Op-Ed: How the Music Department Budget Cuts Will Affect Mental Health of Students and F&M’s Institutional Identity

Photo courtesy of fandm.edu.

By Nathan Miller || Contributing Writer 

  Vivian Lin || Contributing Writer 

This op-ed was written solely by F&M students and was not prompted by any instructors, staff, or academic departments. We speak only as students, musicians, and beneficiaries of what should remain an equitably funded liberal-arts program.

*TRIGGER WARNING:* Mentions of suicidal ideation, thoughts of self-harm, and severe depression.

Musical involvement is an important part of co-curricular and cultural life at F&M, and a significant portion of students who are a part of the music performance community enroll in credit lessons.

These lessons are a key component of many student musicians’ experiences at F&M, including the ever-present issue of students’ mental health. Unlike many of our peer institutions, majoring or minoring in music is not a prerequisite for taking what can be a life-changing voice and instrumental lessons from our faculty. This model is one of the main reasons that makes F&M worth attending. F&M purports an environment that encourages academic exploration and close bonds with faculty and peers.

Recently, F&M’s administrators made a budget cut that will cause students or their parents pay out of pocket to take these for-credit lessons. In addition, the cut forces the music department to adopt a model of monthly masterclasses rather than weekly masterclasses. This would severely reduce the time students have to learn performance skills in the safe environment of a small audience.

F&M’s administrators must understand the balance between two goals: making strategic budget cuts with the hope of financially stabilizing our institution and preserving its character by maintaining access to the best student experience possible. This cut falls short of meeting the latter of the two goals.

The keyword here is access. Over the past several years, F&M has visibly repositioned itself to be a place where world-class educational opportunities are available for students of diverse identities from a broad variety of backgrounds. What’s neat about the tuition-included lessons at F&M is that it enables the music program both to attract new students who come for a fully funded liberal-arts experience and retain current students when they might otherwise choose to transfer. Having access to different types of music performance classes allows more artistic freedom for student musicians at F&M and can attract them to attend college here.

Now, a reason a student might wish to leave F&M is because of their mental health. One of the core factors affecting college students’ mental health is opportunities for socialization. The campus can be isolating, and the music department’s credit lessons provide a sense of community with students who have a range of interests and backgrounds. We believe the best way to highlight this is to tell our stories concerning how the music department at F&M has influenced our mental health. 

Vivian’s story: 

When I arrived at the music Pre-Orientation at F&M at the beginning of my freshman year, I was a day and a half late into a three-day event. I felt disconnected from everyone who attended because I had no idea who anyone was, and I could see that friend groups had already formed by the first day. Meanwhile, I had a roommate who I didn’t mesh well with because we were complete opposites: she was an extremely light sleeper who went to bed and woke up early, while I was a heavy sleeper but also rarely slept at a reasonable time. To make things more complicated, most of my hallmates embraced the party or sports life at F&M, neither of which are cultures I enjoy. Then, as an Asian-American born and raised in a rich town where the majority of the population is either Asian-American or white and Jewish, I felt disconnected from the student body at F&M. It felt like the white students assumed I was an international student based on my appearance and were less likely to talk to me. On the other hand, the Chinese international students avoided me because they realized that I couldn’t speak Chinese. Finally, my lack of connection to my Chinese heritage and sheltered life made me feel like an imposter in Asian American Alliance (AAA) and Asian Cultural Society (ACS), despite them being extremely welcoming and understanding student organizations. All of this social incompatibility caused me to feel more and more isolated, fueling my depression.

During the second semester of my freshman year, I was plagued with thoughts of self-harm multiple times a week and still felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I wanted to transfer to a cheaper, popular state college back home because I felt alone. The only reason I didn’t follow through with transferring was because of the one connection I had to the campus: the music department. Specifically, professors Dr. Brian Norcross and Dr. Michael Jamanis. Dr. Norcross recognized my talents and encouraged me to become a leader in the music ensembles. However, I still felt isolated since I had no one to talk to and I struggled to socialize with big groups of people. With Dr. Jamanis’s help, I connected with the other violinists in our studio’s master class because he cultivated a more relaxed atmosphere, focused on enjoying playing the violin rather than stressing out about performances and academics. He wanted our class to feel like a safe space we could retreat to when life became too much to handle. And since the friends I made there were also in the orchestra, I was able to join a friend group there, too. Because I am in these ensembles, I was able to apply to join Mu Upsilon Sigma (MUS), the music honor society on campus. Through them, along with other music opportunities presented to me by the music department, I was able to create a larger friend group that made me feel like I actually belonged.

The people in my newfound friend groups supported me and created a community I felt safe in. They pushed me to advocate for myself and my mental health. I suffer from severe depression and anxiety that was only recently diagnosed because my friends advised me to seek professional help. My friends had my back when I told my old-fashioned parents that I struggled with depression and anxiety and was taking hormonal medication for it. My friends provided me with a safety net when I was forced to take medical leave the second semester of my sophomore year. In the process, I lost my housing, medicine management, and therapy from the college all at once. I had constant suicidal thoughts, couldn’t take my remaining medication, developed severe insomnia, and didn’t have access to therapy for two months. My friends provided me with temporary shelter when I had to leave my home and was scammed out of thousands of dollars when attempting to find new housing. Without credit lessons, I would have never been able to find these friends. And without these amazing friends, I would be gone. 

