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Is 'Sleep When You're Dead' Georgetown University's Unofficial Motto?

01/06/2016 11:51 am ET | Updated Jan 12, 2016
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Two years ago, Georgetown University students Evan Sterrett, Jimmy Ramirez and Carolyn Lehman made a short film called Sleep When You're Dead, seeking to highlight Georgetown's unhealthy sleep culture. The film begins with University President John J. DeGioia's voice, taken from a promotional video, speaking to the "Georgetown Expereince."

"Here at Georgetown, we expect a certain kind of faculty member and student to be here committing their lives to the very best you can do in a university. This is a place where you may be able to do your very best work and become your very best self," he says, describing an air of specialness lingering over Georgetown's hilltop campus.

President DeGioia is not wrong. Georgetown is special. The opportunities students are afforded are endless. The experiences they have are valuable and rare. But as anyone who has ever had anything valuable and rare should know, such qualities come at a price. At Georgetown, that price is sleep.

At Georgetown, as at other universities, a student is busy from the moment he wakes up until the moment he finds himself back asleep. With the average student balancing five full academic courses, a part-time job or internship, regular exercise, and some form of social life, it's no wonder time for sleep can be difficult to find. Unfortunately, we can't stop here because, you see, I've left a very important part of Georgetown life off the list.

This is the part of student life that I choose to refer to as the "Extracurricular Epidemic." Georgetown students' involvement in clubs and organizations is unlike anything you've seen before. Every student is a part of at least one organization; most students are a part of many. The university's website officially recognizes over 200 co-curricular cultural, academic, social and political organizations. A handful more exist on campus that go unrecognized by the university, such as H*yas for Choice and Greek organizations, usually on the basis that they do not line up with the university's Catholic heritage.

What's so wrong with students getting involved? Nothing, when done in moderation. Clubs and organizations are an excellent way for students to build up resumes, explore interests, and meet new people. There is, however, a problem when students stop defining themselves and their peers by "who they are," but rather by "what they do."

At Georgetown, some clubs have open membership and anyone who wants to join can join; most do not. Most clubs at Georgetown choose members based on a combination of essays, applications and interviews. It's a dirty little secret that many clubs at Georgetown have a lower acceptance rate than the school itself. Upon acceptance to these selective groups come many rewards. With the university having only a very small Greek community, these clubs hold many students' keys to friendship and social interaction. They also provide opportunities for students to network, develop professional skills, and beef up their resumes.

But when social worth is defined by what a student does outside of the classroom, there is incentive to overcommit. The positive returns these clubs offer start to decline when a student holds a time-intensive role in five, six, seven clubs. Add these roles to the five full academic courses, part-time jobs or internships, regular exercise, and social lives students already maintain and you can begin to see why Georgetown's sleep culture has reached an all-time health low.

To get to the source of our sleep problems, I surveyed 50 Georgetown undergraduate students. When asked, "Do you believe Georgetown students as a whole believe sleep is important?" more than 75% said no. When asked how many hours they believed the average Georgetown student received each night and how many hours they themselves received, answers consistently ranged between 5 and 7 hours, coming in shy of the National Sleep Foundation's recommended 7-9 hours for adults between the ages of 18 and 25.

When asked to describe Georgetown's sleep culture as healthy or unhealthy, all but one student described it as unhealthy. One student wrote,

"Georgetown students are so hell-bent on getting good grades and being over involved in about eight different clubs that getting a good amount of sleep is often very far back on their priority list. The schools seems to encourage a "healthy" sleep regimen but the stress culture perpetuated by its students and the workload given by its faculty makes this nearly impossible."

Another student added that Georgetown's sleep culture is so unhealthy that "most people who take their sleep schedules seriously are ridiculed."

But this is just that--a culture, one that students must and generally do buy into. As a result, sleep is considered a luxury rather than a necessity and students compete for who can do the most on the least sleep. When asked, "What prevents you from getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night?" one student answered:

"Sometimes it feels as though you can't or shouldn't go to sleep while others you know are still up and doing work because it feels like you are slacking or like others are judging that you do less work than they do."

Georgetown students know there is a sleep-deficit phenomenon on our campus. Every single student I surveyed acknowledged it. So what improvements can be made? How can Georgetown spark its own #SleepRevolution?

Well, we can start by encouraging students to value quality above quantity. The student who is the leader of five clubs, maintains a 3.9 GPA, volunteers on weekends, and sleeps less than 30 hours a week is not the only person who graduates. He is not the only person who gets a job. He is not the only person who succeeds. At a certain-point, his sleep deprivation curtails his success.

You know who else does graduate, does get a job, and does succeed? The student who is involved in one or two organizations in a meaningful way, who gives as much priority to his health as his schoolwork, and who understands that success is not a competition.

Georgetown's Director of Health Education Services Carol Day adds,

"We are trying to encourage a campus climate of sleep adequacy by sharing the facts about sleep with students in a variety of ways and urging them to prioritize self-care by not taking on so many things to do that demands on their time exceed the time students have to give. The advice that we give students is to prioritize sleep in lieu of many other things so that overall well-being can be optimized and memories from studying can be solidified."

President DeGioia is correct. Georgetown is a place where you can do your very best work and become your very best self. But you and I both know your very best work and your very best self aren't discovered at the bottom of a redeye in a library cubicle at three-o-clock in the morning. Health is success. Treat yourself like you want to succeed.

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