Why Students Need the Arts as a Break

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Just last Thursday, my residence hall at the University of Illinois at Chicago held its biannual Coffeehouse event for a predominantly freshmen audience. Some of the best Resident Assistants and first-year students living on campus had the opportunity to showcase their talent through song, spoken word, instruments, and dance. In the midst of the countdown to finals and the end of the school year, students came together for one of the largest events implemented by the residence hall every semester.

The turnout for what we Resident Assistants call “programs” toward the end of the year is usually very small. After incoming freshmen start the school year with newfound energy to taste college life, they tend to slow down and find their own niche by second semester, focusing more on their own friends and studies. As finals approach at the end of Spring semester, first-year students’ interest in residence hall programs drops. So why did so many students attend our Coffeehouse event so close to Finals Week?

The reason could be that Coffeehouse is our residence hall’s most well-known program and has become a semester tradition. After a semester-long internship for Urban Gateways, I would also argue that it is because Coffeehouse—as a showcase for artistic and performance talent—is an outlet for students to release tension and stress after hours and even weeks of recovering from midterms and preparing for final exams.

The arts can be an alternative or complementary approach to stress therapy. My freshmen year at UIC, I took a seminar analyzing different forms of alternative and complementary medicine. It was an interesting course that definitely challenged my perceptions of less modern approaches, but the overall message was that relaxing activities help with overall stress and anxiety. To unveil vulnerability in front of peers, release intimate thoughts and expression in the form of art, and exhibit special talent may involve a buildup of anxiety, but ultimately results in empowerment and excitement once the performer realizes how accepting their audience really is. For first-year college students who live together and are still adjusting to a new lifestyle, this stress reliever can be similar to art therapy.

For college students who are constantly told that the solution to their over-scheduled lives is “time management, time management, time management”, they deserve a “No. You know what? You need a break”. This isn’t to say that students shouldn’t have priorities, or that students will resort to a stereotypical college partying lifestyle, but that taking a half hour to doodle, or listen to music, or play guitar is essential. The mind can focus on something else, not to mention that these measures can be cheaper alternatives for a young population who might already have limited spending money.

It is necessary that students have access to some kind of artistic expression on their quest to adulthood. This is certainly true of college students, and during my internship at Urban Gateways, it has become clearer to me that the same could be said for any grade level. The empowerment, stress relief, and positive outlet provided by the arts should be accessible to every young person.