Resiliency Programs — Adaptation as Demands Rise

A focus on student resiliency in higher education has moved far beyond the measure of making sure the student union is providing destressing events leading up to final exams week. Higher education think tanks like KnowledgeWorks have identified a growing interest from universities in integrating social and emotional competency within academics and in orienting academic learning alongside a holistic understanding of human development.

Oklahoma State University is one of many now offering wellness passport programs. In 2018, researchers at the University of Cambridge conducted what is believed to have been the largest randomized controlled study to date assessing mindfulness training for college students. The Mindful Student Study of 616 students analyzed a mindfulness-based intervention designed to increase resilience to stress and determined those who participated had lower levels of distress, leading the researchers to hypothesize the effects would be greater in those people who had more stress. 

Between 2011 and 2016, mental health counseling services devoted to rapid access increased 28% at the 147 colleges and universities that contributed data to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. “Colleges and universities are currently grappling with the question of how to respond effectively and efficiently to the rather sudden and dramatic increase in demand for mental health services nationwide,” said Ben Locke, executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. “This growing demand includes the full range of risk, need, diagnoses, and many other factors that can make it difficult to define policies that work.” 

Recognizing those increasing demands and the promise of mindfulness and resiliency programs offering preventative interventions, student affairs, student life, and health and wellness professionals are now working with students on year-round programs. Those nonacademic programs, coupled with a plethora of self-help apps, and opportunities for students to do coursework through leadership and student involvement departments about resiliency and human potential, are weaving a web of available knowledge that can be used to help students recover quickly from disruptive change and trauma and to build supportive, compassionate, and inclusive communities. 

Some student affairs divisions now offer wellness passport programs that incentivize students to attend activities directly connected to resiliency. At University of North Carolina–Greensboro, the Spartan Wellness Passport through the Division of Student Affairs asks students to attend at least one activity from a number offered by career services, campus recreation, and the campus wellness center. By going to a group fitness class, having a free mental health screening, and participating in a drop-in appointment at career services, for example, students can win prizes like Beats headphones. 

A similar wellness passport program at University of North Carolina–Charlotte gives students class credit when instructors include it in a class syllabus. By going to a wellness passport event like “Positively Driven: Connecting with the Power of Meaning and Gratitude in Your Life,” students at UNC–Charlotte would earn class credit. The College of William and Mary’s Passport to Wellness program is scheduled over one month, lets students earn up to eight points (tied to the eight dimensions of wellness) for attending events, and awards prizes like yoga mats, Fit Bit Charges, and T-shirts. 

Designating technology-free resiliency and reflection rooms dedicated to relaxation and contemplation is another way to make a statement about commitment to holistic human development. Temple University operates a resiliency resource center and walk-in clinic, the University of Virginia’s multipurpose student center has a dedicated reflection room and the campus has an additional network of resiliency rooms, and most student unions being built or renovated are allotting space for quiet reflection and meditation. At Miami University, $300,000 of a $1 million gift for a spirituality, meaning, and purpose initiative went toward funding a reflection room in the Armstrong Student Center. 

Another means of pushing student well-being to the forefront is to host resiliency days or weeks for specific affinity groups. 

Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s student center co-hosts Hispanic Latino Heritage month events that include movies, TED Talks, diversity training sessions, music and other entertainment, meals, and most recently, an Allies of Resiliency Illinois Bicentennial Celebration. 

Gonzaga University’s Black Student Union conducts a Resilience Week that explores black culture, social justice, and intersectionality. It most recently included a banquet dinner with a presentation on “Unmasking Resilience: The Bold, the Black, the Beautiful,” performances of all African-American composed music by two Gonzaga choirs, and a panel and open forum on rap video themes and how they apply to the black community and American culture at large. 

Curry Student Center at Northeastern University co-hosts a day-long program of speakers and activists, performances, panels, and films promoting resiliency in LGBTQ+ communities. Its partner on the program is the Greater Boston and Massachusetts Department of Public Health suicide prevention programs. 

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