Last November, Associate Professor of English Jené Schoenfeld met with one of her students during office hours. The student was not doing well, and could see it on her face. When Schoenfeld asked her what was going on, she let down her guard. She was just so tired, she told Schoenfeld. And so worn down.

“I feel like the culture of Kenyon is to be hard - working to the point of sleeplessness and ill health,” Schoenfeld recalled the student saying. And her body just couldn’t keep up.

The conversation gnawed at Schoenfeld long after the meeting — and it made her look critically at her own life and schedule, Schoenfeld said.

In truth, wasn’t sleep also last on her list of priorities? And didn’t she consistently stay up late, responding to emails at all hours of the night? What messages were Kenyon students really receiving about the value of their own health?

Not long after the interaction, Schoenfeld posted a confession on Facebook: “My students are so tired and stressed. I am tired and stressed,” she wrote. She asked if others in the Kenyon community were feeling the same way, and what could be done.

Schoenfeld was overwhelmed by the response — 36 comments, many affirmed her student’s concerns about Kenyon’s sleep culture and commented on their own bone-tiredness. It inspired an epiphany for the professor.

“Honestly I felt kind of dumb about it — I hadn’t really realized that this was part of the culture,” she said in an interview. “One of the things I really like about Kenyon is that students are not competitive about their grades. But it turns out they are a little competitive about how exhausted and overworked they are.”

One person who read Schoenfeld’s Facebook post with great interest was Chris Smith, Kenyon’s new director of the Cox Health and Counseling Center. Sleep was something Smith had been thinking a lot about since starting in his position the month before.

“I saw students who looked exhausted. We were in the middle of October. We had a whole half a semester to go, and I just thought, ‘Wow, these students are running on empty,’” Smith recalled.

This was reaffirmed for Smith after he attended a presentation on sleep led by Srila Chadalavada ’20 and Deveren Manley ’19, as part of their work for Robert A. Oden, Jr. Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski’s “Health Services and Biomedical Analysis” class. The duo had sent surveys to about 200 Kenyon students, asking about their sleep habits, and the results, which they shared in their presentation, troubled Smith. Some students reported getting only four or five hours of sleep a night — and they didn’t see anything wrong with that. 

Lack of sleep, Slonczewski later told Smith, was, in her opinion, the biggest public health crisis facing Kenyon. But Kenyon is hardly alone in this.

According to a recent New York Times article, aptly titled “An Underappreciated Key to College Success: Sleep,” studies have shown that “sleep quantity and sleep quality equal or outrank such popular campus concerns as alcohol and drug use in predicting student grades and a student’s chances of graduating.”

With a sense of urgency, Smith emailed Chadalavada and Manley. “We need to be working on this as a college,” he wrote.

In January, he hired the two as interns and asked them to delve into sleep research, study sleep campaigns organized by other colleges, and come up with a health and wellness “best practice” plan for Kenyon.

This fall — following their research — Kenyon launched its first Eat Well, Sleep Well, Be Well campaign with an emphasis on changing the culture around sleep and wellness at the College. The goal of the campaign, Smith said, is to get students to think deeply about their self-care habits and to provide them with instruments and tools to help them take better care of themselves. As Smith noted: “You can’t pour from an empty cup, no matter how hard you try.”

No Sleep Till Graduation

“There’s this idea at Kenyon where, between social life, academics and sleep, you can only choose two,” said Chadalavada. With evening activity meetings, papers due early in the morning and midnight pizza socials, Chadalavada and Manley found that many of their peers chose to cut down on sleep in order to get everything done.

But sleep is not a luxury — something that can be used or not, like free movie tickets. Sleep is essential to a number of important brain functions, Chadalavada explained, including memory storage and brain cell communication. The brain needs seven or eight hours of sleep a night to work properly and whisk away toxins that can harm brain cells. A recent study by the journal Nature Medicine found that sleep deprivation causes the same amount of cognitive impairment as drunkenness. In other words, pulling all-nighters has lasting consequences.

“Depriving yourself of sleep is like borrowing from a bank,” explained Dr. Ken Sharlin ’86, a Missouri-based neurologist who is also a certified functional medicine practitioner. “You know you can borrow money, but eventually you’re going to have to pay it back.” And, at that point, your body may not have any reserves left.

“What happens then is you’ll crash,” he said.

Chadalavada, Manley and Smith’s goal is to help Kenyon students avoid that tipping point. Their mission for the first year of the campaign was to start a public conversation around the importance of sleep, and encourage students to start thinking about their own self-care habits. The importance of eating well and connecting with others were later added to the campaign’s mission, to emphasize a more holistic approach to health, Smith said.

