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A course in calm

Smoothies, squash games, and dogs ease stress at semester’s end

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By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / December 15, 2010

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Two student health ambassadors inside a Boston University ballroom scooped pineapples, strawberries, and ice into a blender with a little orange juice, ingredients for stress-relieving smoothies aimed at calming the nerves that come with final exams. Nearby, students stretched with yogis, took deep breaths with psychologists, or logged on to Facebook (breaking their social media fasts).

For administrators on campuses across the country, finals week means finding ways — be they wacky or serious — of helping students relieve pressure and cope with the stress of end-of-term exams.

This week, Wellesley College scheduled events, including squash games and folk music concerts, from sunup to sundown. Northeastern University held a gingerbread-house-decorating contest. And yesterday, Tufts University offered a dog therapy session with four energetic pooches that rolled over, shook hands, and chased balls with students in the lobby of Carmichael residence hall.

“It’s a program almost everyone will like, that students will come to of their own volition. Plus, I like dogs,’’ said Michael Bliss, a Tufts residence hall director. Bliss joined forces with Carrie Ales, assistant director of resident life, who brought in her Australian shepherds, Sully and Stella. Two students also brought in dogs.

“Students take their academic work very seriously, so to sort of break the stress-cycle is great,’’ Ales said as her dogs bounded around the room. “I think the mindset is just to barrel on hard, and at the end, just sort of crash. This is a sort of ‘substance-free’ release. It’s a holistic way to help students deal with their stress.’’

Students and school administrators say that final exams and stress go hand-in-hand. The end of a term often means cramming a semester’s worth of work into a few days of study. For many juniors and seniors, it also means the future is no longer an abstract idea, but a nearing reality, as college comes to an end in a murky job market and increasingly competitive graduate-school landscape.

The current generation of college students is on track to become the most educated generation in American history, according to the Pew Research Center. But students say rising loan costs and managing the expectations of their elders and their peers increase the intensity of an already stressful time.

“You definitely feel it sitting out in front of you,’’ said Bliss, 23, who graduated from New York University last spring and is currently a graduate student at Boston College. “You look past four years of college and say, ‘What’s the end result?’ . . . And you look and see that some of these people who graduated two years before you don’t have a job. It’s definitely daunting.’’

School administrators admit that finals, by their very nature, are stressful, and said the increased attention to student wellness has more to do with society becoming more health-conscious than students becoming more stressed out.

“There’s been a cultural shift toward wellness overall,’’ said Michelle George, whose title at BU is wellness coordinator.

Stress comes in a variety of ways during exam week, from growing dread over grades to anxiety about going home.

“I’m really stressed out,’’ said Giovanna Sepulveda-Betancur, a senior health science major at BU, who said she was so overwhelmed she took a few days to go home to Miami.

Freshmen going through their first experience with college finals often are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that must be done in a small amount of time. The dogs at Tufts brought some of the comforts of home to freshman Saba Buser, who, when at home in Oregon, walks her dog to clear her mind. So yesterday, Buser gave herself a little dog therapy before doing her second three-page essay for American literature, this one on the motif of the quest narrative in the film “The Living End.’’ Her deadline for the essay was three hours away.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.