by Camille Perlman
Few would disagree with the assessment that we are living in difficult times. But why are some people managing the stress and challenges better than others? Is it just their nature, or is it an actual skill that can be learned or improved? The thinking around this subject is changing, and an increasing number of campuses are taking note. “Decades ago, researchers thought that resilience was a fixed trait: you either had it, or you didn't,” says Karen Oehme, director of Florida State University’s Institute for Family Violence Studies and FSU Distinguished University Scholar in Tallahassee. “The fact that researchers now say that resilience can be developed and grown by anyone is really positive and encouraging – a perfect foundation for a universal prevention project.” Consequently, campuses are rolling out resiliency training and programs in full force to help students and staff.
What is resilience? Oehme explains it like this: “Resilience is the ability to positively adapt when faced with adversity or change. It is not a single trait, but is made up of protective skills that are buffers to stress. Therefore, resilience training is available to everyone – anyone can build and improve their resilience skills. Some students will arrive on campus with more resilience skills than others. But where there are developmental gaps in resilience skills, resilience training and skill-building can help fill those gaps.” And this training matters to students. “Emerging adulthood (18-24) is a crucial period for developmental and brain growth. Young adults face significant pressures, and mental health problems can interfere with adjustment to college and academic success. Colleges can invest to help students learn positive habits and coping strategies to manage stress. Maladaptive coping strategies, including alcohol and drug misuse, can persist post-college into adulthood.”
Recently, Florida State made such an investment when in August of 2018 they launched the Student Resilience Project (SRP), which, as Oehme explains, “takes a primary prevention approach – it is required for all first-year students, but promoted for all students, and helps students transition to college by helping them increase healthy coping skills, help-seeking, and connecting them to campus and self-help resources.” The program offers a wide variety of resources, featuring “peer videos on overcoming common stressors, videos on trauma and resilience, relaxation exercises, and audios from mental health experts to inform students about how they can build on their strengths to increase resilience.”
The SRP provides a flexible and personalized learning experience for all students and all learning styles. “The SRP is web-based (http://strong.fsu.edu/) and available to students 24/7. Two trauma and resilience videos, one audio, and one skill-building exercise are required for a completion certificate. The SRP is self-paced and student-directed, so that students can explore the curriculum and engage with the content that is most helpful for them. Students learn in different ways, so there are audio-based and video-based exercises, and expert content is geared to different student populations and concerns.”
More than 4,000 first-year students participated in the training last year. “Young adults are comfortable seeking out health information online, and some students who may not be ready to engage in a counseling relationship can benefit from mental health information from the SRP,” Oehme explains. The convenient accessibility of this program comes at a crucial time in 2020. “With COVID-19 causing disruptions for college students and their families and increased reported mental health concerns, students need more help than ever with coping skills to adjust to change and adversity in healthy ways.”
Rima Patel, a student at FSU and president of a student group called Resilient Noles, helps spread the word about the SRP. “This group adds to the mission of the project by these students bringing awareness of mental and physical wellness.” They give presentations about it in classes, set up and staff tables with information about it across campus, collaborate with other organizations, and send messages through their social media. “This organization allows students to talk to their peers about common college stressors, the project, and its benefits.” And, as she has been promoting the project, she has heard positive feedback from students. “Many students, including myself, had said how they wished they had known about the SRP when they were freshmen or even sometimes sophomores. They once spoke about how, with the concise detail and links to outside resources, it is a good starting point when addressing mental health seems daunting.” And the data supports the program’s effectiveness; as Oehme notes, “Each component of the SRP is evidence-based and has been tested, with 88% of students finding the project credible and trustworthy, 90% of students finding that the project would help themselves or others overcome challenges, and 80% would return to the site.”
Like students at FSU, those at Princeton University are highly involved in spreading the word about their resiliency program, the Princeton Perspective Project (PPP), which started in 2014. The team that keeps this program running on their New Jersey campus is made up of a student committee, the undergraduate student government, staff advisors, the office of the dean of the college, the office of the vice president for campus life, the office of the dean of undergraduate students, and the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. Their main message to students is to set aside unrealistic expectations, embrace failure as a part of life, and build their resiliency. They encourage students to role model for each other what they have learned from their failures and how they rebounded by sharing their stories in videos and testimonials online. They want to show students that we are all in this together, and we can help each other succeed. Exercises like their photo campaign, The Other Side of Me, allow students to see themselves in others around them and provide assurance that they too can weather challenging times.
