While hardship and adversity impacts every person at one point or another, the current generation of traditional-age college students seems to be lacking in the ability to positively cope when faced with life's challenges. While institutional awareness of this issue is not necessarily lacking, the dialogue for solutions largely exists in small functional areas, such as leadership and career development. Yet, it is only through intentionally designed interventions focusing on all students attending an institution of higher education that we as administrators, mentors, and educators will have the greatest opportunity for impacting this growing developmental concern.
As a leadership educator, I have always grounded much of my work with students in Sanford's (1967) theory of challenge and support, which states that individuals grow best when they experience an appropriate balance between the two. I contribute my reasoning for utilizing this theory so prominently in my work with students because of the thoughtful reflections I have had about my own experiences as a young adult.
I was fortunate that life provided me with many opportunities to struggle through times of challenge, while being immersed in an environment that also adequately supported me as I faced those challenges. Thus, it is my own experiences that have greatly influenced why I work so hard to create opportunities to ensure students have these same types of experiences. However, it was not until around 2011 that I realized a term had been coined for this capacity that I was working so hard to intentionally develop in students: resilience.
As I soon learned from Connor and Davidson’s work in 2003, resilience makes up the characteristics that enable one to persist in the midst of adversity and positively cope with stress. After pouring over various articles and research studies, it was apparent that there was a lack of resilience-building happening during the adolescent years of current generations, including my own. It was at this point in my work that I began to adjust my language and strengthen my stance on the importance of developing this capacity for all students.
Knowing the number of stressors that can impact college students, I find it important to provide students with numerous opportunities to enhance their ability to positively cope with stress.
Providing these types of opportunities not only helps students as they navigate their college experience but it better prepares them for the ambiguity they will experience as they transition to post college life.
Whether it be attending graduate school, joining the professional workforce, volunteering with AmeriCorps, or seeking full time employment; supporting students' capacity for resilience is vital during this transition and as they learn to navigate life's challenges. The earlier and more frequently college administrators, mentors, and educators can engage students in developing their capacity for resilience, the more opportunities they will have to continuously evaluate how they positively navigate challenge, allowing them to create a vast library of experiences they can reflect on as they make critical decisions about the adversity they are facing throughout their life.
So, how do we build resilient students?
Be Intentional in Conversations
When speaking with students in either an individual or group setting, how are you engaging with them around the challenges they are facing? By evaluating your approach, you can begin to identify opportunities for how students can reflect on their challenge and employ a positive attitude as they seek a solution. My own reflective evaluation of conversations with students allowed me to identify how I was overly supporting them with easy access to solutions for their problems. After all, I was there to help them and my empathy for their situation greatly influenced me. While I might have been helping them in the short term, I was not preparing them for how they might navigate future challenges when easy access to solutions might not exist.
Normalize the Experience
More often than not, we as administrators, mentors, and educators believe students feel like they are alone in their experience. Many of us know the importance around building common ground with students as we traverse challenging topics or attempt to deepen their understanding, lens, or approach to various aspects of life. Self reflection on your own approach to how you positively navigate challenge will help you to construct your go-to examples for building common ground. Once you have established common ground, you will need to normalize the experience of positively navigating challenge. To accomplish this, you need to also have examples of how other students have persisted positively through challenges.
For example, I often utilize one of my favorite experiences supporting a college senior, we shall name her Kate, through the challenge of navigating group process. Kate had been placed in a semester-long group, in a course focused on teaching group process, where her prior knowledge of other group members impacted her desire to be apart of the group. During our many conversations, I shared my own experience working with challenging individuals and how I have utilized the lessons learned to navigate future challenges. I encouraged her to take a positive approach to this experience and consider how she might leverage it in the future as she transitioned into the professional workforce. It is both important and beneficial for the students' development to help normalize the experience of how one deals with challenge. I consider this to be an important myth busting practice.
Explore Coping Techniques
What are your coping techniques for dealing with the stress caused by the challenges you are facing? Identifying these allows you to have that quick reference list to share with students for the moments when a challenge has become too much and and there is doubt about the ability to persevere. As my conversations with students evolve, I begin to explore how they might go about coping with the stress they are facing. Usually students seemed puzzled or lost when beginning to identify such techniques, however, providing a tiny bit of direction can make it easier for them to determine the things in their life that could serve as a coping technique for them. Typically these revolve around activities that bring them enjoyment or relaxation. Teaching students how to develop coping mechanisms for the adversity they are facing can be a challenge, but is a foundational experience for them as they develop their capacity to become a resilient individual.
Advocating for Resilience at your Institution
Since my discovery of this national issue that college students and many young adults are facing today, I have become an advocate for improving how colleges and universities can better support students' ability to positively cope with stress and become a resilient individual. Too often administrators focus on the ease of the process and “spoon feed” students the solutions to their issues without allowing them the opportunity to even begin learning how to cope with adversity in any form. I encourage academic administrators to evaluate how professors can encourage this type of development in the classroom and how student affairs administrators can provide opportunities outside of the classroom for students to learn how to positively cope with stress.
As college administrators, mentors, and educators I believe that we must strive to enhance students' capacity to become resilient young adults. It will take time, purposeful conversations, and intentionally designed opportunities, but it is an effort that will be well worth the reward.