What Are We Learning about Academic Resilience?
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What Are We Learning about Academic Resilience?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, “resilience” had emerged as a catchall term for a big bucket of concepts including everything from grit, persistence, and coping to mindset, emotional intelligence, and academic achievement. In recent months, of

July 2, 2020

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, “resilience” had emerged as a catchall term for a big bucket of concepts including everything from grit, persistence, and coping to mindset, emotional intelligence, and academic achievement. In recent months, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has been sorely testing the resilience of our students, staff, faculty, and institutions. So, what are we learning about resilience?

This summer, a series of online conversations was hosted by the Academic Resilience Consortium (ARC), a thriving association of higher education faculty, professionals, and students dedicated to understanding and promoting academic resilience. More than three hundred participants shared stories from the pandemic and pulled back the curtain on their everyday assumptions about resilience. Here are three takeaways:

1. Resilience is best understood as a dynamic, multi-faceted lifelong process.

2. Resilience is a function of contextual as well as individual variables.

3. Resilience is strengthened in conditions of community and belonging.

Resilience as a Lifelong Process

First, resilience is best understood as an inherent part of life and as a dynamic, multifaceted, lifelong process. This contrasts with common, more quantitative conceptions of resilience as a substance or trait that people either have or don’t have, or have a lot or a little of.

We develop our capacities for resilience throughout our lives by trying, failing, thinking, feeling, adapting, succeeding, and trying again. This is how we learn to walk and talk as babies; how we go on to meet the wide range of life’s challenges; and how our capacities for resilience evolve. Resilience is less about “bouncing back” or “returning to normal,” and more about ongoing transformation and development.

As we have moved online during the pandemic, students are seeing their teachers, deans, and advisors adjusting and readjusting their course content and programs—yes, sometimes with the laundry piled up behind them. Higher ed professionals are seeing their students struggle to cope academically without the resources provided by a campus environment, such as labs, studios, athletic facilities, and the kinship and comfort of physical proximity and spontaneous social support that characterizes campus life. Because we are all worried, lost, grieving, and struggling to adapt, the pandemic has given us front-row seats, up close and personal, to what resilience in the face of adversity looks like.

The results have been unprecedented opportunities to model and emulate the “rising to the occasion” behaviors and experiences that represent resilience and produce transformative growth. A million micro-decisions create a “resilience curriculum” infused in every class and every meeting with our students: Do I demand the usual academic standards and requirements, or do I adapt or dismiss them? How do I find a balance between rigor and grace, and help students do the same? Do I ask my students how they are doing personally, and how do I respond to their expressions of helplessness, anger, frustration, and sadness? How much do I share with students and colleagues about my own situation? Do I hide that pile of laundry that is visible behind me, or just leave it there during my online meeting? And if I leave it there, do I mention it? And either way, how will that be perceived?

Faculty and students in the ARC discussions talked about the immense value of explicitly addressing this “resilience curriculum.” And they expressed a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude for how much they are learning about their own and others’ resilience as a result.

Resilience as a Function of Context

A second, strongly related aspect of resilience is the extent to which it is a complex interaction between individuals and their contexts, not just an individual personality characteristic or skill set. The strong pull to understand resilience as a matter of individual character is fueled in part by deeply embedded American values of self-reliance, meritocracy, and upward mobility—the notion that those with sufficient inner strength can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” It is further fueled by popular notions about the fragility and slack of today’s college students, with the accompanying tendency to blame students for not trying hard enough or not having “enough” resilience. These assumptions fail to account either for resilience as a multifaceted learning process or for the role of contextual factors.

Even as we all go through the same pandemic, we do not all have the same adversities to overcome or resources to call upon. This is true in fundamental ways aside from the pandemic, but the pandemic has served to highlight the fact that different students have different barriers, challenges, resources, and supports, and so face different demands on their resilience. We see students struggle with the lack of basic resources like reliable food and housing security, health care, and access to technology, which contribute to systemic academic inequities. Helping our students develop their capacities for resilience includes a responsibility to acknowledge the role of contextual, not just individual, factors in our students’ academic struggles and successes and to do what we can to reduce or remove institutional and systemic inequities.

Building a Sense of Community and Belonging

One of the strongest themes in the ARC gatherings was the extent to which resilience thrives when people feel a sense of community, belonging, and interpersonal connectedness. Whether colleagues meeting during online coffee hours or professional development webinars, or students meeting in class breakout sessions or dorm/team/club check-ins, opportunities for community allow us to share and explore our experiences of adversity and resilience. Having company, expressing our feelings, problem-solving together, and gathering with others to make meaning of our experiences were all recognized as healing and inspiring.

Perhaps the most valued experiences that ARC participants discussed were the many unbidden opportunities that arise every day as we strive to be our best selves, to create and witness moments of grace and courage, and to find wellsprings of strength and hope within ourselves and our communities that we hadn’t known were there. This is resilience.

Abigail Lipson and Adina Glickman are codirectors of the Academic Resilience Consortium.

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