According to PPP student committee members Lauren Huff and Donovan Cassidy-Nolan, there are new things to come in 2021. “As school will be online for the foreseeable future, we are planning a project to build connections between first-years and upperclass students. This initiative will be called Perspective Pals. Perspective Pals will meet weekly and discuss some of these instances of failure and setbacks that they are experiencing during virtual school. Our hope is that students make meaningful connections with someone who they may not have been able to meet otherwise and are able to become more resilient by sharing their stories and feelings around failure.”
The University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia had already been offering programming that included coaching in well-being, mindfulness, and meditation, but engagement in these offerings was moderate. The motivation to create a resiliency program came from a couple of areas. One was their campus survey in 2019, the USC National College Health Assessment, which included a pilot section focusing on resiliency. The survey reported that more and more students were being diagnosed with anxiety (increasing from 11.6% to 26.2%) and depression (increasing from 9.9% to 20.1%). And while students reported feeling personally less stigmatized by seeking help for mental health issues, they were still reporting that they felt unwell and wanted more resources for help. The second motivator was that their residential curriculum was due for an update, and this time they could add resiliency to it. With this information in hand, Kirsten Kennedy, associate vice president for student housing and well-being, charged several groups on campus to come together and build a program around resiliency.
The newly formed task force, co-chaired by Leena Holt, assistant director of residence life, and Rebecca Caldwell, director of strategic health initiatives, began working on the Resiliency Project in 2019. Speaking for the group, Holt explains that “We went through a common learning experience that allowed us to explore resiliency broadly, as well as current campus efforts. The task force included a multidisciplinary team from across campus: Student Health Services, Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity, Student Government (student representation), Office of Sustainability, International Student Services, Resident Mentor (student representation), and Student Success Center.” Together, they gathered research about why resiliency is important and began to frame their conceptual ideas for the project. Information from the Bounce Back Project revealed that resiliency contributes to reduced risk-taking behaviors like excessive drinking and that greater resiliency leads to improved learning and academic achievement (bouncebackproject.org). Studies conducted by author and educator Carol Dweck about the growth mindset (thinking you can develop your talents and abilities through effort, good teaching, and persistence) versus the fixed mindset (thinking your intelligence and talents are fixed traits) show why the growth mindset is linked to greater academic success. They discovered that this was already being used by USC’s student success center to enhance students’ academic self-efficacy.
They also looked at research on self-compassion. Kristin Neff, an associate professor in The University of Texas at Austin's department of educational psychology and creator of the Self-compassion Scales, emphasizes that self-compassion leads to greater well-being. In addition, a longitudinal study of first-year students at the University of Washington in Seattle showed that the biggest predictors of thriving in students were self-compassion and the level of school connectedness. The higher the rating a student had for these traits, the higher their chances were for thriving. (Follow their research as they continue to analyze their data at https://wellbeing.uw.edu/resilience-lab/our-research/.) Other studies on self-compassion have shown that the more self-compassion you have when you fail the less afraid you are of failure, so in turn, you may be motivated more to reach a goal (like pass a midterm) if you have learned from your failures instead of punishing yourself for them.
The task force also considered the works of other experts, including the insights about persistence in Angela Duckworth’s book Grit and studies of well-being theory, such as Martin Seligman’s PERMA model, which holds that the underpinnings of a person’s well-being are positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Finally, they looked at research from Amit Sood, director of research in the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, that speaks to the daily habits of resiliency. In his book The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness, he presents a four-step process for practicing emotional resilience. The success of this type of intervention, teaching resiliency, has been tested nationally. Faculty and staff are teaching it in classes and seminars because, with specific instruction for building skills around things like mindfulness, meditation, gratitude, and journaling (in a group or as an individual), people can learn resiliency. Some instructors are even asking celebrities to share their stories of failure and perfectionism so that others can relate to those issues in themselves and learn how to seek out alternatives to those behaviors.