Now, one could argue that I would still be able to have this fantastic experience, I just need to pay the toll of hundreds of dollars. But I know for a fact that I would’ve never signed up for credit lessons if I had to pay extra, and still wouldn’t now despite knowing how much it helped me. My sense of self-worth is abysmally low. When I was preparing for my audition freshman year I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be good enough to get into credit lessons and would’ve had to settle for the non credit ones, which meant I had to pay $500. And since getting credit lessons to me at the time was just something extra on the side, I couldn’t justify the cost. I could ask my parents to pay, but they are already paying for my entire tuition of over 70k, something I am eternally grateful for but also feel extremely guilty about. They can afford it, but it is still a sizable chunk of money that could’ve been used to pay for my tuition at a much cheaper college or something else. I would never be able to ask them to pay $500 or more freshman year just because I wanted to take lessons. At the time I didn’t think that it would be worth it. Sure I could maybe take out a loan and pay it for myself, but again, I didn’t think that paying for non-credit lessons was worth it. In addition, my old-fashioned parents think that violin is just a side hobby that doesn’t help me towards my degree, something that will “determine my future career.” These people scolded me for my choice of minor, saying that it determined what job I can get in the future. I can assure you that they wouldn’t have agreed to pay and would rather tell me to not take lessons, especially if they believe it would make me feel less stressed to have fewer classes. And I know I’m not alone. There are multiple students who have shared their stories and reasons that are similar to my own. -Vivian Lin

Another benefit of credit lessons is that it provides a small classroom environment where students can create a mentorship bond with their professor, something that F&M proudly advertises itself to have. This mentor then can help guide their students through their mental health struggles. We believe a good example of this is our next story.

Nathan’s story:

 When asked who I am at heart, I invariably say I’m a scientist. I have the drive to create knowledge and to interrogate the knowledge we have. Predictably, I’m a chemistry major, and my science life at F&M is no joke. I’ve spent my years pouring over textbooks, practice problems, papers, and the lab bench for hours on end. But science isn’t all I spend my time on.

In my second year at F&M, I experienced a mental health crisis that reduced me to a shell of my former self. I had over-ambitiously enrolled in an all-I-could-take buffet of organic chemistry, physics, statistical modeling, and calculus, and after several weeks, I could no longer tell myself that I was okay. After weeks of constant suicidal ideation, I withdrew from all four of my main courses. But I still had one regularly scheduled interaction with a professor—my weekly lesson and masterclass with F&M’s clarinet professor, Doris Hall-Gulati. In the clarinet studio, I had access to an individualized learning experience where I was deeply understood, and which enabled me to make significant academic progress in my clarinet performance despite my suicidality. 

There was one particular lesson I remember. After a particularly productive lesson, Doris told me she had pushed me a little harder in my lesson than she had in the previous weeks because she sensed I was getting better and could handle it. She was right—she knew me well enough to have a sense of my capacity to function, even in the darkest period of my life. In a semester where I dropped all four of my main courses, the music lessons and ensembles I was enrolled in provided a critical structure upon which to build my academic and psychological recovery. Being the driven and ambitious student I am, therapy alone was not enough to save me. Bass clarinet lessons with Doris were also a key part of my recovery. I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t been actively taking advantage of the tuition-included liberal-arts opportunities that F&M, crucially, provides. And thank goodness F&M didn’t end up cutting funding for tuition-included mental health counseling a few years ago, too. 

Having access to not just ensembles but to individual lessons with masterclasses has been crucial to my intellectual and mental health because it has allowed me to breathe in a mental space that’s separate from the sterile, logical thought pattern favored in the physical sciences. As with the one-on-one research experiences we champion here, having the ability to study voice or an instrument individually with a mentor who deeply cares about her students has been crucial to keeping me on track, mentally and academically. I could not have foreseen these benefits; the only way to discover them was to try. —Nathan Miller 

It is very evident that the lessons program epitomizes the close professor-student relationships that F&M markets to prospective applicants. This is a key part of F&M’s identity. At this college, we are explicitly encouraged to explore subjects outside of our areas of study as a way of enhancing our lives. 

There’s a pattern with these budget cuts, and it’s a common one: the administration focuses on the quantitative without factoring in the qualitative. We’re cutting something that has powerful indirect benefits—to mental health, cognition, and social life—which are externalized in our economic system. F&M’s administrators need to understand that students will be healthiest and perform best at a school whose funding model is aligned with its institutional identity: a place where students’ lives are enhanced by equitable access to a broad variety of disciplines and mentorship opportunities.

Senior Nathan Miller is a contributing writer. His email is nmiller@fandm.edu

Junior Vivian Lin is a contributing writer. Her email is vlin@fandm.edu

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