Cultivating Student Resilience to Resist Institutional Replication

In the wake of the pandemic, resilience has become the word of the day on most college campuses. How well do we really understand what it means?

Light-blue paint cracks and peels, exposing the wood beneath. Who obscured the view in the first place?

Because failure is an inevitable and necessary part of the learning process, the best-prepared students will have developed the capacities to bounce back from adversity: they will be resilient. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, resilience has become the word of the day on most college campuses, but how well do we really understand what it means? Most describe resilience generically. Some simply connect it with grit and a growth mindset. However, we find such conflation problematic. The authors of this article  represent a research university that serves low-income, historically-marginalized student populations in California’s Central Valley. Collectively, our distinct-but-related work demonstrates that resilience can be an adaptive framework that is co-created and context-dependent. It is also dynamic and can (but does not always) function as a source of strength across multiple dimensions of student experience. Rather than using individualistic concepts to define resilience, we believe it is about identity built from community relationships.  More importantly, we believe resilience-building social networks can provide protection against systems of marginalization and oppression. This is especially important given the conflicting and compounding demands of navigating higher education during times of health crises and social unrest. Thus, it is best developed by simultaneously cultivating student connection and activating student agency, encouraging individuals to look outward critically and to look inward reflectively. We believe it can be learned and must be taught.

How do we best teach it? The answer to this question relates directly to the purpose of higher education because student resilience looks quite different under different conceptualizations. In other words, resilience for its own sake may seem value-neutral, or even always good, yet we need to consider “resilience for what?” What are we asking students to “snap back” from? What are we hoping they persevere with (and why)? The answers to these questions are essential, as not all forms of resilience are healthy for individuals nor for our institutions of higher learning that must adapt to changing times.

Transactional Resilience

Transactional views of higher education focus almost exclusively on degree attainment. The main goal is for students to simply clock in enough hours and check all the right boxes to progress to the end. It is a narrow focus on a particular major as training for a degree that will lead to a specific career. Thus, the educational experience becomes a kind of ‘checklist’ or focuses on what the ‘customer’ wants. This is without, for example, the breadth and range of a general or liberal education core, resulting in students failing to develop the authority and the skills to address the “wicked problems” facing us in the 21st-century. We sometimes also hear the purpose of higher education defined in this framework as helping students develop “social capital,” which can translate into an individual’s economic capital and power. While there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking wealth or prestige, individualistic notions of profit often feel incongruent with students’ home or community capital. Transactional frameworks can also encourage institutional economic expediencies that can lead to the reductive and exclusionary view that only some students deserve support and educational opportunities. Moreover, the learning relationships forged transactionally between student and instructors can be at-best impersonal and at-worst antagonistic.

In this transactional worldview, resilience could be merely associated with overcoming the inevitable setbacks on that journey to the degree without any critical examination regarding the causes of those setbacks. Individuals who drop out are blamed for lacking resilience, as if it were a personal trait or failing. In this context, resilience might also then be associated with individual conformity and acquiescence to the dominant norms of the academy. We argue against this resilience for replication because it merely encourages assimilation, surviving a flawed system without critical awareness of its flaws. Some refer to this problematic assimilative process as “skin-deep resilience,” a surface appearance of success with underlying negative impacts on physical health and well-being because key aspects of students’ identities have been sacrificed or hidden. We see this as a kind of academic dissociation. Also, as mentioned, because transactional views of education rest on extrinsic rewards (e.g., grades or  degree-earned), once the rewards are removed, the motivation to learn abates. Indeed, extrinsic rewards may have an anti-motivating effect, erasing vestiges of intrinsic motivation that may have previously existed. So, resilience cultivated under this transactional framework may be short-lived, especially if it is viewed as a static personal trait.

Instead, we see resilience as a dynamic process where protective factors can mitigate environmental and social threats. Furthermore, rather than recognizing only exceptional or heroic examples of resilience, we situate resilience as both  ordinary and accessible but also potentially life-changing.

