Students at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering enter their studies with a sense of hope and purpose. They are often young people with an interest in public welfare and socially conscious work, setting out to design auspicious futures for an ever-changing, ever-complicated world. But what happens when four years of stress, hustle culture, and careerism obscure the sense of purpose that brought them to engineering in the first place? When students lose sight of their purpose, the effect is not only demoralizing in the short term — it can have lifelong implications for wellbeing, work engagement, and fulfillment.

Dr. Harly Ramsey observed firsthand how an engineering education culture can obscure purpose and impair wellbeing in students as a professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering at USC. She has been dedicated to offsetting this trend for several years, teaching in the Viterbi School’s Engineering in Society program (formerly the Engineering Writing Program), a unique program designed to integrate humanities topics such as ethics and communication into the engineering curriculum. It is from this intersection of thought that Ramsey, a professor of technical communication practice whose PhD is in English, approaches her role as an engineering educator. In 2021, The Coalition for Transformational Education gave USC a grant to launch the Vision Venture video series, an interview project that connects engineering students to recent alumni as a way of helping students reconnect to their sense of purpose, agency, and direction. 

When, in response to the Vision Venture project, Ramsey’s students participated in a series of anonymous surveys related to wellbeing, she was surprised by the troubling results. “These students sit in front of me twice a week. I feel like I know them.” Yet, she recalls, “I had no idea how stressed and isolated many of them felt.” She was also struck by her students’ warped perception of time, noting that many had lost sight of the future — and forgotten the reasons they wanted to be engineers in the first place. 

That lost sense of purpose is now central to Ramsey’s research, as well as to her approach to teaching. “The process of education that we put engineering students through in the course of four years has been found to decrease their interest in public welfare,” Ramsey says. Indeed, a 2014 article by sociologist Erin A. Cech, which Ramsey cites as influential to her work, reveals that despite widespread discourse on “the importance of training ethical, socially conscious engineers,” longitudinal data suggest that “students’ interest in public welfare concerns may actually decline over the course of their engineering education.”

“As a moral agent and a person who cares about my students,” Ramsey says she feels obligated to use the classroom to promote purpose and agency, laying the foundation for wellbeing after graduation. “Enough of them need help; let’s bring it to them,” she said.

It was with this mission in mind that Ramsey joined forces with Dr. Julie Loppacher, the director of USC’s Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity, to bring 5-minute self-regulation exercises into the classroom. Loppacher and Ramsey designed the accessible, co-curricular model for improving student wellbeing, learning, and sense of purpose based on self-determination theory and presented the results at the 2023 Frontiers in Education Conference.

The culture of “pride in the grind culture” among engineering students adds to the collective stigma around mental health.

Triage Time

Stress and its impact on mental health are pervasive issues among college students across all disciplines, but for engineering students, the problem may be especially pronounced. A demanding academic workload, pressure to perform well in exams, and “a culture of normalized stress” among engineering students all contribute to the phenomenon of lost time (and loss of purpose) that Ramsey identified among her students and for which she coined the term “triage time” in 2022. Hustle culture, grind culture, careerism — by any name, normalized stress can be detrimental to students’ sense of agency and meaning, as the pressure to succeed obscures the pursuit of passion and purpose. For some, a social environment that rewards stress and encourages burnout for bragging points compounds the pressure. As 2024 Viterbi School graduate Jesse Tennant put it, “There is an environment where many are struggling and few want to admit it. Students seem to ‘out-stress’ each other. Many students stack their schedules to the max and constantly talk about how busy they are.” This, Tennant adds, culminates in “a cycle of escalating stress, where interacting with classmates can make one feel inadequate for not being stressed enough.” 

The sentiment echoes the findings of a 2023 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education that rates of anxiety and depression among 18- to 25-year-olds, which are twice as high as rates among teens, are exacerbated by a pre-professional hustle culture that favors employability and income over purpose. That careerist approach to education may pose financial and social barriers to leading a meaningful life, causing some students to neglect the pursuit of joy and purposeful work.

