9 Simple Ways to Boost Student Retention & Success Through Resilience

Resilience involves a person’s ability to manage and work through the challenges and setbacks of everyday life.

Our students often showcase their resilience when they mentally bounce back after earning a not-so-great test grade, having an argument with a roommate, or losing out on a coveted student leadership position.

Although researchers have studied the alarming decline in college student resilience stemming from helicopter parents, economic crashes, the pressure to get into an elite college and more, helping our students actually develop resiliency skills in the first place is a major challenge for SA pros.

'resilience is very different from being numb. Resilience means you experience, you feel, you fail, you hurt, you fall. But you keeping.' - Yasmin Mogahed

With more students enrolling in higher education than ever before, but with graduation rates staying the same, researchers have identified resilience as a strategy to increase retention and degree completion.

I hope you find some of these ideas inspirational for fostering resilience on your campus, among the entire student body and individual students.

9 Ideas

1. Talk about resilience at orientation

Start students off on the right foot with a brief chat about resilience and the realities of the college experience. You don’t have to focus on doom and gloom; instead, lead an honest dialogue about the challenges that come with being in a new environment, juggling multiple classes, getting involved on campus, and other responsibilities. 

Some additional suggestions for your orientation session on resilience:

  • Provide resource information such as contact information and details about tutoring, mental health services, and wellness services.
  • Approximately 20% of students utilize their campus’s mental health services. Normalize asking for help with data on how counseling has been shown to help students in need. You can tell these stories and data sets through powerpoints, social media, and other published materials. 
  • If your campus has a family orientation program or session, set aside some time to discuss how attendees can help their students develop resilience. For example, discussing goal setting, study routines, self-care, and more in preparation for their first semester.
  • Share a resilience-building worksheet for students to continually fill out throughout their time at your institution. Resilience building helps individuals identify stressors, recognize how their body reacts to stress, learn coping mechanisms, and identify strengths they can use during challenging times.

2. Invite a guest speaker on resilience

Inspire students to view setbacks as life lessons and opportunities for growth. You can invite a motivational speaker or perhaps a psychology or social sciences professor to chat about the latest research on resilience.
Ideas on lecture topics related to resilience include:

  • Overcoming immense obstacles
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Success after failure
  • Coping strategies
  • New research

These speaking engagements can inspire students to keep pushing after a disappointment and to start thinking about resilience and coping skills they can use while at your institution.

Retain More Students

3. Utilize a resilience-themed mobile app

The University of Texas created the Thrive at UT app to help students make small yet impactful changes to their daily routines. The app teaches students resilience skills through quotes, stories, quizzes, and interactive activities, and sends gentle reminders to help them utilize these skills. 

Presence’s gamification and experience features are uniquely fit to empower institutions to build stress management and resilience modules.

4. Host a resilience workshop

Resilience training can be done through many different types of workshops. Here are a few of my favorite activities to include:

  • The emotional resilience mandala asks individuals to reflect on different areas of their life through coloring and introspective discussion.
  • The gift-box exercise helps students identify their strengths and articulate them as ‘gifts’ 
  • A three-part Emotional Resilience Exercise empowers participants, over multiple sessions, to develop a perspective of resilience and try out new experiences.
  • The Reviewing My Work exercise encourages individuals to evaluate their own work, learn from their past mistakes, and set goals for future development.

These workshops are all designed around self-reflection, often with the goal to encourage participants to think realistically about how they can grow among multiple dimensions of wellness.

'When we learn how to become resilient, we learn how to embrace the beautifully broad spectrum of the human experience.' - Jaeda Dewalt

5. Invite alumni to chat about the challenges they’ve faced

As many of your alumni likely know well, success is not possible without failure. 

Work with career services to identify alumni who have gone on to start businesses, made recent career changes, excelled as first-gen students, or have found other notable forms of success. Be sure to include alumni with historically marginalized identities, as they often face additional barriers to success. 

Ideas for alumni programming include:

  • Hosting a speaker series about their academic and career journey
  • Forming a mentorship program
  • Sharing their stories on social media
  • Inviting alumni to advise clubs and student orgs

Check out UConn’s Husky Mentor Network for inspiration on how alumni can help current students build a support network.

6. Post about failure

Destigmatize failure on your social media accounts by asking students to share a challenge they’ve overcome while at your institution. Ask students to submit answers via a poll, a story response, or even a TikTok video. Then share these stories on your page or web page. Be prepared to follow up to responses with resources that can support students in meeting current challenges.

7. Share podcasts and inspirational books

Stories are powerful catalysts for inspiration. Check out this list of 100 books for creating “mental toughness” and the latest podcasts on resilience. Start a virtual or in-person book club or discussion group to debrief on lessons and takeaways.

8. Host exercise and physical health opportunities

Exercise can be a powerful way to help students manage stress. Host a group class for students to learn Zumba, Pound, or kickboxing. 

Education on proper nutrition, sleep, and preventing substance abuse can also be incorporated into events to help students find healthy ways to cope with stress.

Share these group events and participation statistics on your website and social media. This can use social norm data to counteract the common assumption that most college students act unhealthily. When students become aware of this data, they will be more likely to modify their behavior to align with the majority.

9. Build communal grit through storytelling

Nurturing meaningful relationships is particularly important to building resilience as individuals tend to feel more isolated when in crisis. 

Princeton University’s Perspective Project gives students a chance to both “watch a story” and “share a story” on their website that’s dedicated to stories of students who have faced challenges and setbacks before and during their time at Princeton. With more and more students building community in online spaces, providing a safe platform for them to be vulnerable can be a catalyst to building community offline.

`Do not judge me by my success. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.` - Nelson Mandela

For more ideas on fostering resilience on your campus, check out these 5 crucial mindsets that will help your students shift from surviving to thriving.

Have an amazing idea that’s not here? Share it with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.

Corinna Kraemer

About the author: Corinna Kraemer (she/her) works in ed tech and loves painting, running, and hanging out with her cat, Mr. K. She hopes her posts will finally help her dad understand what her career in student affairs is all about. Learn how we can help get your students involved.