After a few months of research and model building, the task force was ready to present their work to the campus community. “The Resiliency Project launched in spring 2020 with a four-part series focused on self-concept, self-compassion, reframing failure, and coping skills,” Holt says. They have already presented this series to five student groups and two staff groups. “In the spring, we had between 20 to 30 students participate. We also provided customized workshops and presentations to various campus partners, which included 50 student ambassadors, 140 Pi Chi’s, and more than 300 Resident Mentors. We are currently providing the full four-part series in the Resident Mentor (student live-in position) class which is required of all new Resident Mentors.”
Collaboration has been key to the project’s success. As Holt notes, “The Resiliency Project team also provides the four-part series in collaboration with the Division of Human Resources, Office of Professional Development and Training for faculty and staff. There have been three four-part series offered this summer, and we will offer another series this fall.” And to keep participants engaged and the project accessible, they shortened the format and prepared an online version. “The training initially started as a full four-part series with many interactive components that helped students and staff practice the skills. We recognized that not everyone had the ability to attend a four-part series and have found ways to introduce the concepts in a condensed version. Currently, the Resiliency Project is being taught virtually and in person.”
In a presentation about the project at ACUHO-I’s Virtual Summit in June 2020, Kennedy spoke about a few of the outcomes they were already seeing: an increase in self-compassion, a decrease in overwhelming feelings of worry and hopelessness, and a stronger relationship with the university. Students said they felt a sense of belonging to the university, and students of color, in particular, said it increased their sense of fit at USC. Holt and the task force sum it up this way: “We recognize that by helping students build their resilience, they can better cope with what comes their way while at Carolina and beyond. We want to help our students build these skills that we know are necessary in the workforce and in their life.”
At Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Diana Brecher’s work with resiliency keeps growing and growing. As a clinical psychologist at Ryerson’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling and an adjunct faculty member in the psychology department, she too has steeped her research and teaching in PERMA and the power of positive psychology (Seligman is known as the father of positive psychology). Several years ago, she was primarily seeing students at the counseling center, and she began thinking about what she could do to help cut down the long waitlist for appointments. She began training students on resiliency, and after completing a four-week training session with them she found that students were taking themselves off the list, saying they didn’t need a counseling session. She was so inspired by this that she set out to develop a program based on the resiliency skills she had been teaching them.
In 2016, Brecher launched the ThriveRU program at Ryerson, basing it on a five-factor model of resilience: mindfulness, gratitude, optimism, self-compassion, and grit. After many student, staff, and faculty training sessions, she began working with learning strategist Deena Kara Shaffer, coordinator of student transitions and retention, student wellbeing, at Ryerson and whose work already focused on teaching progressive learning strategies to students who were struggling academically due to disabilities. Together, they researched and formed a resiliency project called From Languishing to Flourishing: Thriving in Action as a Post-Secondary Self Efficacy Initiative, which was piloted in 2017. They studied students for two years (2017–2019) to see how they flourished using resiliency skills and ran 13 cohorts with hundreds of students, but the data has yet to be published.
In January 2020, their project was formalized into a for-credit, 12-week course called Thriving In Action and offered by the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson. News of this exciting course spread fast, and in the midst of pandemic guidelines for taking classes online for future semesters, they were asked to modify this course into an onboarding course for first-year students and returning students. Using Zoom, they taught more than 250 students and empowered them with the tools of resiliency. It began as an intensive three-day session in August, and they resumed after their semester began, with lectures once a week. They also hired and trained 15 teaching assistants (TAs) to help with this onboarding course. Brecher shared that it was interesting to see that “A-ha!” moment in the TAs when they realized that this is what their own professors meant when they said students needed to care for their well-being in order to get through stressful situations and challenges in their own academic careers. For example, practicing meditation can help calm anxiety about an exam.
Brecher and Shaffer also continue to conduct research. Their latest study, The Cost of Scalability: The Role of Community in Online Versus Zoom Instruction Wellness Interventions, started in September 2020 and will focus on how different types of training impact teaching resiliency. Participants will be randomly selected to participate in three different training groups. One group meets weekly via Zoom with instructors, one learns online only at their own pace, and another is a mix of working independently online (using resources like videos, exercises, and readings) and meeting weekly via Zoom.