They hope to get as many people as possible to take the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index — a self-report questionnaire that assesses sleep quality based on things like efficiency and duration. A score of five or above indicates a need to adjust your sleep. “When we handed it out to our community advisors, some [of the advisors] measured well into the upper 20s,” Smith said. “They were shocked.”

In addition to helping students assess their own sleep hygiene, this information is helpful for nurses, counselors and advisors to use as a starting point when meeting with students. “We’ve always asked, generally, about sleeping and eating. This allows us to engage in a more intentional conversation about sleep habits,” Smith said.

Smith and his interns knew, though, that offering information alone, without tools for change, is often ineffective. So, at first-year orientation and in meetings with student organizations, faculty members, trustees and parent groups, Smith and Cox Center staff dispensed tips for getting better quality sleep and distributed free sleep masks. The health and counseling center also has invested in a half-dozen new white-noise machines that can be rented by students, as well as complimentary earbuds to help block out noise.

To spark community conversations, the Cox Center also has hosted a few campus wide forums about best health practices, including a well-attended presentation in October on how to use aromatherapy and essential oils to improve sleep.

Smith knows this is just the beginning. In the future, he would like to partner with the Office of Institutional Research on more data-driven surveys, with the goal of better understanding, analytically, how sleep and selfcare impact Kenyon students’ behaviors and lifestyles. “I want this topic to continue being part of the conversation,” he added.

The Science of Snoozing

Sleep has already become a hot topic in at least one classroom. In the fall, Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Andrea White taught a new class for first-years called “The Neuroscience of College Life: Sleep and Stress.” By design, the class was structured around preventing students from, well, snoozing through it.

“For a while, I’ve wanted to teach a class in psychology or neuroscience that explores the types of things college students are doing that impacts their brain function,” she said. “Sleep and stress are two huge ones.”

In the class, students studied how a lack of sleep affects their brain and cognitive function; but they were also required to practice self-help sleep interventions, like committing to a 10 p.m. bedtime for 10 days in a row, and then reporting on the experience.

“I know 10 p.m. seems super early for college students,” White said, “but I wanted students to have this radical experience of feeling well-rested.”

During the class, White explained one physiological consequence of not getting enough sleep. “By forcing your body to stay awake, your brain releases a burst of adrenaline,” she said. “Maybe not the first night, and maybe not the second night — and maybe not even the first year — but, over time, this results in the dysregulation of your stress response.”

In other words, when the human brain is unable to properly regulate the infamous stress hormone cortisol, people often become more agitated, uptight and anxious, and struggle to make rational decisions. “All of the things we don’t want adolescents doing, like drinking too much and using drugs — all of these things go up when young adults get less than six hours of sleep a night,” White said. And yet, the solution to these public health issues is so simple. “One of the simplest interventions from a health, community and education perspective is to get more sleep,” White added.

Indeed, when White surveyed her class just two days into their sleep experiment to see how they were feeling, most couldn’t stop marveling at their energy levels. “The students were like ‘Oh, my God; sleeping for eight hours was the best thing ever!’” White recalled.

For some of her sleep-deprived students, having a ready-made excuse to head to bed early was just as important as the actual challenge. “I told them to blame me, and to tell everyone that they have this strict, fanatical professor who is making them go to bed at 10 p.m. every night.” she said. During the second part of the class, students were asked to create and stick with their own personalized sleep plan.

White knows that for most of her students, this sleep routine won’t last beyond the semester. But, for the sake of their health, she’s hoping that at least a few sleep tips they’ve covered in class — like the importance of not looking at a screen an hour before bed, and establishing regular patterns for waking up and going to sleep — will stick.

“At least they’ll know that not getting enough sleep really is a problem, and they will have the tools to change [their patterns] when and if they want to,” she added.

Walking the (Sleep) Walk

For any campaign to work, there needs to be buy-in, and a culture that supports the work being done.

When Rachel Billings ’22 of Bronxville, New York, arrived on campus earlier this year, she was pleased to see the College prioritizing sleep hygiene.

“I came into Kenyon determined that I would get a decent amount of sleep,” Billings said. “I knew college was going to be different from high school. I knew I’d have a lot more freedom, so I would have to structure myself better. My mom wasn’t going to be there yelling at me at 1 a.m. to go to bed. I had to be responsible for myself.”

Billings has teamed up with her friends in an effort to help keep each other on healthy sleep schedules. “We have this running joke among my friends, like, ‘You got to get those eight hours of sleep!’” And most days, she said, she does.

Jonathan Hernandez ’21, of Durham, North Carolina, has taken advantage of the new sleep services offered by the counseling center. “Last year, I was so caught up in the idea of perfection and needing to complete all my work — even at the expense of sleep — that it really started affecting my health,” he said. This year, he has made use of the free earbuds and sleep mask, and has been averaging at least six hours of sleep every night, he said. And he sees the conversation around sleep, at least among his friends, evolving.

