After returning from Thanksgiving break late last semester, I couldn’t help but notice that I was somehow more mentally exhausted than I was prior to leaving Sewanee. What should have been a time of rest and relaxation had simply failed to turn out that way, and having spent over a third of the break traveling home, I began to question why I had even left in the first place. Once finals had wrapped up and I once again headed home for winter break, I took some time to consider what the effects of having both Thanksgiving and Christmas break are.
Environmental issues are some of the biggest flaws in separating the two breaks. Travel is oftentimes doubled as an effect of separate breaks, leading to an increase in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The increase in travel a student partakes in because of breaks, then, also increases their carbon footprint. Interested in this prospect, I decided to calculate how much carbon I was personally responsible for in regards to essential travel.
Over Thanksgiving break, I drove a total of 20 hours and consumed about 38 gallons of fuel in the trip to and from school. According to the EPA, each gallon of gasoline used in a passenger vehicle emits about 8,887 grams, or 8.887 kilograms, of carbon dioxide. When converted, the 38 gallons of fuel used over Thanksgiving break resulted in emissions of around 337.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide. This, of course, is a conservative estimate, and the actual total of emissions could be higher. For reference, that is about the equivalent of a one-way flight from Nashville to New York City.
Winter break saw me take two flights and a 14-hour car ride, which consumed about 32 gallons of fuel. These three trips combined to emit 1784 kilograms of carbon dioxide. My total emissions over Thanksgiving and winter break, then, sat around 2122 kilograms, or 2.1 metric tons, of carbon dioxide. That amount of emissions is enough to melt over 60 square feet of Arctic sea ice, and the same amount of carbon emissions could take me around the planet over 8 times on an electric train. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that individuals must maintain a yearly budget of 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in order to limit global warming to 1.5C. In my situation, that budget was exceeded in the span of just two months.
Part of the problem for me, as well as many other students, is that I live a fairly long distance from Sewanee. Students that have to travel long distances for both breaks will naturally generate more carbon emissions than students that live relatively close, and the fact that Thanksgiving and winter break are separate only serves to exacerbate that problem. A combined break would help limit excess emissions to a certain extent, and given the impending crisis of an increasingly warmer climate, any way to decrease emissions will help in some shape or form.
Another problem students face with the separation of the two breaks is the effect on mental health.
In 2022, Thanksgiving break lasted a total of six days, meaning that if a student was to drive or fly home during that time, they would only have about four full days of being home before having to leave again. Within two weeks of returning back to Sewanee, students then had to take finals before once again traveling back home once more for winter break. The biggest flaw is that the break is simply too short to justify the long trips home associated with students that live a greater distance away from school.
The idea of separating Thanksgiving break is a good idea in theory but not successful in practice. Giving students a handful of days before final exams to relax and recuperate should be an effective measure to de-stress, but the prospects of travel and going home for the holidays causes an abundance of stress that might completely counter the original intended purpose.
Holidays are not a great time to de-stress in the face of final exams. According to a recent study conducted by the healthcare marketplace Sesame, 2 out of 5 Americans feel their mental health is negatively impacted by the holidays. Of those surveyed, 49% reported an increase in anxiety and 41% reported an increase in depression. Those numbers are down from the height of the Pandemic in 2021, when 60% of respondents reported increased anxiety and 52% reported increased depression. If those numbers hold true for Sewanee students, one can imagine that those rates might be worsened with a combination of holiday and exam anxiety.
Besides this, the idea of Thanksgiving break being a time for students to take a break from studying is overly idealistic. In reality, it is common for students to spend time during the break studying for final exams and completing large final projects for classes. Is it really worth taking the time to travel back home if you’re just going to end up studying for finals anyway?
Students might also face economic challenges as a result of Thanksgiving and winter break being separated. According to CNBC, in 2022 flight prices were up 25%, outpacing inflation at the time and being the largest spike in airline ticket prices since 1989, the year prices began to first get tracked by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis. The increase in flight prices is a result of jet fuel becoming more expensive in the United States, seeing a 52.5% increase in price from a year ago. With gas prices still recovering from historically high levels in 2022, students end up paying a substantial amount of money for only a few days of break.
Those in the class of 2023 and 2024 might remember, whether begrudgingly or fondly, the combination of Thanksgiving and winter break that occurred as a result of Sewanee’s response to COVID-19. At the time, classes ended on November 20th, allowing students to travel home for Thanksgiving before completing their final exams online. While the circumstances behind such a decision have now changed, I cannot help but think that such a radically different system did much more than prevent the spread of COVID-19. A single break led to a decrease in travel, leading to less carbon dioxide being emitted, less stress being created by travel and final exams, as well as less money being spent on travel altogether.
I earnestly believe that such a system could have a profound effect nowadays as it once had back in 2020. That being said, it is an imperfect solution given that so much has changed since that time. I don’t think having final exams online is an effective way to take them, so a slight adjustment should be made to how the old system worked. A reasonable amended system would have classes begin earlier in the month of August, allowing for additional time to be available in November for finals to be administered in person. While this would inevitably shrink the total length of Summer Break, it should be regarded as a step to to limit the flaws inherent in the current system, fundamentally improving the effectiveness of breaks.