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University of Copenhagen
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Our best students are affected by stress

Interview — Benedicte Fonnesbech-Wulff has supervised history students for years. Her students are more capable than ever. But even the best of them succumb. Something in the system is broken.

A direct glance from a head slightly tilted. A silver-grey mane over a crimson fleece jacket in a narrow office overflowing with books. Benedicte Fonnesbech-Wulff sticks out at the Saxo Institute. She is the only person at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) who is employed as a teaching associate professor where she teaches history students half time, and does student counselling the other half.

She has done student counselling for many years, so if you would like to know how students are getting on at university, Benedicte has the experience:

Today it also affects our star students, the ones you would have thought would go full speed ahead into a beautiful future

“As you see, there is a box of Kleenex on the table, and the tissues are put to good use during supervision interviews at the moment. Students having a difficult time Throughout their lives, they have been put under pressure to move forward. And most of us – also the young people – need to stop sometimes and say: “Where am I, where am I going, what do I want to do – and why”. There are not very many good opportunities to do this today. It used to be possible to take a leave of absence between the bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes if you needed some space to make an informed choice. This is no longer the case anymore, because you lose your legal guarantee and can in this case no longer be certain of getting in to a master’s degree programme. This is serious.”

Ailing star students

When Benedicte says serious, she means it diagnostically. Because there are far more students who go on sick leave today than before. There have always been students who couldn’t keep up. But the counsellor finds that this group has also begun to include the very best students:

BENEDICTE FONNESBECH-WULFF

64 years old. Master of Arts in history and ethnology from UCPH in 1982. Worked with local history projects in the western part of Zealand, until she in 1994 was employed as an external lecturer, then as a teaching assistant professor. Since then she has done student counselling, and she has held her current job as a teaching associate professor, where she, since 2005, counsels half time and teaches half time at the Saxo Institute’s history unit.

“Today it also hits our star students, the ones you would have thought would go full speed ahead into a beautiful future. They are suffering from stress, anxiety and are becoming seriously ill. And I simply think that we, in decency, should give them more space. We have many more talented students who never really finish. And this is a very unfortunate trend.”

Not that the counsellor wants to go back to the time before the major reforms in the university and secondary school area. Because they also had positive effects:

“The students we get in today, are better over a broad front. In the years of the mass university, we had to admit many students, and some of them made you think – this is a shame, what are they doing here? Today, the bottom level of management is relatively high, and the top level is very high. It is therefore heartbreaking to know that many of them will be struck down with a sense of powerlessness at some point during their course of study. This is so hard on them.”

“It is shocking that it is an electronic system that defines the framework for the education programme that the young people end up getting.”
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According to the counsellor, who has years of experience, you can go a long way by following the students closely for short periods of time:

“When I started as a supervisor, I counselled people who had been studying for 25 years without anyone being interested in them. And then when you helped them a bit, the thesis was submitted after three months, and they moved on. But they had lived an entire working life on a student salary, with no pension contributions or sick pay, and the university was not being fair.”

But today she finds that the university has strayed too far to the other extreme. Students who want to work in depth with their material – and there are many of them – will be left behind.

Machines over people

It is both the competition state, the Danish study progress reform, and politicians’ cyclical interference in university affairs and continued cuts, that are the causes of the many talented students’ lack of well-being, according to Benedicte. But the university also has a responsibility:

“It is my experience that our electronic systems dictate what kind of service the administration can provide. The attitude seems to be that if things can’t go in to the system, they do not exist. This is a disaster for the students who have to have applications for exchange or exemptions processed. Especially because the systems often do not work, so here the university has really shot itself in the foot. Imagine all the pedagogical considerations we have about teaching, communication and study environment. And then things cannot be done anyway, because they cannot be operated through STADS,” says Benedicte, and adds:

Resources or good reason

Benedicte says that all students were previously offered one guidance session in the first semester, one in the fourth semester, and two during their master’s degrees:

“We have had to cut back on this, because we have fewer resources. Today, everyone is offered a guidance session on the third semester, where they are to choose a supplementary subject. And this choice has become so final, that it is necessary that you become very, very much in the clear about it before you make your decision. And then we have a standing offer of a guidance session on their exit from university.”

Benedicte finds the scope of her job makes good sense, because she herself has teaching, and has colleagues among academic staff. Whereas the other counsellors are in a more ‘closed’ administrative system. Benedicte currently teaches a group of first-year students in historical methodology, and she has both study programme and master’s thesis supervision next to this.

“In principle I supervise half of my working hours, sometimes more, sometimes less. I also have phone conversations where the students call me, and it is forwarded to my phone. I sometimes have to work at home in order to get some peace. Like when I, for instance, have to correct assignments. But the students can reach me by phone, and they do. I don’t keep everything strictly segregated.”

Many gifted students would like to solve the riddle of the universe, and this can be intense
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Benedicte may well be called up in her summer house or where ever she is, and then she will talk, as the students do not call her for fun, she says:

“If you have a problem that has you calling me, it is usually a serious problem. Not that I might find it serious, but it feels serious for the student in the situation. And I have to respect that.”

Benedicte says that when you share a problem with another person, it gradually shrinks. Why do the students not share their doubts and frustrations with family and friends?

“Something that has always struck me is how lonely many of our students feel. And the counsellor can help them regain their balance again. We five supervisors are all aware that when a person comes up here and opens their mouth and says: ‘I really feel so alone with this’ or ‘I’m afraid of what the others will say’, then we set up a new appointment, because then you have spun the first thread. And this is what a phone call to the summer house can be. This is our responsibility. When we have taken on this task, then we have a responsibility. In the classroom, I really get the students to learn something about source criticism, because this is my job, it is my responsibility. When I am a counsellor, it is also my responsibility that people are more in the clear about things when they leave, than they were when they came in.”

The inner milking stool

Benedicte says that she tries to keep her guidelines on a very simple practical level, and that some of her concepts are so silly that students do not forget them:

“When it comes to making a plan for your life, I use the allegory of looking at themselves as a three-legged milking stool. The three legs of the stool are the head, the body and the soul. They must make sure that they are balanced out, as a milking stool is very stable unless you cut ten centimetres off one leg … This image is so ridiculous that they can remember it. I still get emails from students who write that ‘things are doing fine in terms of my inner milking stool’.”

Benedicte is 64 years old She lives far out in the countryside outside Glumsø in a small farmhouse, where she breeds hunting dogs, so she shares her address with seven labradors and three cats.

We can certainly feel that we have got fewer resources on all fronts, and you need to be able to vouch for what you do.

“My shoes betrayed me, it’s a bit embarrassing,” she smiles, and wiggles her sturdy, muddy walking shoes under the table.

What about her own inner milking stool, how are things going with that?

“I am not one to sit down a lot. I was sick a couple of years ago, and I think it was a bit stress-related. But you learn something from it. Need to do, need not to do. Need to know, need not to know. These experiences I use in the supervision of students: Is this something you need to worry about? Perhaps you only need to worry about this?” she says, as she forms a small bowl with her hands.

“Because this is something we see a lot: Many gifted students would like to solve the riddle of the universe, and this can be intense. Perhaps they should only solve a puzzle that is much smaller.”

On the question of how long the counsellor will keep on bothering to take the road from Glumsø to Copenhagen’s Amager district on a daily basis, she replies:

“I will take at least a few more years, because there are a few students that I’ve promised I will be a supervisor for … We’ll see what the newest cost-cutting plans result in. We can certainly feel that we have got fewer resources on all fronts, and you need to be able to vouch for what you do”.

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