EVANSTON, Ill. — They stand outside in the cold the night before exams, wearing jeans and sweats or just PJs. And at 9 p.m. on the dot, they partake in one minute's worth of silliness for the sake of their sanity.
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It's a long-standing tradition at Northwestern University and other schools across the country, from Stanford and Harvard to Pennsylvania's Messiah College and Northland College in the hinterlands of Wisconsin. The "primal scream," as it's often called, is one of many creative ways college students are finding to blow off steam during one of the most stressful times they've faced in their young adult lives.
"It's not just your tension. It's everybody's tension you're feeding off, too," says Andrew Walker, a junior and resident adviser at a Northwestern dorm.
A film major, Walker has a screenplay to finish before the holiday break, so he gladly joined hundreds of other students to let out a few loud howls. "It hurt my vocal cords a little bit," he said afterward, holding his throat and smiling widely. "But I liked it!"
At Tufts University in Boston this week, students stripped down for the annual nude run.
Dodgeball games and trampolines
And at Santa Clara University in California, a bunch of dorm mates recently took a break from studying to go to a warehouse where they jumped on huge trampolines and played dodgeball with kids half their age.
"When we got back, I still had to type a paper," says Evan Sarkisian, a senior who is a "community facilitator" at one of Santa Clara's dorms. "But it was good to get some perspective and get distracted."
Increasingly, faculty members also are getting involved in the de-stressing process. New York University offers "tea and empathy," where students can talk to a professor about whatever's on their mind.
NYU is also among a number of colleges and universities that host late-night breakfasts during exams, where administrators and professors often cook and serve up the food.
"The president putting eggs on your plate is very different than what they expect me to be doing," says Arthur Kirk, president of Florida's Saint Leo University, which has a "midnight breakfast" attended by hundreds of students.
Kirk recalls being taken aback himself when two of his more "austere" professors showed up at the breakfast dressed as Santa Claus and an elf. "It was the elf that really knocked me out," he says, laughing.
It's not just fun and games, though. Helping students deal with stress and other issues has become serious business on college campuses.
Kirk notes, for instance, that it's common for lines at counseling centers to lengthen before exams, especially when the academic stress is coupled with holiday anxiety.
"It's an enormous challenge, especially for the public universities," he says. "There's an expectation that somehow, in a large institution, people will just know when someone's about to go off balance. That's a tall order."
For his university, he says the breakfast is just one way of trying to create community, so that students feel they belong — and so faculty can better recognize when someone is struggling.
He says tragedies like the shootings at Virginia Tech only highlight the need for that kind of awareness.
Taking a little time to goof off during exams is just one piece of dealing with a larger issue, but experts agree that it's healthy.
"There are so many pressures to compete and succeed these days," says Pat Carey, a psychologist who's also dean for student affairs at NYU. "Students are also bringing a lot of emotional needs to college with them.
"We really have to think about that."
After taking part in Northwestern's primal scream, freshman Gabriela Gonzalez downed an energy drink and nestled in with her laptop on a couch in her dorm's student lounge. It would be just one of many long nights of studying.
"Here," she says, "it's up to you. It's your responsibility. There's no one telling you to study. So that's the hard part."
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