December 17, 2003: A moment with...

Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Janet Dickerson


As vice president for campus life, Janet Smith Dickerson oversees a diverse domain that includes the Frist Campus Center, health services, and athletics. Known for her on-site investigations, Dickerson has traveled to road games with the football team, and tagged along with public safety officers. President Tilghman recently appointed Dickerson cochair of the University’s Task Force on Health and Well-Being. PAW’s Mark Bernstein ’83 caught up with her.

The University has been paying more attention lately to student stress and mental health. What is being done?

A lot of things. We’ve added staff in the counseling center and expanded the opportunities for health education, including education about stress. A significant number of students – nine or 10 so far this year – have been hospitalized for mental health challenges such as bipolar disorder, eating disorders, trauma, and depression. Some students have needed to withdraw from the University. But these are small numbers relative to the general population. One thing that contributes to a healthy balance here is that recreational activities and athletics are really a part of the culture of the University.

Has the number of students receiving treatment for mental health problems increased over the last several years?

Yes, it has increased substantially, for a number of reasons. The stigma of seeking counseling or treatment has been reduced. We have more active outreach activities, such as outside speakers and depression-screening days, and these have brought more students in. It’s also much more customary for people to be taking psychotropic medications for conditions such as attention deficit disorder when they arrive at Princeton, so medications management is an aspect of mental health care that we have had to prepare for. And this is an age where there’s a lot of experimentation, a lot of pressure to perform, so students may take things that they think might be performance-enhancing, or they’re just testing their limits.

Are certain types of students especially susceptible?

These issues affect everyone. We did a survey last year. Seven percent of students said they knew someone who had attempted suicide in the last year, and 6.5 percent said that they themselves had contemplated suicide in the last year. More report that they sometimes feel overwhelmed by all they have to do. But it’s the nature of the world. I say, this is boot camp for life. You can’t be a world-class thinker, which you are expected to be here, if you don’t have some experience with stress. But that’s why it’s so important to have an environment that acknowledges the stress, creates opportunities for people to alleviate that stress, and helps remind students the world is larger than the bubble that is Princeton.

Today’s students have high expectations for themselves. The sense of competition, even once they get here, is keen. They’re always competing, whether it’s to get into a dance organization or the Woodrow Wilson School or an eating club or a singing group. But these are the kinds of pressures you’re going to have to balance all your life. Talented people who are on the fast track have to adjust to the concept of multitasking.

Are you making headway in fighting alcohol abuse?

Some, but there’s no permanent solution in sight. Students coming to college experience freedom but are also encouraged to be responsible for their behavior. We know there is going to be some experimentation. We know there’s heavy drinking. I acknowledge that some of it takes place in the dormitories. Students have a right not to have their rooms inspected, so it’s feasible to have alcohol in the dormitories. But we’re trying to reshape our policies so students can agree to create places, including substance-free areas, where those who might experience the secondhand effects of drinking, such as noise or rowdiness, don’t have unreasonable environments.

Is there more student interest in fraternities and sororities?

The numbers of students in fraternities and sororities seem to have stayed about the same over the last decade, at roughly 20 percent. We know the organizations exist. We wish they didn’t, because they tend to have their rush or pledge season right at the beginning of freshman year. That conflicts directly with the residential colleges’ efforts to build a heterogeneous community within each college.

Princeton has cultural centers for women and minorities. Is the goal to have a multicultural campus or to provide a space for groups that want to associate among themselves?

Isn’t it possible to have both? We are a multicultural campus, and I hope that we can acknowledge that and celebrate it. At the same time, it’s a good strategy to have places that are focusing on particular topics, like women’s issues. I heard someone refer to cultural centers as being like cultural gas stations. People can go there and be re-energized and be able to get back out and do the work they have to do.


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