Suicides at top U.S. university campus reveal extremely severe competition 2009-08-01 12:51:17   Print

    LOS ANGELES, July 31 (Xinhua) -- The suicides of three Asian students at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Southern California in the past three months have revealed the extremely severe competition at the top ranking U.S. universities and tremendous pressure the students have faced.

    Long Phan, a graduate student from Caltech, was found dead in his apartment last week.

    Early this month, Caltech senior Jackson Wang, a mechanical engineering major from Hong Kong, was found dead in his dorm.

    Last month, Brian Go, a computer science and math major student from Maryland, was found dead in his student dorm.

    Wang and Go committed suicide by asphyxiation by helium inhalation. Although Phan's death is still under investigation, it is most probably another suicide case.

    The high suicide rate among students has put the university on alert. The university board of trustees held a meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue and Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau recommended the formation of a mental health task force in response to the two, and perhaps three, suicides on the campus in the past months.

    In a letter to faculty and students, Chameau said he would recommend to the board the establishment of a task force "charged to look across Caltech to identify ways in which we can improve the mental well-being of members of the community and more effectively address mental health issues, including suicide risk."

    "One consequence of these illnesses may be that the person loses hope in finding a solution to their problems," Chameau wrote. "Suicide is not the solution. The answer is treatment for the illness that causes them to lose hope," he added.

    Chameau admitted that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students.

    "In times of depression or any difficult period, seeking help from families, faculty, friends and counselors is a reasonable and important thing to do. I urge anyone who is concerned about his or her emotional well-being or that of someone close to them, to talk to one of our counselors or a faculty member," said Chameau.

    The university also offered 24-hour counseling services to help students find solutions to their problems to avoid similar tragedies.

    While school authorities were talking about mental illness and counseling services in public, students at the university were talking about the tremendous pressure they have faced.

    Caltech is a leading private research university in the U.S., with its academics being the recipients of 32 Nobel Prizes and hundreds of other prestigious awards.

    It is ranked 7th in the US News & World Report's Graduate Engineering Ranking 2010 and is also ranked among the Top 10 Schools for a number of engineering specialties, and No. 1 for Aerospace, Aeronautical and Astronautical.

    Caltech has only about 900 undergraduates and 1,200 graduates. Asian students consist of 39.8 percent during the 2008-2009 academic year. Teacher and student ratio is as high as 1:3.

    Caltech is widely considered as the hardest school to get into in the U.S. and perhaps in the world. In the Fall semester, Caltech only enrolls 230 students, but there are over 4,000 applicants.

    Once in the school, everyone will face the extremely severe competition. One student was told once he got in by his classmate: "I aim over the heads of most students in hopes of spurring something in the very brightest."

    U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at the university's graduation ceremony last month that every student felt proud being able to be a Caltech student, but once in the school, they would find that everyone in the school was so excellent.

    Experts said everyone who comes to Caltech was the brightest person in high school. Thrown together with other budding geniuses in a place where the all-nighters are not just over Econ 101, and some will crack under the pressure.

    A Chinese student who got his PhD from Caltech said that the competition at Caltech was so severe that many students would burn their midnight oil and sometimes some students slept only for two hours.

    There is a tradition for the professors to go to the classrooms and labs at night to check what the students were doing. Sometimes classes were taught at night. People call Caltech a nerd heaven.

    A Chinese student from Hong Kong said besides the pressure from the school, Chinese students would usually have extra pressure from the family.

    Chinese parents always wish their children would be the best at school. If they got a B, they would be panic.

Editor: Li Xianzhi
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