After 20 years of watching a growing tidal wave of stress and pressure loom over high school and college students, two Stanford University resident fellows have decided to do something about it.
Drew Krafcik and Amy Larimer, a husband-and-wife team with experience in counseling, psychology and teaching, have launched a new kind of college prep program aiming to ready high schoolers emotionally and in their mental health rather than academically.
The five-month program, called Gradiant (merging the word "gradient" with "radiant"), aims to give second-semester high school seniors a space to explore questions both banal and deep-reaching, from how to choose a major to learning to be vulnerable, before they embark on one of the biggest transitions of their lives. The co-founders hope that helping teenagers develop a stronger sense of self earlier will set them on a healthier and happier path through college and beyond.
The launch of Gradiant coincides with unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety on college campuses, including at Stanford. In a 2017 American College Health Association survey, nearly 40 percent of college students said they had felt so depressed in the last year that it was difficult for them to function and 61 percent of students reported feeling "overwhelming anxiety" in the same period.
"I think people throw around words like this, but in our experience it's very real — the epidemic of loneliness, of sadness, of anxiety, of overwhelming stress, of perfectionism," Krafcik said in an interview in Gradiant's Palo Alto office. "People build an accidental fake life based on this inertia of who they think they should become.
"When we think about the transition to college this whole program is about, what if we back that up and you started to think about who you've been, who you are and who you want to become, and start to talk about your hurts, your pains for real?"
The Gradiant program is ambitious — and has a cost to match. Five months of group meetings, one-on-one time, mentoring, parent education and other services cost $19,000 per student, which can be paid monthly. They are offering two full scholarships for the first cohort of students starting in January and hope to expand that in the future.
"Our belief is that Gradiant offers skills for a lifetime invested in and valued now that reduce student's suffering and amplify their well-being," Krafcik said.
For the couple, Gradiant feels like a natural extension of their professional experiences. For the last three years, they have worked with Stanford freshmen as resident fellows in a dorm. Larimer is also the assistant director of Stanford's architecture program, taught high school students in a university summer-school program and is the co-founder of her own design firm Larimer + Bernheim. Krafcik has worked as a therapist, counselor, the director of spiritual care for a hospice program and was an assistant professor and interim director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Saint Mary's College of California. Together at Stanford, they teach a course on love and relationships.
For years, they've been developing a curriculum that advocates for a more holistic approach to education, drawing on their professional experience and research.
"So often responses to mental health become incredibly siloed, like 'Take this wellness class' or 'Go meet with this therapist,'" Larimer said. "We wanted to create a program that was integrative, where all of those needs could be addressed and met in one place, and (in) enough time that it can be practiced and learned and habituated and become a culture of impact rather than a one-off."
At Gradiant, 12 to 14 students will participate in two-hour weekly group meetings with Krafcik and Larimer during which they can talk about whatever's on their mind, while the co-founders weave in practical skill-building. Apprehension about making friends, for example, could offer an opportunity to talk about facing fears with realism or how to form meaningful relationships.
Once a week for an hour and a half, the students will spend time in smaller groups with a Gradiant mentor, who is a current Stanford student or recent graduate. The students can choose how to spend this time, whether it's going out to coffee, exploring the Stanford campus or hanging out at Gradiant's airy space, filled with plants, books and comfortable couches. The students also get an hour a week to text, FaceTime or otherwise communicate remotely one-on-one with their mentor.
Every month, parents will come in for their own two-hour group meeting. Krafcik and Larimer hired two family therapists to oversee parent development. The co-founders intend to have a flow of communication between the parents and students, so issues either group is talking about (Parents: How should I communicate with my child when they go to college? Students: How do I not want my parent to communicate with me when I go to college?) can be explored with the other.
"There's so much emphasis in high school on academic preparation and that is valued so deeply," Larimer said. "What about everything else?"
This resonates with Meghana Rao, a Gradiant mentor pursuing a master's degree in statistics at Stanford. She met Krafcik and Larimer while working as a resident assistant in the same dorm where they are resident fellows. In high school, she felt like she was "checking boxes and feeling academic pressure" and was "not as full of a person as I wanted to be."
Similarly, her freshman year at Stanford was "a year of just following what everyone's doing. If everyone in my dorm was staying up until 4 a.m., I'm going to be up until 4 a.m.," she said. "It was only later that I realized that I can advocate for myself, I can think about what I want and I can make meaningful relationships in the way I want to."
The co-founders specifically structured Gradiant mostly through groups to mirror real-life college experiences and to give the students immediate practice in making friends and forming healthy relationships. Krafcik and Larimer intend to be responsive and flexible with each group, so no two cohorts will feel the same.
And while they expect to discuss issues like anxiety and depression, they don't intend Gradiant to be a replacement for mental health treatment. If any student's psychological needs exceed their capabilities, they will help refer them to an appropriate resource, Krafcik said.
When talking about their program, Krafcik and Larimer effuse sincere optimism and passion for their work. They're admittedly uncomfortable about the cost of the program but said want to do their part, at this starting point, to address mental health crises on college campuses.
"The need is explicit and it's not going anywhere — and it's not being addressed seemingly in ways that are effective," Larimer said. "We're deeply committed in all spaces of our life on multiple levels to attempt to work systemically to begin to address them from an embodied place."
Gradiant is accepting applications for its January cohort. More information and the application instructions are posted at gradiantlife.com.