Transformational Resilience

Under a transformational framework, higher education becomes a progressive force, resting on the notion that universities are supposed to represent “the universe” of ideas as embodied in an array of people. It is, therefore, a broadening experience for students, not just the narrow pursuit of a skill set or of a degree. Mike Rose describes how students can come to understand the meanings of their academic work and to feel the power of their contributions as impacting the larger society. Resilience associated with transformation changes both individuals and systems. It also can align with intrinsic motivation and traits (like curiosity and persistence) that sustain over the long-term, well past graduation.  It necessitates a more integrated and nuanced definition of student success, one that honors the lived experiences of students and provides a more coherent experience of flourishing. In doing so, educators may need to help students navigate a paradox, what James Baldwin called “holding in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition:” acceptance of life as it is and resistance against injustices. If this necessitates keeping one's “heart free of hatred and despair,” then under this framework, we need to help students build a more-integrated academic identity, defining themselves as part of academia and not as a product of it.  Here transformational resilience helps students shift from feeling like they are missing some critical skills but instead see how the system is lacking. While students may indeed ‘snap back’ from adversity, they also are more equipped to change the sources of that adversity rather than their core identities.

Strategies for Activating Transformational Resilience

In our experience, the best way to help students resist assimilation, to critically examine academia, and to develop transformational resilience is to draw on their community cultural wealth (Yosso). The dispositions, capacity for connection, and social-navigational skills students have developed in their home communities are essential but often-unrecognized and under-valued in college. When we can affirm them as academic assets, we foster transformational resilience. In other words, personal agency built within relationship networks allows students to experience solidarity and sense of belonging while critically examining academia. The following examples illustrate how this can work.

Making Connections Amongst Undocumented Scholars: Maria Ramirez Loyola

Developing transformational resilience through a sense of belonging is perhaps most critically important for scholars whose place in the academy can feel not just precarious but invisible. Bjorklund notes that while making up 2% of all students in higher education, undocumented students face numerous barriers—like low sense of belonging—which may undermine the likelihood that they will excel academically and graduate. As a Latina and a current first-generation undocumented PhD candidate, I know firsthand how isolating and seemingly precarious navigating higher education can be for undocumented individuals who may feel like perpetual outsiders in a system not built to acknowledge or appreciate the strengths we bring to the academe. I vividly recall numerous times—as both an undergrad and graduate student—where I felt alone and lost in an endless fog of uncertainty as I struggled to identify the “right” questions to ask to successfully achieve my professional dreams while simultaneously searching for people with whom I felt safe and could trust to be in community with in higher education.

Now through the UndocuScholars Academy, a small-group interactive seminar, I help foster transformational resilience among undocumented undergraduate students by nurturing their sense of agency and belonging through the creation of a support network while simultaneously increasing their navigational capital through helpful resources both on and off campus. Specifically, we help facilitate students' career/graduate school preparation and skills development through different activities (e.g., the use of guest speakers and peer-to-peer interactions) specifically tailored to account for some of the unique challenges we may face as undocumented individuals. Importantly, we work very hard to create a safe space where undocumented students can meet and befriend other undocumented individuals and trusted allies while learning about the resources and skills they may need to reach their individual career and educational dreams. Creating a safe space where students can be in community together is critical because it allows students to feel comfortable enough to ask questions they may never have voiced in other settings (e.g., the classroom) due to fear of unintentionally revealing their immigration status. In fact, I have personally felt the relief that many students have expressed when they no longer have to be on constant alert for danger while trying to balance learning essential information and asking the “right” questions to help them identify needed resources. Such safety mitigates against amygdala hijack. This sense of safety may also allow students to resist institutional assimilation by nurturing their ability to be vulnerable with one another in ways that allow them to feel both seen and valued. Notably in the UndocuScholars Academy this was not insular safety, closed off from others: students often mentioned sharing the resources and information provided (for example, information about how undocumented individuals can earn a living—both with and without work authorization) with friends and other members of their family, who may also be undocumented, thereby furthering the potential positive impact of this group.

