Colleges Try to Take the Stress Out of Finals

Special activities at a host of schools aim to add a little more fun to exam week.

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When students go to the bathroom at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, toilet paper isn't the only paper they find. Posted on the backs of stall doors are copies of the Stall Seat Journal, the current issue of which offers tips on how to deal with year-end stress. At Ohio's University of Dayton, study breaks are coming in the form of playground games. Students went to the student union late at night earlier this week to take part in some good ol' Simon Says or Red Light-Green Light. And at Bentley University, a business school in Waltham, Mass., students got their art groove on and painted large canvases to adorn the bare walls of the campus fitness center.

While taking finals may not be fun, at least the time spent between them can be enjoyable. Says Amy Lopez-Matthews, director of student life at the University of Dayton, "We don't like to promote staying up all night and not getting any sleep, especially when they have tests the next day, but we also know that's the reality for some of the students." The private Catholic university has offered 24-hour study space in the library and student union during finals and has kept academic buildings open later to help students study. "If they're going to stay up somewhere, it would be better to give them extra space as well as stress-relieving activities," she adds.

Colgate University, a liberal arts school in upstate New York, is taking the concept of stress relief to a holistic level. Earlier this week, the university's Center for Women's Studies set up a full-fledged "stress-free zone" where approximately 100 students enjoyed Mediterranean cuisine, falafel, massages, and yoga and learned how to relax their breathing using a special biofeedback computer program. "It's like a minivacation," says staff counselor Jane Jones. Tonight, students will be able to load up Chinese food takeout containers with granola bars, fruit, and even junk food—all free—so they can create their own "finals survival kit." Staff members also will be handing out fortune-cookie-shaped stress balls.

Food is a staple of stress relief and relaxation programs on college campuses. Many universities around the country routinely hold "midnight breakfasts," where the food is served to students by faculty and staff late at night. Bentley University held its 37th biannual Breakfast by Moonlight last week, and officials used it to promote a good cause, donating the money raised (students paid a $3 entrance fee) to a local charity, Home for Little Wanderers. This year, more than 800 students attended and about $2,500 was raised. The theme was Nickelodeon, and students were encouraged to dress up as characters from shows on the popular children's television network. "These activities help bring people together and slow down things, and they take your mind off the tests," says junior Marc Santilli.

Other schools are not afraid of thinking outside the box to help calm students down. Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., holds "dog days," during which faculty and staff bring their dogs to campus to play with stressed-out students. Colorado College in Colorado Springs has a contra dancing party to help students decompress. At the College of Wooster in Ohio, students who feel particularly nervous or anxious about tests can turn to prayer; the Catholic Student Association hosts an evening prayer each day during finals, followed by coffee, hot chocolate, and brownies.

A lot of the events at colleges stem from open communication between students and school administrators. At Bentley, students asked that special fitness classes, such as fitness and pilates, be offered during finals week. They got them. "We try to listen to what students are telling us in our efforts to help them with stress," says Andrew Shepardson, the school's dean of students.

However, it's safe to say that a wish for no finals won't be granted.