Building Resiliency – There Has Never Been a More Opportune Time

For over 15 years college counselors and mental health clinicians have witnessed an increase in the frequency and severity of student mental health concerns. Research has found that first-year studentsfirst-generation studentslow income students, and those who’ve experienced adverse childhood experiences, were particularly susceptible to anxiety, depression, and poor mental health.

Campuses responded by creating resiliency centers, crisis response teams, reflection rooms, and resilience modules for incoming students, but today this basic needs crisis has only be exacerbated by the pandemic, and now, the brutal reminder of the entrenched racism and white privilege in society.

When asked how to build resiliency in times of adversity, Al Siebert, the late Portland State University professor who studied the concept for over 40 years, would remind people of three guiding principles: 

  • Your mind and habits will create either barriers or bridges to a better future. 
  • Resiliency can’t be taught, but it can be learned. It comes from working to develop your unique combination of inborn abilities. 
  • The struggle to bounce back and recover from setbacks can lead to developing strengths and abilities that you didn’t know were possible. 

Whether applied at the personal or societal level—from the individual to the organization to community, city, or nation—resilience refers to the ability to not only weather misfortune, but also to grow and thrive in the face of adversity. Siebert described this process of moving from basic survival to good fortune in five phases or levels. The first, maintaining emotional stability, health, and well-being, is essential to sustaining health and energy, while the second stage, focusing outward, is based on research that has found that problem-focused coping leads to resiliency better than emotion-focused coping. 

The third level, focusing inward, is geared toward developing a positive “self-concept,” he wrote. It focuses on the roots of resiliency, like self-confidence and strong self-esteem, that lead to the development of a strong inner self.  

At this point, the gains made through the first three levels set the stage for the development of resiliency skills already identified in highly resilient people. This is the fourth level: highly developed resiliency skills. 

Some of these attributes include having a playful, childlike curiosity, constantly learning from experience, and adapting quickly thanks to being emotionally and mentally flexible, enjoying solid self-esteem and self-confidence (Siebert considered self-confidence “your reputation with yourself”) and having good friendships and loving relationships. Other attributes include the ability to express feelings honestly, an optimism that things will work out, the ability to read others with empathy, and knowing how to defend yourself well. 

One additional attribute, serendipity, turns out to be fifth and highest level of resiliency. This is the ability to thrive in situations that are emotionally toxic to others, and to learn good lessons from bad experiences. Siebert would have you say, “I would never willingly go through anything like that again, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.” 

Attaining serendipity, or the ability to turn misfortune into good fortune, is about finding learning opportunities. David Sluss, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Edward Powley, associate professor of management at the Naval Postgraduate School, have conducted multiple studies on U.S. Navy recruits and how leaders build resiliency within the group, including when they work remotely. They found that when Navy recruits were able to view their unsuccessful experiences as learning opportunities they were at the same time building resilience. The researchers reference these experiences as “reframing the tension,” an approach developed by Robert J. Thomas and discussed in his book Crucibles of Leadership.  

Writing in the Harvard Business Review recently, Sluss and Powley note this process is exactly what has been happening on college campuses: Removed from the traditional work environments, faculty and staff in higher education have quickly become experts in virtual learning and programming. Psychologists have developed a series of facilitative factors that help predict resiliency: high confidence in abilities, disciplined work routines, and family and social support, and Sluss and Powley advocate for the creation of a “resilience inventory dashboard” for use in checking in with staff and students. The dashboard consists of a series of direct questions that can help measure the resilience level of an individual. 

Questions might include:

  • How comfortable are you telecommuting?
  • How do you plan your work schedule?
  • Are you involved with caring for others, including those with health conditions?

Through these check-ins, Sluss and Powley believe resiliency can be measured, with the bonus of building confidence in those you’re meeting with.

Even before the pandemic, societies around the world have become familiar with dealing with shocks related to the economy, public health, politics, terrorism, and the climate. Worldwide, preventable diseases like heart disease, stroke, respiratory infections, chronic lung disease, diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV, suicide, and colorectal cancer, each outpace COVID-19 in causes of death this year. 

So whether the pandemic represents the new normal or something that eventually goes away, it remains an opportunity for resiliency to thrive. Speaking to business leaders in 2004 on the topic of economic competition related to the United States’ diminishing role in higher education as the education levels in other countries continued to rise, Stanford University economist Paul Romer said positively, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” As in demand as personal protective equipment and vaccines may be today, also needed is the comfort that resiliency can provide. 

In 2019 Berea College released a Task Force on Trauma and Resilience report in an effort to address the growing mental health demands of its student population. One of the key recommendations was the creation of a student center, or student union, at which time the college did not have. The task force noted, “This prominent and central space could help address issues of student stress, loneliness, and isolation, and bring a wide variety of student services under one roof to help reduce student anxiety and frustration. Student centers are considered the heart and soul of campuses and provide social, recreational, and cultural activities to enrich the social, emotional, and mental well-being of students.” 

Campus resiliency programs might also consider: 

  • Creating a gatekeeper training program of staff who become natural helpers in connecting with students and therein become early detectors of people struggling with depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. “Research suggests that institutions identifying and creating natural helpers, defined as those “who already have close communication with students either through their ongoing job role or by virtue of personal qualities … and are trained to recognize students at-risk of suicide and respond” on campus increases the likelihood that students receive the appropriate support.” 
  • Creating a student care coordinator position and a student care network that serves as an access point for students seeking assistance with a variety of issues, and provide formal communication and coordination of services between resources. 
  • Developing an online resilience module for incoming students like the online toolkit “Student Resilience Project” that was created by Florida State University. First-year students are required to engage with portions of the online toolkit prior to their arrival, and all students have access to the module to provide continued support for students on issues related to college stress, burnout, homesickness, decisions about drugs and alcohol, and other topics. 
  • Virtual professional learning opportunities that educate staff about the relationship of adverse childhood experiences and inclusion of an ACE awareness in new employee orientation. There, new employees are given an appropriate orientation to ACE research and its relationship to students to increase understanding, awareness, and improve the campus response to students. 
  • Sharing this test: One of Siebert’s lasting impacts related to resiliency is a 20-question self-guided quiz people can take. You can find the quiz here. 

Care networks, learning modules, resiliency facilitators, and employee education all present opportunities to keep the basics of resiliency building at the forefront of professional and student development, and in turn create resilient people who can face reality with steadiness, make meaning out of hardship, and improvise new solutions. 

Research has shown that the success of resiliency-building programs implemented into different types of organizations really have only small effects, and those effects diminish over time, unless they are delivered in one-on-one formats, even if done virtually. 

Mark Bertin, a medical doctor and blogger for Psychology Today, recommends using basic routines to help focus on a path to resiliency that eventually leads one to Siebert’s fifth level of attainment, serendipity. 

“Our mental health relies on our physical routines, all too easily lost during times of change,” he said. Exercise, sleep, nutrition, and relationships are aspects of physical routines that can add structure. He adds that there is nothing wrong with focusing on living with uncertainty; it can actually be a resiliency builder. 

“One core to our stress right now is that we just don’t know. When we’re off balance like that, we tend to wind ourselves up, or fall back on reactive habits like snapping at people or withdrawing from the world or compulsively reading the news,” he writes. “Set aside a few minutes a day—as many as you can find—to work with uncertainty. Consider mindfulness practice, paying attention to how we related to whatever is happening in real life, moment to moment. As it turns out, right now you may have more time for it than usual.”


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

    View all posts