While the culture of stress is not unique to the field of engineering, Tennant says, “I believe that engineering students have a unique learning experience. Many engineering classes routinely have low exam and project scores. I took a class last semester where the average for every exam was below 50%. While the class was curved at the end of the semester, scoring in the traditional F range is demoralizing and can make you question your intelligence and whether you ‘belong’ in the program.” Moreover, research suggests that engineering students, many of whom operate in a climate of normalized — and, at times, celebrated — stress, may be especially reluctant to seek help. The culture of “pride in the grind culture” among engineering students adds to the collective stigma around mental health, Ramsey says, compounding the barriers to getting help. 

Taking five

Self-determination theory identifies three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Loppacher and Ramsey wanted to test whether dedicating 5 minutes of class time to self-regulation techniques, such as goal-setting, journaling, and cognitive reframing, could help students meet these needs. “Emotions have an impact on our cognitive state and ability to learn,” Loppacher explains. “They can be profoundly positive, and they can be profoundly limiting.” Self-regulation techniques are academic and emotional tools that improve a person’s cognitive state, preparing them to learn, feel, and be better. Each technique is grounded in data, which Loppacher shares with students to provide a basis for every prompt. Rather than simply telling students that goal-setting increases self-efficacy and achievement, for example, Loppacher presents research that students who set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals are more likely to attain them. Participation is optional, and exercises are capped at 5 minutes at the start of class. 

At a time when youth mental health is considered a national emergency and experts fret over a seemingly irremediable generational divide, fostering open, intergenerational dialogue can dispel panic and misunderstanding.

While some professors may be reluctant to yield valuable class time to student wellbeing, restricting the exercises to 5 minutes and conducting research on their efficacy ensure that the process is accessible and productive. Ramsey and Loppacher emphasize that professors are not expected to be mental health professionals, nor should they be obligated to go beyond their scope of expertise or deduct learning time from their classes. In fact, Ramsey says, “Whether or not professors care about student wellbeing, self-determination theory is a learning tool that helps students perform better in class.” By fostering holistic learners, this approach can also increase professors’ self-efficacy by improving classroom engagement and performance. 

The student response

Ramsey and Loppacher will expand the program beyond the Viterbi School of Engineering in the 2024-2025 academic year, as they recognize a ubiquitous need for co-curricular supports. Loppacher conducts optional interviews with students who have participated in courses that implemented self-regulation techniques and concludes that there are many benefits to the program, both obvious and subtle. Many have noted the importance of intergenerational understanding as it relates to stress, hustle culture, and wellbeing. At a time when youth mental health is considered a national emergency and experts fret over a seemingly irremediable generational divide, fostering open, intergenerational dialogue can dispel panic and misunderstanding. “Intergenerational relationships are extremely important in our lives, especially as learners,” Loppacher says. In one interview, a student stated, “The intergenerational recognition of my stress levels was incredibly powerful.” When asked about the role faculty and staff play in student mental health, Tennant echoed this idea of recognition and care. “While many professors and staff genuinely care about students, this should be the standard, rather than an exceptional attribute,” he says. “Students should feel confident each semester that their mental health will be prioritized by the entire institution, rather than hoping they have a caring professor.”

The idea of care — for others, for oneself, and for the future — reverberates throughout many students’ reflections on the 5-minute self-regulation exercises. “The demonstration of care from my professor was the most important thing,” one student reflected. “This isn’t just a writing class,” said another, “you actually care.” Research underscores the importance of care: in the 2018 Gallup Alumni Survey, alumni who reported having “someone who cared about me as a person” during their undergraduate years were more than twice as likely to report high levels of well-being and work engagement later in life — but fewer than 5 percent of alumni said they had. Some students have reported that a mere acknowledgement of their “human-ness” by a professor was novel: “We’re all people…engineering is a very work-heavy it’s helpful to have a reminder that you are not a machine…you need to do these things [self-regulation strategies] for the human part of yourself.”