Final exams started this past weekend at the University of South Florida, so, armed with a recorder and some very strong coffee, I decided to go around the Tampa campus in the three days before tests began to see how USF helps students deal with the stress.
Wednesday, April 26, 6 p.m. - in front of the Library
While some students at USF Student Government's “tailgate games” event were taking swings at piñatas and others created homemade stress balls, senior health science major Chase Leone played a game of “trash ball.”
"It’s like beer pong, but there’s no beer and it’s trash cans, so it’s interesting," he said as he and a friend took turns throwing soccer balls across the lawn at a group of garbage cans.
Between throws, Leone explained why he stopped by between study sessions.
"It’s relaxing, it’s fun, it’s opening yourself for just a couple minutes to talk to people and just relax," Leone said.
Senior Alaina Keith handed out candy bars bearing inspirational messages, like "You've Got This" and "You Can Do It." The Student Government director of academic affairs said, during the week, her group would give out five hundred finals’ week care packages that included a water bottle, candy and school supplies. They also held a ‘midnight breakfast’ at the Marshall Student Center (MSC), complete with overnight eggs, bacon and toast.
"We feel like it’s Student Government’s job to help them succeed academically, so I feel like students can succeed by de-stressing, so we’re really just here for the students, letting them have an outlet to de-stress, so everyone can have some fun," Keith said. "It's amazing that our whole university contributes, a lot of people in the MSC and the Library and Campus Rec and Wellness USF all try to put on these events, so if everyone else is contributing, trying to make students have a well-balanced Finals Week, then Student Government should do its part as well."
9:50 p.m. - Marshall Student Center
Around 9 pm, I headed over to the MSC Student Government Computer Services lab, where about twenty students quietly worked on projects. I stepped outside with senior Roberto Navarrete, who was manning the lab’s information desk, so as not to disturb them.
"Students come here, not only because the library’s kind of packed, but also because we offer solutions for them, so if they need help with software programs or even just small little things like fixing documents for them or even just printing stuff, we’re always available to help out," Navarrete said. "It's been booming - we've had a lot of people coming into the lab later at night (the lab closes at 2 a.m. before and during Finals), we actually want more students to come in because we have a lot of space for them to come in and just study."
11:10 p.m. - back at the Library, inside the Starbucks on the first floor
The USF Library is regularly open 24 hours a day, five days a week, drawing a decent crowd of studiers, but in the days before and during exams when it goes to 24-7 hours, the late night crowd reminds me of a busy casino on the Las Vegas Strip - yes, you might find a place to sit down, but it's going to take a bit of looking, and the most popular locations will be filled up long before you walk in at 11 p.m.
And if you're going to stay up late, you're going to need a caffeine fix, so of course, there's a Starbucks ready to hook you up.
I sit down with a trio of first year public health masters students who say they meet here every Wednesday night. Tonight, the international group is finishing up a number of projects, including a few that they admit they waited until the last minute to start.
"At nighttime, it's definitely easier to find a table here," Claudia Sanabria of Venezuela said. "It's not that clustered and they're open late, and that's what really matters."
"And the energy level too," Shirley Castillo of Puerto Rico chimed in.
"I’ve had them over to study at my house and right around 10, 11 o’clock, I’m like, ‘You know what guys, I’m going to go to bed now,'" she said, laughing.
11:25 p.m. - outside the Library
Needing to get away from the noise inside, I step back outside the Library, where I see a golf cart from Student Government’s Safe and Free Escort (SAFE) Team. The group provides students free late-night rides to their residence halls or vehicles.
Industrial engineering junior Sofia Dao sat in the passenger seat, staring at a laptop screen and cramming for a calculus three exam.
"Hopefully I'll do really well," Dao said. "I try to schedule everything - my sleep, my eating, my homework time, my studying and my work. And then, if there's time for a social life, my social life."
Meanwhile, her coworker, environmental science senior Drake Hendrix, said a mostly online course load meant he could put more hours in driving for SAFE, as well as working a second job. He also knew he had one other advantage over some when it came to stress relief.
"Thankfully I’m 21 so I’m able to have a drink now and then to cope with a lot of exams," Hendrix said with a smile.
I ask how busy the SAFE Team gets with the later hours at the MSC and the increased activity at the Library.
"It's roughly the same, but we get cranked out around 1, 2 a.m. because people want to get home and we close around 2, so we get slammed around that time," Hendrix said. "They're pretty brain-dead by that point, you can tell they've been studying for a really long time and they just want to go home."
11:50 p.m. - still outside the Library
I haven't moved because there's a new tradition that Student Government hopes to launch tonight: "the Midnight Scream."
Alaina Keith tells me it’s something she and other SG representatives saw online at other colleges, including Harvard, UCLA and Michigan State University.
(Full disclosure - I went to MSU for two years in the early 1990's, and now that Keith reminds me of MSU's history, I didn't think it was out of the ordinary for students to simply open a window and scream out in frustration during finals week.)
Students are asked to exit whatever building they’re studying in and, as a group, scream as loud as they can at midnight before heading back inside, reinvigorated. But what about disturbing people trying to study peacefully or sleep?
"There are pros and cons to every event," Keith said. "USF Wellness has earplugs if they're worried. But hopefully it won't be too disruptive, it'll be over in a few seconds, we're just hoping it will get a lot of people as de-stressed as possible."
At 11:50, it's Keith, myself and a couple of other SG representatives, who are all looking more worried about the turnout.
Then, right on schedule at 11:55, three huge waves of students come out of the Library's main entrance, clogging the sidewalk and pathways. Multiple times, Keith, standing on top of a long concrete planter, yells to the crowd, asking them to leave an exitway for students not interested in such boisterous self-expression.
At midnight, after a quick countdown, the screaming starts.
For almost 35 seconds, students yell and scream and laugh. Sometimes there's words thrown in, both in English and a multitude of languages. For just a brief moment, dozens of students are sharing in the same emotion, or at least the same expression of emotion.
When the screaming stops and people are still laughing and reliving the moment, I turn to a very relieved Keith.
"I was expecting a good, decent amount of people, but not you know, maybe over a hundred or two hundred that looks like are out here right now, so I’m really happy, it looks like everybody had a great time," she said.
She looks down at her phone and back up at me.
"I was texting a lot of my friends who were at other locations around campus, they said that they were pretty packed too, I'm really happy with how many people we got out tonight," she said as the crowds began streaming back into the Library, hopefully a little more relaxed and definitely a lot more hoarse.
12:10 a.m. Thursday morning - the Bull Fountain outside the MSC
I'm walking the half mile from the Libary to my car, and while there are no students around, every couple of minutes, off in the distance, I hear someone screaming - sometime one voice, sometimes two, sometimes someone replies to another cry. Apparently there’s still a little stress left.