7 Ways That Universities Can Foster Resilience in Students

Google the word “resilience” and you will find it broadly used across industries: The military, freight transportation, city planning, global development, environmental issues, and more.

All of these groups wonder, “Is resiliency just a buzzword, or can we create action on it and impact our field?” Higher education is asking the same question.

While some institutions have unpacked and conceptualized resiliency so that it is woven into the fabric of their campus culture, others are mystified by resiliency programming, appreciating the end-goal but unsure of what it all looks like or where to start.

Resilience is defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” In other words, resilience is the ability to bounce back. University staff walk alongside students as they learn how to bounce back from failure, disappointment, loss, rejection, and more during this new chapter of independent adulthood. However, some students struggle, and many universities are creating resources to empower and equip them to become resilient.

How we got here is often debated. Sociologists and psychologists say both biological and environmentalprotective factors” in a child’s life, such as networks of social support (or lack thereof), can help shape the strength of one’s resiliency.

Some people will point to an era of helicopter parenting that resulted in young adults who are ill-equipped to navigate the setbacks or demands of life, and unable to problem-solve their way forward to progress. Others look towards the age of modern technology as a culprit, sighing heavily about smartphones, apps, and social media.

There will be a larger consensus that an uptick in student demand and use of college counseling centers around the country is noticeable. To some, this is cause for alarm, whereas others acknowledge it but are not quick to say it is due to a lack of resiliency. Rather, it may be the hoped for cumulative effect of efforts to de-stigmatize help-seeking behavior.

Perhaps more of the distressed population is now getting help, rather there being more students in the distressed population (the level of distress is also discussed in the counseling field). Either way, colleges are doing more to address the stress levels of their students and train them in the essential skills critical to their post-collegiate success.

So, is resilience an emotional problem we should leave to counseling centers to solve? No.

Many of these centers are understaffed and managing a waitlist of students while balancing their clinicians’ time between campus outreach and seeing clients. Indeed, resiliency (or the lack thereof) plays out in all areas of campus life: A lack of skills to recover plays out in students being unable to navigate failure in academics, or feelings of rejection when not being chosen for an internship, losing an election in their student organization, or the rejection (real or perceived) in dating and other relationships.

For those managing anxiety or depression, this adds another layer to the experience, making resiliency challenging yet critical to attain. Improved resiliency could also contribute to strides in reducing perfectionistic tendencies, alleviates imposter syndrome, and challenges concepts of masculinity that prevent college men from sharing their struggles.

You’re not fine, Ross.

You may have stashed away the idea of resiliency training for your campus as a “one of those days when I have the time” projects you promise to get to soon. Wait no more. If you are considering resiliency programming, get ready to be inspired.

The following seven colleges and universities show us just how incredible and meaningful this contribution of work can be in preparing our students for success.

7 inspiring resiliency-building programs on college campuses

1. George Mason University

George Mason employs a Resilience Badging Challenge, utilizing a digital badge for Resilience as the North Star for their program. Originally created as a professional development opportunity for students seeking career preparedness, students became interested in the program for personal development as well.

The 5 week program blends both in-person and online sessions is a part of the larger Mason’s Resilience Project, which also includes a map of the George Mason Resilience Model as well as resilience learning modules. This is all housed under the umbrella of their Well-Being University Initiative entitled, “Mason: Thriving Together.” This program is stacked with a variety of resources for students tied together with a common theme.

2. Stanford

The Resilience Project at Stanford includes an element of storytelling, encouraging students to share about their missteps and how they bounced back in the “Stanford, I Screwed Up!” video series. Academic skills coaching is part of the picture of resilience training at Stanford, as the core ideas of The Resilience Project are to “learn about learning, seek advice, get perspective, and connect with community.” To help carry out these core ideas, their student group, Students for Resilience (S4R), works to promote resilience messaging and support those events.

3. Penn State

The Penn Resiliency Program, out of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, is an evidence-based training focused on the delivery of workshops. However, this program is not limited to the Penn State campuses. It is available to other universities (current clients include The University of Texas-Arlington and The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley), and also utilized by the military, professional sports organizations, and first responders. They share that “decades of empirical studies indicate that the program increases well-being and optimism, reduces and prevents depression, anxiety, and conduct problems, results in fewer substance abuse and mental health diagnoses, and improves physical health.”

Penn State also is host to Penn Faces: The Resilience Project, which not only features stories of rejection and failure from members of the campus community, but the opportunity to hit the “I am here with you” button on any story that is “resonating” with you.

4. Harvard

While Harvard is host to The Resilience Consortium (four of the universities of this group are featured in this piece), Harvard itself provides The Success-Failure Project for their campus, which “explores success, failure, and resilience.” The theme pages on the website include concentration/careers, grades, perfectionism, and resilience. The four initiatives of The Success-Failure Project provide an outstanding array of narratives.

For example, the Alumni Interview Project features videos of alumni talking about past successes and failures whereas the Reflections on Rejections initiative offers videos of Harvard faculty, deans, staff and alums talking about rejection and showing the rejection letters they have received.

5. Princeton

The Princeton Perspectives Project (PPP) is Princeton’s offering for resiliency education and outreach. Just three years old, this initiative gives students a chance to both “watch a story” and “share a story” on the website, as well as the chance to subscribe to PPP emails.

What do students talk about in their stories? PPP lets students know that their tags for stories include “pressure, anxiety, branching out, social life, what matters most, grades, perfect, awkward, failure, success” but also offers other tag suggestions, as well as story prompts or the creative license to tell their story in their own way. Lastly, PPP hosts retreats and reflection events, and invites to students to “get support” on their website from a library of resources of peer-to-peer, on-campus, and online resources.

6. University of Texas-Austin

University of Texas-Austin developed a free iPhone app called Thrive at UT to “enhance the well-being of UT-Austin students.” Informed by student input and offering seven different topic areas, the app aims to inspire students to make small changes in their daily routine for positive change. Videos of UT-Austin students and interactive activities are also featured on the app, encouraging students to learn from their peers and apply the information to their own experience.

7. Tulane

At Tulane University, The Story of Failure focuses on “shifting mindsets” and “cultivating resilience.” A collaborative effort among faculty, staff, and students, the program goals are to “redefine failure as an important piece of the learning process,” “shift the campus perception that failure must be avoided in order to be successful,” and “support students to strategically move forward when faced with adversity.” Going beyond workshops and panels, resilience programming at Tulane includes a variety show called, “Dear Tulane, Failure Happens.” Here, the community comes together to “drop our desire to be perfect and embrace our most epic failures” in this popular event.

In an era where flawless selfies, great achievements, and picture-perfect moments occupy our social media newsfeeds, one can see the value of cultivating a culture where imperfect moments are acknowledged and failures are celebrated as a chance to grow forward.

These institutions offer examples of creative, thoughtful programs that allow students to explore and appreciate the things that humanize all of us. More than a feel-good effect, resiliency programming as part of the student experience can create connection and embolden the spirit of our students to confidently carry forward with resilience skills that will serve them well.

Do you offer resiliency education programs on campus? What do they look like? Tell us about them on Twitter @PriyaThomas757 and @themoderncampus.


Priya Thomas

About the author: Priya Thomas (she/hers) is a wellness and leadership development director and consultant, with 15 years of experience in Student Affairs. She is the former Director of Prevention & Wellness at Florida Gulf Coast University and actively volunteers with Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Learn how we can help get your students involved.