Essay by Marcia Chatelain
Grit and the college campus.
Whether you are a dedicated education researcher or a parent navigating the college application process, you have probably seen the word resilient used to talk about higher education. Not quite as disposable as a buzzword, but never as clear as a foundational principle, resilience has provided a lens to talk about an array of educational issues. Stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education celebrate resilient campuses. Local news profiles of resilient students, who have overcome hardships, praise them for beating the odds and getting into good schools. And, college classes nicknamed “Resilience 101,” which help young people prepare for “adulting,” emphasize that resilience is a necessary attribute for the long-term success inside and outside of school. With all of these different uses of the word resilience, it’s worth taking a little time to reflect on what exactly resilience means in the world of higher education and what resilience can teach us in times of stress and in the interests in sustainability.
A deep body of research across academic disciplines, from geography to educational psychology, claims that resilience is multi-definitional and speaks to an array of interests. Meanwhile, in the education news pages, resilience is usually presented as singularly positive for and aligned with higher education’s goals of educating people for their own economic success, as well as the greater good. Resilience is a helpful framework to understanding what colleges and universities can do to ensure their survival in the face of the most daunting challenges, from climate change to social inequality and preparing students to make a difference in the world.
Resilience and Recovery in Academic Institutions
No institution is immune to the consequences of climate change or natural disasters. And, while campuses grapple with how to use resources wisely, researchers on campus are also trying to address how to prepare for the next calamity. Drawing upon the work in planning and environmental science, resilience has framed increasing concern about the structural and technical preparedness of campuses in moments of natural disaster or in a security crisis. On today’s college campuses, resilient planning can require creating an alert system after an active shooter threat is identified, as well as ensuring that mental health counselors and security accommodations are deployed after the campus is made safe. When levees break, or massive snowstorms arrive at the start of a semester, colleges and universities must be prepared to protect buildings and restore electricity and access to water as quickly as possible.
While internal and external observers may perceive these moments as simply contending with ‘acts of God’ or anomalies of campus life, the ability for schools to recover from these tragedies are instructive. The ability or failure to deploy institutional resilience exposes deeper, economic inequalities among higher education institutions. In some cases, campuses in the same cities absorb the shocks of calamities differently, revealing that resiliency is often linked to wealth. The case of New Orleans’s higher educational institutions after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005 provides an opportunity to think about disparities among colleges and universities. Although less than two miles apart, the post-Katrina stories of Tulane University, a private institution, and Xavier University, a historically black institution, are vastly different. Tulane was able to emerge far more resilient than its neighbors, after sustaining $650 million in damages and a four-month delay in opening for the start of the year’s first term. Nearby black institutions, Dillard and Xavier Universities, lost between a quarter and more than 40% of its student body, and, after a decade, they have yet to return to their pre-Katrina capacities.1
In her Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “I am Not Resilient,” Lucy Ferriss takes up the use of the word resilience after Hurricanes Harvey and Rita struck Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017. Ferris noted that resilience was replacing the increasingly politicized term “climate change.” She asked: “Does the supplanting of climate change by resilience serve the purely political purpose of enabling communities to adopt effective strategies to cope with climate change, without using the term itself?” She continued:
Resilience, in other words, is the privilege of wealthy countries and communities that can afford to build sea walls, relocate industries, filter water, import their food from elsewhere, install air-conditioning that contributes to climate change…Resilience allows the wealthiest among us to give themselves a pat on the back.2
Ferris’s critique ties the term resilience to wealth in relationship to the ability of institutions to reopen and rebuild after devastating symptoms of climate change. Universities that are precariously resting on receding coastlines, adjacent to neighborhoods plagued by the scourge of environmental racism, and lacking the infrastructure to sustain dramatic weather events must inspire the research that will end the need for such massive resilience plans.
There are signs that higher educational professionals are beginning to understand this. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education organizes more than 650 member institutions to deliberate on a range of issues under the umbrella of sustainable practices—from building to recycling to racial justice. The organization’s sustainability index considers the curricular and research agendas, the operations of an institution from its purchasing and maintenance of its grounds, the ability to create a diverse student body and a healthy workplace.3 Resilience and sustainability are twinned imperatives that should lead universities toward equitable practices in access and ethical ways of expansion and care for its communities, especially its workers.
