to stay on top of your workload,” says Leiman. “And even if you do end up doing something social, most of the time it’s with engineering friends while studying.”

“I don’t have a social life until the winter [break],” says Choudury. 

Ryerson’s status as a commuter school makes socializing even more difficult.

Colin Evans, an alumnus of Waterloo University’s Mechatronics program, feels that living on residence helped his social life. He says that it made him closer to his peers, and not having to commute gave him more time to study. 

The pressure, isolation, and fatigue all take a toll on a student’s mental health. 

“Engineering throws so much work at you that your mental health and sleep schedule end up suffering,” says Jared.

“We’re in a crisis, and no one is looking”

Daniels talked about how a student can feel trapped in a cycle of working incredibly hard to boost their, only to get mediocre grades. After trying multiple times, they feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong with them.

“We’re in a crisis, and no one is looking,” says Daniels.

Rajapratheepan urges students to take advantage of mental health resources on campus. “You have to take the initiative to look for help,” they say “there are a lot of resources, like our society or our mental health events or guidance counsellors, but you need to find those resources.” 

Both Daniels and Choudury stated the majority of engineering students love their program, they wouldn’t sign up for a program as difficult as theirs if they didn’t.

Engineering is about constantly improving the things around you, says Choudury, and learning to do that is very empowering. 

“Eng culture is kind of like a family,” says Leiman. “The program is so diverse in terms of personalities but so tight-knit…This close-knit, family-like nature of eng culture is one of the driving forces behind my staying in the program.”

*Name changed for anonymity

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