Brecher continues presenting her ThriveRU project and has found that the more she teaches and trains on resiliency, the more people learn about its benefits and the more invitations she gets to train staff or to be a guest lecturer. “Resiliency is experiencing the embrace of the traditional academic world by taking what was cocurricular and bringing it into the classroom,” Brecher says. In addition, resiliency training levels the playing field of success for students. Everyone can learn these skills and choose what works best for them. “It’s like being offered a huge buffet of strategies, and you make up your plate with what you want.”
The University of Texas at Austin also believes in the power of resiliency skills. Elana Bizer, assistant director of the Integrated Health Counseling and Mental Health Center at the university, says that more and more students were coming to counseling asking for basic skills or tools to help them cope with stress and other issues. They wanted more control over their health and to be empowered to help themselves. The Thrive at UT app was launched in 2016 and then relaunched system-wide in 2019. The idea of making an app came from knowing that students already treat their phone like it’s their whole world, so it made sense to put it there. An app idea checked all the boxes for the project team: accessible, familiar, and personal. An app could easily make their information accessible, students are already familiar with using them, and having the app on their phone made it personal.
The app was developed by clinicians and with loads of student input. There are eight foundational skills presented in the app: community, moods, mindfulness, thoughts, self-compassion, mindset, gratitude, and purpose. Purpose is the newest addition. The team of clinicians felt this would be helpful because students don’t necessarily recognize this quality in themselves or it’s not fully developed when they arrive on campus. For each foundational skill there is a video of a student sharing their own experience with stress, anxiety, feelings of failure, or constant negative self-talk. This is intended to show other students that they are not alone in their struggle with these issues. Then there are three engagement choices that can help students cope – or, as Bizer puts it, “Three opportunities for students to grow at the end of each section.”
The app sends daily reminders to keep students motivated to try a new skill for coping or managing their health. Bizer calls these “micro-interventions that promote the ‘take the new fork’ mentality.” She explains that they constantly tell students to experiment with selecting different options or different tools to find the ones that help them the most with the issue they are trying to confront. “If you don’t try different things you get stuck in your usual rut.” Feedback received from an in-app survey shows that 95% of students said using the app improved their health and 96% would recommend it to a friend. The app has been successful in helping students see themselves in a different way and providing space for them to question if their current habits are serving them well. The app gives them concrete tools to make better choices and hopefully feel better.
The app was recently promoted to staff at the beginning of the pandemic. Staff had known it was available, but, at the time, the health center thought it could provide staff help with their own health and give them another chance to get familiar with the app. Being familiar with it makes it easier to show students how to use it. Bizer suggests telling students that “It can help you manage unpredictable pressures and it can be used anywhere. You don’t have to be on campus.” In addition, an outreach team from the health center goes to various groups on campus (residence life, FIGs, admissions, orientations, sororities, fraternities) and shows them how to use the app. RAs know about it and can share it with students as well as develop posters for it on message boards in their halls.
Resiliency training is a powerful tool for campuses to deploy. Embodied in resiliency training are the teachings of embracing failure, showing self-compassion, choosing behaviors other than perfectionism, and being mindful. This can put students on the ideal path that we envision for their success: one where they are actively caring for their individual well-being and are in a healthier place to face the challenges of academics and life in general.
The titles below inspired and informed the resiliency programs described here. Use them to inject something new into your campus program or into your own self-care regimen. The workbooks by Diana Brecher mentioned here are available for individuals to download through December 2020, and starting in January 2021 they will be for sale. Institutions should reach out to Ryerson University and ask permission for obtaining multiple copies. Institutions may also ask permission to white label their copies.
• Diana Brecher, Cultivate Your Happiness: A ThriveRU Weekly Workbook.
• Diana Brecher, Cultivate Your Happiness: A ThriveRU Weekly Workbook: Facilitator’s Resource Manual.
• Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016).
• Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007).
• Neal Pasricha, The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything (2016).
• Amit Sood, The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness: A Four-Step Plan for Resilient Living (2015).
Camille Perlman is the managing editor for Talking Stick.