The Resilient Student
As a college professor, I have noticed a curious application of the term resilience among students, particularly students from non-traditional college going backgrounds. When applied to individuals, it is often a marker of a lack of power. This lack of power necessitates a reliance on the human virtue of resilience to compensate for this condition, except, when the issue of race is introduced. The assumption suggests that while students from privileged households need to cultivate resilience, students of color who overcome odds related to racism and economic inequality, are praised for their inherent sense of resilience. This framing of resilience, which depends on narratives of students of color deploying an internal quality possessed by marginalized groups that allows them to persevere, and even excel, in higher education, is a relatively new phenomenon. Since the 1960s, when higher education used a myriad of initiatives—from affirmative action to minority recruitment offices to partnerships with philanthropic organizations—to diversify college campuses, students of color vocalized the ways that structural racism limited their access to educational and extracurricular opportunities.
Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that legally ended school segregation, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a number of foundations, seeded with federal funds, emerged to implement opportunities for children of color who were still living with the de facto separation that limited their access to quality education. Believing that there was great potential in cultivating the finest talent among poor communities of color, organizations like A Better Chance (ABC) Foundation, established in 1963, and Prep for Prep, founded in 1978, recruited a small, but powerful cohort of black and Latino students to attend the nation’s most prestigious boarding and private schools. The programs addressed two vexing issues for elite educational institutions after Brown: A desire to play a role in an expanding civil rights consciousness among private, secondary educational institutions that were not beholden to local school district maps and governing bodies, and an accompanying push from elite, higher educational institutions that sought to diversify its student bodies, but were unsure how to proceed.
These ‘feeder’ programs focused on teaching their charges how to assimilate to a world that was often foreign to their students, and their preparation modules focused on overcoming the isolation and disconnection participants could feel at home and at school. Even supporters of these initiatives conceded that the pressure and expectations placed on the chosen few who gained acceptance could be overwhelming. One private school head characterized ABC students as, “the kids [who had to live] an almost schizophrenic life. On the other hand, the later accomplishments of many of those who took part in ABC have been tremendous.”4 Despite the individual success of these programs’ alumni, past participants are still critical of the ways that these opportunities demanded resilience in the face of emotional turmoil. In a study on post-1954 access programs, ABC and Wayneflete School graduate Janice Simpson, a former Time Magazine bureau chief, called her tenure at the Maine private school, “a very difficult experience.” She told researcher Charlise Lyles: “It changed me and was painful in ways that I don’t even know how to express. I am a different kind of person because of it.”5
The internal tensions of these programs were made visible when ABC alum Edmund Perry was killed in Harlem by an undercover police officer. The events that led to Perry’s death in 1985, and his brother’s indictment for assault and attempted robbery, have never been fully determined. The officer claimed that Edmund, an ABC graduate at Phillips Exeter and soon-to-be first year student at Stanford, and Jonah, an ABC alum who was attending Cornell, tried to rob him. Jonah denied even being in the presence of the officer. In the end, one of the great success stories of Harlem was dead, and the other was eventually acquitted of all charges. Immediately after news of Perry’s killing was widely reported, ABC and other talent identification programs for children of color were subject to scrutiny about the emotional and psychological toll of these scholarship programs.6 Some speculated that Perry was decompensating after four years as a super-minority at Exeter and thus questioned if taking youth out of their communities was in fact more harmful than helpful. ABC alumna Lyles, asked while reflecting on Perry’s death: “Was it such a good idea after all to export to prep the cream of the crop? Would we have been better off if we had all just stayed home in the slums where some thought we belonged?”7
Perry’s death, and two decades of hindsight since the establishment of ABC ignited some of the earliest research assessments about how resilience is measured, understood, and discussed as an asset among poor, students of color. Programs founded in the late 1980s, like the college recruitment-focused Posse Foundation, founded in 1989, tried to address the tensions surrounding integration and emotional wellness that lingered after Perry’s story disappeared from media coverage.8
Posse, and smaller-scale initiatives, create cohorts of high-achieving students to enroll as a ready-made community at elite institutions. These groups of ten, pre-selected students enter college assured that at least nine of their classmates have been given similar advice on adjusting to college, and the students often cohere around a common narrative about the benefit of their capacity to remain resilient in the face of familial disruptions and economic insecurity. Posse, and other programs that focus on developing group dynamics, reasoned that students from low-income environments benefitted from attending colleges in small peer groups to reduce the pressures that were felt by Perry and other students who were shipped to the bucolic campuses of boarding schools and private East Coast colleges.
In the mid-2000s, access programs designed to ensure low-income and first-in-their-families students admission and success in college revived the older model of noblesse oblige, in which benevolent donors paid the ways of boot-strapping young people headed for a brighter future. Instead of limiting their work to economic and racial diversity initiatives to scholarships, these programs considered the whole student—their commitments to the community, financial obligations to family, and the continued emotional distress felt by students unfamiliar with the culture of elite institutions. From Vanderbilt University’s Office of Transition Programs to Brown University’s First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center, colleges and universities are investing in what happens to students after admission, and in doing so, student resilience continues to center expectations on student retention and success. Yet, institutions must not assume that just because a student overcame the odds in the past, they can navigate institutional barriers to success alone.
