Recognizing the Shortcomings of Resilience

Difficulties surmounting certain obstacles could, in fact, be indicators that a student should abandon a particular path and pursue something else, writes Danielle Carr Ramdath.

November 27, 2019

There has been extensive research on the benefits of resilience -- for spiritual, physical and mental health, as well as for community and social well-being. But what are the benefits of resilience in a student’s academic life? What does “academic resilience” mean?

In my previous position as an associate dean of the faculty, I worked closely with academic leaders and students to create learning goals that all students should pursue. One of those goals is resilience, and academic leaders are eager to find ways to help students rebound from failures and overcome obstacles. Now in the role of associate dean of the college and dean of the senior class, I interact directly with students in their final year of college. With this view of the student side, I can see the shortcomings of resilience that should be acknowledged before we modify the co-curriculum.

One of the definitions of resilience is the ability to spring back into initial shape. But suppose the initial shape is in poor shape? Some students embrace expectations and goals set by someone else. As they pursue those goals, they are expected to overcome obstacles without stress and strain. But the stress and strain could be indicators that they should abandon that particular course of study and pursue something else.

Parents can project fears onto their children, and extended families hope that the next generation will be more successful than they were. Such projections and hopes can cripple a student who only has about four years to lay a solid foundation for the future. Students may hear:

“You need to major in economics so that you can run the family business when you get home.”

“You need to pursue health/law so that you can make enough money to take care of the family.”

“You are the first to go to college, so find a major that will guarantee you a job.”

“Everyone in the family has majored in this field. You can do it -- you’re a legacy!”

Students shouldn’t shirk familial responsibilities, but students can mistake familial expectations for personal dreams. When I review seniors’ academic records, I often see two academic tracks in their transcripts: one track focused on pleasing the parent/family, the other for themselves. In such cases, seniors are tired of juggling two academic careers, and they are fearful about going into the real world.

Which path should they continue to follow? Which path should they build their lives upon? I can attest that those seniors have been resilient -- they have overcome lots of obstacles to make everyone happy. But I cannot say with confidence that they are prepared for a very bright future. On the contrary, they may face further familial conflict and stress because they did not make hard decisions earlier in their academic careers.

Another definition of resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. I do like the term “difficulty” as opposed to failure, but why does recovery have to be quick? As long as students recover, what is wrong with dissecting a difficult situation for a bit? Students who pursue courses of study without asking why they are pursuing them can waste a lot of time and money. If we encourage students to take time to reflect, they may be able to redefine their courses of study before true failures take place.

To me, “academic resilience” is a student’s ability to ponder over difficulties and grow from them. Using this definition, how can we help students be resilient during their academic careers? We can:

Encourage students to explore the curriculum. Students should feel unfettered to explore the curriculum early in their studies so that they can find out what they are good at, what interests them and what questions they would like to investigate deeply. Once they discover their interests and talents, students will be able to shape their own dreams -- dreams that may differ from familial or community expectations.

Teach students to reflect deeply on their academic progress. Students should be encouraged to take some time to reflect on what was difficult and what was rewarding before they commit to a major or career track.

For instance, earning a B-plus in a course is not a failure. But if the student immediately registers for another course in that field without reflecting on the grade, then the student has lost a key benefit from higher education: the ability to explore rich and varied curricular offerings. If earning a B-plus was a struggle for the student, why was it a struggle? If the struggle was due to a lack of interest in the subject matter, why is the student still pursuing it? If the material was challenging but the student didn’t go to class, why did the student disengage with face-to-face interactions? These types of questions can help students determine the difference between an expectation and a dream.

Introduce students to all academic support services. In addition to knowing where the writing, quantitative skills and health centers are, students should develop connections with the following other academic support areas, ideally during their first or second year: class deans, career development, wellness, religious and spiritual life, and residential life. Even though we can’t make students follow our advice, those of us who are class deans, academic advisers, counselors, residential life staff and career services professionals are eager to help them identify viable paths of study. More important, staff members in these areas are equipped to help students manage conflict, especially conflict outside the classroom.

Ultimately, by the end of their academic careers, students should have built a solid foundation from which to pursue a series of rewarding choices for postcollege life that will benefit not only themselves but also their families and communities. Resilience without reflection will get students to the finish line, but they will also be in danger of winning the wrong race.

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Danielle Carr Ramdath is the associate dean of the college and dean of the senior class at Smith College.


Danielle Carr Ramdath

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