Authoring 1st-Year Student Resilience through Digital Storytelling: James Barnes

Reflecting on my positionality as a white man has influenced a fundamental theme in my research on resilience: Who determines if and when a person is resilient: the participant, researcher, or the university? In using asset-based frameworks and student narratives, I have sought to challenge how and by whom success is defined, affirming that students are experts of their own experiences and understanding their stories can provide unique insights into cultivating resilience. My research and practices to understand meanings and experiences of resilience seek to provide a framework of flexible, systematic, and asset-based approaches where students recognize past experiences as assets. In doing so, students become empowered as cultivators of resilience and authors of their success stories.

Yosso points out that storytelling has a rich history in how familial wealth is shared among peoples of color. Recently, my reflections on community cultural wealth led me to revise and refocus learning activities in the first-year seminar course I had originated years earlier. I redesigned a video storytelling final project, combining transformative resilience principles with social and cultural capital tenants found in Yosso’s model. The video capstone project embraces storytelling as a way for students to use familial cultural assets to resist institutional assimilation, build student sense of belonging, and support academic success. After assembling a “resilience box” of personal artifacts, students create a five-minute video narrative that describes their strengths, goals, and progress towards becoming the scholar they want to be. For example, one student described how a tortilla press served as a source of physical and emotional nourishment in college. The artifact helped the student explore their resilience narrative by reflecting upon the hard work of ancestors, the support of family, and the connections made with other students through homemade food. Later, when all the students came together to share their videos with classmates, they connected over common experiences, challenges, and goals. They offered feedback and suggestions for ways their artifacts could serve as perseverance  talismans. Through this process, the resilience box was a resource that students could use to help them ‘bounce back’ from future challenges, beyond the course, a reminder of their assets and their 1st-year community.

Thus, the video storytelling project created narrative-building, connecting, and helping interactions between students. Shapiro-Perl affirms the power of storytelling as a "two-way process of connection and transformation" between the teller and the listener. However, Anzaldúa noted that educational systems have not valued stories as forms of knowledge. My experience and this example indicate that academic resilience is shaped, in part, by how students narrate their experiences. I noted that helping students to see themselves as the authors of their success stories recognizes the experiential forms of capital and knowledge they use to navigate challenges, create social networks, and support their academic goals.

Networks for Help-Seeking and Help-Giving: James Barnes

Another way of leveraging cultural wealth to build resilience is through study groups and residential cohorts that build relationships between students with similar backgrounds and interests. In my study of academic resilience in first-generation Latina/o students, a participant described a “give and take relationship,” of helping fellow students work through problems in a math study group while also strengthening his academic skills.  Another reflected on his Hispanic and first-generation background, which he shared with his peers enrolled in his living-learning community:

In a sense, [they’re] in the same place that I was in, so they     understand my situation and they were able to really, just help me out…having someone that can [say] I'm struggling through the same things that you are struggling with, and we can all do it together.

Still another participant valued the opportunity to move beyond her immediate circle of connections to help her entire community in “wanting to do something for everybody” through school-sponsored community service projects.

Combining roles that focused on both giving and receiving help encourage expressions of resilience by reducing stigmatization of failure, lowering barriers to help-seeking, and increasing connectedness to their school community. Both Yosso and Rendón & Muñoz confirm that opportunities to provide help also affirm the assets students bring to their college experience. I saw participants’ ability to receive and contribute help as important to developing agency and transformational resilience in themselves and in their communities, which also sustained students through ups and downs of the semester, strengthening their individual and collective abilities to succeed. A similar helping dynamic was reflected in Walton & Cohen’s research on college academic interventions among students of diverse backgrounds. In their study, participants were tasked with creating brief testimonials on how they overcame initial college transitions. They were told that the testimonials would be used by struggling students in the future. Because they did not realize it was also an intervention to support their success, it encouraged students to see themselves as benefactors and not just beneficiaries of help.