As this new approach to helping students transition to college life is researched and celebrated, observers notice how much resilience played a role in the success of these young people, who survived abuse, family destabilization, and other factors that can dramatically impact student success. Instead of focusing on what were once considered deficits—being a first-generation student, being bilingual, or being eligible for financial aid—organizations like America Needs You, the College Advising Corps, and the Bloomberg Charities-backed American Talent Initiative have concentrated on amplifying resilience as a marker of potential that needs to be nurtured.9 Each of these programs emphasizes entry into schools along the spectrum of competitiveness, as well as concentrating on the non-academic factors that can disrupt college completion for low-income and first-generation students.
The testimonials of most resilient young people have led some to believe that if students are not forced to become resilient due to suffering from inequality, then resilience can be taught after students start college. This third view of resilience, presents resilience as a product, or a commodity, which can be delivered by the college experience. In this instance, resilience is demonstrable through the ability to manage the responsibilities associated with adulthood: self-soothing during times of stress, meeting professional obligations, and managing personal, domestic tasks. The elision of resilience and responsibilities has yielded an institutional approach to resilience that is deployed as a critique to helicopter parenting, supposed generational hypersensitivity, and a decline in academic rigor on campus.
Recently, at the highly competitive University of Virginia, concern about students reporting high levels of stress and anxiety inspired the creation of a new staff position to focus on “student resilience and leadership development.” The director is tasked with teaching students in a course on “resilient leadership,” using a coaching strategy based on research about grit, the ability to remain focused despite setbacks and the growth mindset, the notion that one has to adopt a belief that they can expand their ability to acquire and apply knowledge.10 Resilience, grit and growth mindset are a trio of theories that have been incorporated into university programming in the hopes that they can correct an array of educational and personal issues from academic problems to emotional immaturity.
The head of UVA’s resilience initiative, psychologist Timothy Davis pointed to families as inadvertently undermining students’ independence. He said: “We know parents are at least a little more involved than they used to be. There are a lot of well-intentioned, loving parents who accidentally clip their own children’s wings by heading off struggles and doing too much for their kids, and really not allowing them to learn through struggle and through failure.”11 Davis’s comments evoke the image of controlling, and often affluent, parents who are unable to appropriately detach from their children. Davis also links his work on leadership coaching and building resilience to helping students mediate the impacts of “a more intense culture of competition and comparison.”12 The University of California-Berkeley’s DeCal program offers a course in “adulting,” which describes itself as offering “a class for students to learn how to live in the real world and function as an adult.” Focusing on “good habits,” stress management, personal finance, and healthy living, over the course of a semester, resilience is reduced to an item on a task list.13
In the University of Virginia context, in which resilience needs to be cultivated among elite students (most of whom are white), the focus rests on interpersonal familial and community dynamics and the pressure to maintain one’s position of power. Initiatives like those at Berkeley, in which resilience is something to be taught or coached, obscures the very conditions that allows some parents to be able to provide more for their children than others. Universities that conflate resilience with life skills reduce a strategy for survival among dispossessed populations into one of many strategies for academic and career success. Efforts to teach students about the ways of the world and how to meet professional expectations are laudable, but when they are presented in ways that do not interrogate inequality and its consequences, then they are missed opportunities at providing a substantive—and potentially transformative—education.
UCLA Professor Tyrone C. Howard’s educational research has argued that the celebration of resilience and grit has led to a normalization of—and by extension, a strange sense of appreciation for—trauma because it helps builds “stronger” young people.14 Howard synthesized scholarship that suggested resilience is a liability for learning. He argues the psychological instruments that measure intelligence, social growth, and emotional development—the framework in which grit emerges—can never fully capture the impact of abuse, trauma, and neglect on children.
Co-founder and CEO of Character Lab and University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth’s highly influential assessment of grit is dependent on a scale of agreement and disagreement with statements about focus, approach to challenges, and ability to overcome setbacks.15 Although Duckworth’s analysis of resilience prioritizes the demonstration of an ability to “stay the course,” Howard is concerned that these measurements do not account for the actual resources available to individual respondents in Duckworth’s studies. Howard contends that without a clear understanding of what students possess prior to encountering adversity—stable families, access to health care, food security—we are not able to make sweeping statements about their ability to achieve goals.16
Higher education in the United States continues to contemplate how theories of resilience can be applied to serve the more than 20 million students enrolled at two-year and four-year degree granting colleges and universities across the country.17 Moving forward, research on resilience needs to emphasize clarity in how the term is being used, as well as commitment to an analysis of how power relations shape the uses of the word and attendant theories.
