Helping Students Flourish

Helping Students Flourish

The picture showed a single leafy sprout surrounded by cracked dirt. Corey Keyes, a sociologist from Emory University, used it to set up a conversation about resilience.

"You might look at the plant," Keyes said, "and wonder why it survived in such bad circumstances. What can we learn from it to help others weather adversity?"

You might notice that the plant is alive—but stunted. What could help it flourish?

Or you could focus on the environment. How can it be improved to help other sprouts?

The 50 people listening on that summer morning in Charlotte nodded their understanding. As psychologists, deans, health educators and campus activity directors, they had come together to focus on the idea of well-being and what it looks like on a college campus.

Keyes, the keynote speaker, reviewed the research—and the challenges. “On many college campuses, the deception we play with ourselves is that if we just provide more counselors, we’ll deal with the problem,” he said. “But if you only think through the lens of treatment—if you don’t complement treatment with the promotion of resilience and well-being—you’re part of the problem, not the solution.”

‘On All Our Minds’

The Student Resiliency Symposium included participants from Davidson College, Duke University and Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina and Furman University in South Carolina—the four institutions of higher education supported by The Duke Endowment. The Endowment sponsored the gathering as a way to help the schools come together around an important issue.

“The question of what a healthy campus looks like was something a historically black university, two selective private institutions and one research university could have a compelling conversation about,” says Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs at Duke University. “Finding ways to promote health is on all of our minds.”

When it comes to student well-being, the national picture is often bleak. Campus violence and suicides grab the headlines. Substance abuse and binge drinking remain a concern. Students report extreme levels of stress and anxiety.

“Students come to us tightly wound,” says Georgia Ringle, a health educator at Davidson. “It’s a vulnerable population and college can be messy.”

Also, with advances in effective medicine and therapy, more students with mental health and physical health challenges are now able to attend college away from home. These bright and capable students can excel, but support services must be in place to help them manage serious physical or emotional health issues.

On many campuses, counseling centers are busier than ever. According to the New York Times, a recent survey by the American College Counseling Association found that most students are seeking help for identity crises or troubles with relationships, and learning to adjust to life without mom and dad.

“We’re seeing students who haven’t become independent in their decision-making because they haven’t made many personal life choices for themselves,” says Connie Carson, vice president for student life at Furman. “They’re less resilient when they hit bumps in the road and things don’t go quite the way they expect.”

But 44 percent in counseling have severe psychological disorders, up from 16 percent in 2000, and 24 percent are on psychiatric medication, up from 17 percent a decade ago.

Experts say the stigma once attached to getting counseling is evaporating. Many of today’s college students already have had years of experience with advisors, counselors, tutors and coaches, and they’re comfortable with asking for help.

“The therapists here are doing session after session after session,” says Ringle. “The fact that students are aware of what they need and seek those resources is fantastic.”

“We had seven new students come in during the first week of school,” says Frederick Murphy, director of counseling services at Johnson C. Smith. “Since I’ve been here, that’s a record.”

A Starting Point

Organizers of the Student Resiliency Symposium knew the topic was important—and daunting. Ringle, who was on the steering committee, likened early planning sessions to working a Ouija board, “pushing a little disc around to figure out what it was we needed to zero in on.”

The notion of resiliency seemed an appropriate starting point.

“Resiliency allowed us to look at the characteristics of people who have developed strong coping skills and the ability to deal with adversities that are all too common on college campuses,” says Moneta, who has 39 years of experience in the field. “We knew we couldn’t take on everything at once, but resiliency seemed an appropriate bite in the health apple.”

Breakout sessions focused on social settings, marginalized students, the role of parents, the first-year experience, the classroom and the therapeutic session. Two staff members from Duke University’s Counseling and Psychological Services led the group through an “experiential activity.” And Corey Keyes grounded the topic in scientific research.

Keyes said he accepted the invitation because the day was focused on well-being—on “growing the best in students,” rather than waiting to treat problems when they occur. Campuses need to have treatment centers because mental illness exists. But to prevent illness in the first place, it’s important to complement treatment with the promotion of resilience.

Reducing the bad, he says, doesn’t necessarily elevate the good.

“I was glad these schools were taking the bull by the horns in understanding that they have a responsibility to protect and promote the well-being of their students,” Keyes says. “My sense was that this was more than just a meeting—this could become a mission. Other universities should be moving in this direction, too.”

Next Steps

The steering committee met again after the symposium, this time at Furman, to reflect on the event and the lessons learned. They also considered next steps, and looked at assessment strategies that would let them measure the success of any intervention.

“We all recognize how important this is,” says Murphy at Johnson C. Smith. “It doesn’t matter that our campuses look and feel different, students are having a hard time. And we have to ask ourselves what we can do as institutions to help them succeed.”

But everyone also agrees: This is a marathon issue, not a sprint issue.

“It’s not like we’re going to come back and put resiliency powder in the food in the dining hall,” Moneta says. “We have to think about what happens over the course of four years for every student that arrives that has them leave more confident, more capable, more secure, more rugged, more determined. And it’s going to take dozens of approaches to produce the outcomes that we hope for for our students.”

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