Virtual Communities for STEM Students: Taylor Fugere

In studying the experiences of underrepresented-minority first-year STEM students, I conducted observations within tight-knit, small, formally-constructed group communities (called “dens”), as well as engaging in virtual observations on student-run virtual spaces such as Discord communities for various classes. In semi-structured interviews, I asked what makes a student feel connected to the campus community, their science discipline, and fellow students. Some overall themes of my study were that students resist institutional assimilation by preferring to build their own virtual communities rather than using ones sponsored or hosted by the university and feel a much stronger sense of agency, belonging, and connectedness within those spaces. They also are much more likely to reach out to a “safe other” such as a classmate or peer mentor rather than a professor or professional resource, even though they know those resources may have more accurate information. Many students expressed building connections and eventually making strong friendships through the actions of reaching out for help on a homework or other school-related problem. Nearly every student indicated that they knew others cared about them because they first were concerned about how they were doing academically or in their classes. One student remarked with excitement that a classmate said “That’s what friends are for!” after she thanked them for their help on an assignment; this was the first time she felt she made a friend in college. Another student reported that seeing other students helping each other in Calculus and sharing helpful videos with their peers helped them know that they were capable of relying on their peers for homework support in the future. Thus, by leveraging social and navigational assets, students developed relational social capital and academic habits connected to increased resilience.

Conclusion: Common Themes of Transformational Resilience

What emerges from this work is a multifaceted and synergistic portrait of transformational resilience, the capacity to ‘bounce back’ from adversity without compromising one’s core identity and capitulating to pressures to assimilate to dominant academic norms. Four motifs emerged from our work: the power of 1.) knowledge-sharing, 2.) narrative-crafting, 3.) help-seeking/giving, and 4.) community-building around shared goals.

We noted the sense of agency and empowerment that comes through knowledge about available support resources. Students gained a sense of control in navigating the campus when this knowledge accounted for their prior expectations and built on pre-existing knowledge. Honoring these past experiences allowed the creation of new narratives where students were the protagonists of their academic success. Creating safe spaces reduced barriers to reaching out or conceptualizing questions, becoming a mechanism of “safety net building” as well as help-giving. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that students expressed a preference to turn to peers who shared similar background stories as sources of information. Another important take-away is not just for campuses to create opportunities for connection but also to make repositories of accurate information widely accessible to individuals in such networks.

In myriad settings, students saw both giving and receiving help as useful to developing a sense of belonging, connection, and contribution to their college community. Contrasting the individualized and competitive environments found in many areas of higher education, helping others reflects participants' valuing of the common good along with individual successes, integrating the collectivist cultural values of their home communities within the academy. Instead of perpetuating inequalities and dependency, the symbiotic helping dynamic embraced students’ strengths and contributions.

But, such relationships cannot be artificially forced through something like an arbitrary ‘buddy system.’ Finding authentic opportunities where students can forge these types of generative relationships is critical to fostering persistence. We noted another essential dimension of resilience is the sense of community built around shared goals. Accidental friendship and community-building occurred for our students as an unintended “side effect” while engaging in shared meetings or projects. Students built connections, reduced awkwardness, and generated more comfortable environments through learning and supporting each other’s academic and career goals. Strong interpersonal connections were a result of working together toward an intrinsically-shared end (e.g., getting a job, passing a class).

By honoring their lived experiences and the community cultural wealth brought to the university, students may better be able to resist the pressure to assimilate to the dominant culture of higher education and therefore be poised to help the academy (and society) adapt to emergent needs and respond to complex challenges. Universities should help students build personal agency by drawing on community cultural wealth -- building experiences around individual asset mapping and through helping others. The social capital acquired through intentionally redesigned communal classroom experiences, student support services, identity groups, and residential communities can build transformational resilience. Armed with this, historically overlooked and underfunded students may provide new visions of the purpose of higher education rather than becoming collateral damage in a system that replicates inequity.