Senior Asia Cutforth and junior Ethan Damiano enjoy hot cocoa this month at a pop-up event to help students relax during finals at American University. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The students began to gather early, ready to take their outdoor study break. It was a chilly, early December afternoon on the campus of American University. Beanie weather. Days from winter break.

Which means, of course, that exams loomed.

"Right now is a particularly stressful time for our students, as they are entering their final papers and their final exams," said American's president, Sylvia Burwell, who had joined the crowd.

That is why American has tried to create a bit of relief for students, she said. The university wanted them to do something fun, what with all the studying and writing.

At American, the fall examination period began in mid-December, but before the last tests and presentations of the semester began, there was Burwell and her study breaks, an idea implemented on the campus last year.

“It does build the sense of community, as you can already see, with everyone kind of lined up already,” Burwell said. "Hopefully, for them, it’s a break and helps them have a little boost as they go into this final push.”

So here was American’s president, ready to greet the soon-to-be weary scholars on the heart of the campus in Northwest Washington. There was a table with hot cocoa awaiting them, along with peppermint sticks and marshmallows and chocolate bars and graham crackers.

American’s students could assemble s’mores right here, where they had gathered to take a quick break.

"It's just a nice little relaxer," said Callen Creeden, 20, a junior from Connecticut. "In the stress of going from class to class today, I'm able to just get some hot cocoa."

That does sound like a nice little relaxer. And perhaps it was necessary too. Because what is this time of year like, anyway?

“Oh, god,” said Sadie Rey, 21, a junior from California who was with Creeden. “It’s awful.”

“I just finished crying,” said Creeden, who then laughed, so . . . let’s hope he was kidding around.

“I mean, that’s a little dramatic,” said Rey, who had three presentations that week and the following week had a paper due. “It’s not the worst thing in the world. But it definitely could be better.”

When Burwell began her tenure at American in 2017, she noticed the annual calendar didn’t have an event scheduled for her to celebrate the end of the semester with American’s students. That’s how the study breaks, known as pop-ups, came to be.

American has gone through about 2,550 marshmallows and roughly 68 gallons of hot chocolate at the three pop-up study breaks on campus this year. Burwell attended each, a university spokeswoman said, and stayed for the entire event.

This scenario — stressed students and cheerful distractions — is not limited to American’s campus this time of year.

As the weather gets colder and academic pressure increases at the University of Maryland, Kristina Rubio said, she notices small changes in the student body. There are more conversations about exam questions or class assignments. She tends to see more students in cozy clothing as the semester winds down.

Rubio coordinates events in Maryland's student union and one of her job responsibilities is helping with a series of stress-relieving, fun events for students during what she called a "historically stressful period of the semester."

There are events with free food. There are arts-and-crafts activities. Rubio's personal favorite, she said, was something called PuppyPalooza, which probably needs no explanation, but in the interest of being thorough: an event in which Maryland partners with groups that provide volunteer emotional support animals.

"I am a sucker for a large, fluffy dog with small elf ears," she said. "I'd like to think others are a fan of that, as well."

Before you fire off an angry email about all of this, allow Rubio to explain why students might welcome something like this. Rubio was a first-generation college student, she said, so she can understand. In her experience, there was academic stress, but also this push to succeed, and on top of that, concerns about the financial strain a college education places on a family.

In other words: Sometimes, there are pressures for students beyond just a test.

“They are experiencing these challenges that don’t really match up to who the demographic in college was 30, 40 years ago,” Rubio said. “That evolution creates a . . . different kind of stress that folks may have a hard time relating to.”

Ashley Venneman, who helps manage student organizations at Maryland, said around this time of year, she reminds students to take care of themselves. Eat right. Try to sleep. Make sure to take these breaks, so they can reset and refocus.

“It just is this really unique time, where it is so much pressure,” she said. “Where it’s — I have to cram and learn everything, or relearn, or reconceptualize everything I learned in this one semester, and prove it in the end. It’s just — it’s very high stress.”

Joshua Dantzler stood in the crowd at American, a few days before his school’s exam period began. The 19-year-old sophomore loves free food, he said, before adding, “I think I speak for a lot of college students who love free food.”

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