Geographer Anne Bonds’s research on urban planning and discourses of resilience warns that all too often the relationship between racial capitalism and precariousness is obscured in initiatives that promote resilient cities and communities. Higher education must resist this impulse.
Using an uprising in Milwaukee in 2016 as a focal point, Bonds found that “the language of resilience became prevalent in both praise of the neighborhood’s perceived capacity to “recover” and in anticipatory discourses predicting both the potential for future unrest and the preventative solutions necessary to avoid such risks.” Similarly, in conversations about underrepresented populations on college campuses, students are lauded for their ability to “overcome,” and the programmatic interventions to cultivate resiliency often elide the structural transformations higher education can facilitate in their practices beyond teaching, including wage policies, growth plans, and ethical relationships with surrounding campus communities.18
A campus plan to deal with major weather events must be paired with research on climate change, alongside a commitment to sustainable building practices. Programs for low-income and first-generation students, who are rewarded for being resilient in the face of challenges, are most effective when they are matched with initiatives that fund students to undertake public service in underserved communities after graduation. Classes designed to teach resilience must also help students recognize the personal advantages bestowed upon them by virtue of their wealth and privilege, and inspire them to use their social positions toward working for greater justice and equity. Ultimately, educators and educational leaders cannot fetishize resilience to the point that we fail to look beyond its ability to help us cope and thrive in difficult moments.
Ultimately, resilience is not the conclusion to a lesson about dealing with catastrophe or a tactic to evade the realities of inequality. Nor is it a term that can be used to label vulnerable learners. Rather, a resilient higher education system supports the innovative thinking that can find solutions to complex social issues.
1 - Jon Marcus, “A Decade After Hurricane Katrina: how is higher education faring in New Orleans? Times Higher Education, August 29, 2015. For an analysis of disparities in post-Katrina funding, see Barbara J. Johnson, “Equity in the Context of a Crisis: Funding for Higher Education Post Katrina,” Review of Black Political Economy, February 19, 2011.
2 - Lucy Ferriss, “I am Not Resilient,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 12, 2017.
3 - “2018 Sustainable Campus Index,” The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education,” 2018, https://www.aashe.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/SCI-2018.pdf.
4 - Michael Coakley, “Violence Ends a Black Success story,” Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1985.
5 - Charlise Lyles, A Better Chance: A Unique Educational Experiment, Allice Patterson Foundation project, 1990, http://aliciapatterson.org/users/charlise-lyles
6 - For more on Perry’s story, see Robert Sam Anson, Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry (New York: Vintage, 1988).
7 - Charlise Lyles, “A Better Chance? For 30 Years, A Unique Program Has Taken Young Blacks From the Inner City to Prep School’s Ivy Towers; The Journey is a Long Way Up—And, Some Graduates Discovered, A Hard Way Down, June 20, 1993.
8 - John L. Pulley, “How to pick a 'posse': a foundation's unusual approach to selecting students,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 28, 2000.
9 - David Leonhardt, “A $20 Million College Gift,” The New York Times, May 18, 2018; Ashley A. Smith, “From a Community College to a Selective University, Inside Higher Education, June 27, 2018.
10 - Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016) and Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballatine Books, 2007).
11 - Kelly Feld, “How One University is Working to Make Student Leaders More Resilient,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 18, 2016.
12 - Kelly Feld, “How One University is Working to Make Student Leaders More Resilient,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 18, 2016.
13 - Cicero Estrella, “Adulting 101: Cal students teach course on how to live in the real world and function as an adult,” The Mercury News, August 27, 2019, https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/08/27/adulting-101-cal-students-teach-course-on-how-to-live-in-the-real-world-and-function-as-an-adult/.
14 - Aisha Sultan, “The Limitations of Teaching ‘Grit’ in the Classroom,” The Atlantic, December 2, 2015.
15 - Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016).
16 - Aisha Sultan, “The Limitations of Teaching ‘Grit’ in the Classroom,” The Atlantic, December 2, 2015.
17 - “Enrollment in elementary, secondary, and degree-granting post-secondary institutions, by level and control of institution, enrollment level, and attendance status and sex of student: Selected years, fall 1990 through fall 2026, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_105.20.asp?current=yes.
18 - Anne Bonds, “Refusing Resilience: The Racialization of Risk and Resilience,” Urban Geography, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2018.1462968.