“I think first-year students tend to romanticize that lack of sleep,” he said.

Changing the culture takes time, though, and some students who have been at Kenyon for a while aren’t nearly as optimistic about the sleep campaign. “I think that there’s a cynicism about it,” admitted Evangeline Warren ’19 from New York. “A lot of the older students don’t believe that the larger faculty are going to pay attention to this.” That’s because Warren doesn’t think the policy has any teeth.

“In my perception, the campaign is very student-oriented; like, ‘Here’s how you make healthy choices,’ but there’s no sense that the message has been diffused to the rest of the institution,” Warren said. That’s because Kenyon students, above all else, want to succeed academically, she explained, and success is still contingent upon grades and the completion of school work.

Professors like Schoenfeld have started to recognize this mismatch.

That’s why she, along with a few other professors in the English, anthropology and biology departments, have started thinking about ways to elevate the importance of health promotion to their students. In her classes and office hours, Schoenfeld now encourages her students to prioritize sleep — even if it means that their work might not be as polished. She has made all of her discussion questions due by 9 p.m., and essays by 11:55 p.m., so students won’t be as tempted to pull all-nighters. And she no longer distinguishes between excused and unexcused absences in class, instead letting students determine their own health and sleep needs.

In the meantime, Schoenfeld said she’s working on finding her own balance — doing her best to be in bed by 11:30 p.m. and scheduling emails to send at 8 a.m., so that students and colleagues don’t get the message that faculty must be available at all hours.

“Honestly, it’s still a struggle,” she admitted. Whenever she is tempted to stay up late and push through her sleepiness, she thinks about her students, past and present, and pauses. “I want to practice what I preach,” she said. “I want my students to see themselves as whole human beings who value their health and well-being as much as their work.”

Rebecca Meiser, a freelance writer based in Cleveland, reports that she has been going to bed a lot earlier since writing this article.

How to Catch More ZZZs

Sleep is more than just a time of rest. According to Ken Sharlin ’86, a Missouri-based neurologist who is also a certified functional medicine practitioner, sleep affects every system in your body — from hormone secretion and energy production to brain function. “Your brain,” Sharlin said, “is a very demanding organ.” For the body to function at the highest level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep a night. To ensure a good night’s rest, Sharlin recommends these four tips.

Keep your room dark. Our bodies are programmed to sleep when it’s dark and rise with the sun. So if you are exposed to any sort of artificial lights right before bed, “you’re telling your brain that it’s daylight, and you should really be up hunting and gathering,” Sharlin explained.

Put your phone on “night mode” before bed. When your phone is on this setting, it emits a softer light that isn’t as harsh on the eye, and is less likely to keep you up at night.

Maintain a regular sleep schedule. This helps keeps your circadian clock — also known as your “body clock” in rhythm. When you alternate your sleep and waking time too much, your body clock gets out of whack, making it harder to fall asleep at bedtime and to wake up in the morning.

Exercise earlier in the day. Exercise is great for sleep, but hitting the gym a few hours before bed can actually keep you awake. “When you exercise, you release cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline,” Sharlin said. With your blood and adrenaline pumping, it can make falling asleep more difficult.

Best Napping Spots on Campus

The Bulletin polled students and alumni about their favorite spots to nap on campus (apart from their rooms). The responses led to some interesting revelations:

Dependable Dozing

There are some spaces that withstand the test of time: the Science Quad and Peirce. Many pointed to the Tomsich Hall common study rooms and the Bio Reading Room in Higley Hall; others noted that, when available, Peirce Lounge and the Pub, during weekdays, are also quiet, relaxing spaces for the occasional power nap.


Finally, there is the tragedy of the spots that are no longer with us. Many current students and alumni recalled napping in the Olin and Chalmers Libraries and on the third floor of Ascension Hall. Although Ascension is doing fine, limited study space makes it harder to find napping spots these days. We are all eagerly hoping for the new library (currently under construction) to have plentiful space for couches.

Secluded Snoozes

Some students and alumni pointed out underrated gems that are cozy and tucked away: dorm lounges, the Chapel basement, and the couches in academic houses (like Horwitz House), among others.

Leisurely Slumber

Students, however, rarely mentioned outdoor napping spots, instead favoring the Gund Commons game room. It’s a little noisier, but they say that it’s nice to have a comfortable couch and be surrounded by friends.

Sunny Siestas

Many alumni told us that their favorite napping happened outside on nice days. Beloved are the Adirondack chairs, hammocks and blankets on lawns.

— Paola Liendo ’20

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