The Resource of Resilience — A Professional Development Plus
Social workers are faced with extraordinary professional challenges in their careers. Fortunately, resilience building is a skill that can be grown and developed. Several higher education institutions are helping students recognize this ability and this is the story of one of them.
In 2018, Florida State University (FSU) launched the Resilience Project. Described as a “web-based, research-informed toolkit developed to encourage students’ wellness,” the project aims to help students as they navigate their college experience (Florida State University Division of Student Affairs, 2018). It also hopes to prepare them for the obstacles and challenges—small and large—that they will inevitably encounter throughout their lives.
“The whole idea was to let students know that the university really does care about them,” says Karen Oehme, JD, director of the Institute for Family Violence Studies and distinguished university scholar, both at FSU, “and to acknowledge that they’re really only with us for about four years and then they’re in families and they’re in the workforce and communities. Anything we can do with them now, they can bring with them to the real world.”
The toolkit—described in greater detail below—offers tips, activities, videos, and resources to FSU’s students. It has arrived as awareness builds of the mental health needs of students and professionals, as well as the long-term implications of not addressing such needs.
To best understand the Resilience Project and its goals, Social Work Today explores the concept of resilience, as well as its place on campus and in the workforce.
Resilience and Trauma
Trauma is an event or series of events in an individual’s life that negatively impacts them, both short and long term. And resilience is the ability to bounce back from that trauma. However, Danielle Wagner, MSSW, LCSW, staff therapist at Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA, notes that “‘bouncing’ is a very misleading word. [Resilience] is the ability to put things into perspective and process and move forward,” she clarifies.
She adds that the concept of trauma is not limited to what many may think of when they first hear the word. There is instead a spectrum of traumatic events. Wagner describes that spectrum as ranging from “big T” Trauma to “little t” trauma. “Little t traumas are those daily events and microaggressions, those little blows to stability,” she says.
No one is immune from trauma, though some may experience it more often and more severely than others. The creators of the Resilience Project recognize that. “You are going to have students who arrive on campus who have had significant adversity and then also a bucket of students who have not experienced such adversity but who will absolutely experience adversity at some point in their lives,” Oehme says.
Regardless of what type of trauma an individual may encounter and when, the ability to be resilient enables them to better address it. However, resilience is not one size fits all. While one negative event may not derail an individual, another may be more difficult to recover from.
“Someone could say, ‘You’re really stupid. You’re not doing a good job. You just can’t get it,’ and [the person they’re addressing] might be able to bounce back from that. They can say ‘No, I have my foundation, my stability. I know that you’re wrong,” Wagner says by way of example. “But if someone says to that same person, ‘You’re really ugly,’ that person might not bounce back from that in the same way.”
In School and Work
While on campus, students are likely to experience a variety of new—and unfortunately negative—experiences, from breakups to personal losses. These would be considered little t traumas.
Big T Traumas are prevalent on campus, as well. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), “11.2% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.” Students are more at risk of sexual assault during their first two semesters on campus (RAINN, 2020). And this is just one example of an event that may occur.
What’s more, an increasing number of students arrive at campus having been diagnosed with a mental illness. Others may experience the symptoms of mental illness for the first time while on campus, as “50% of all lifetime mental illnesses develop by age 14 and 75% develop by age 24,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (2020).
“There are some young people who are really struggling,” Oehme says.
After college, as young people enter the workforce, the possibility of trauma continues. This is particularly true for individuals in helping professions such as social work.
“These are completely overwhelming jobs,” Horwitz says. “They’re complicated almost beyond comprehension.”
Professionals may be impacted by their interactions with clients and the struggles their clients face but also by the interactions they have with colleagues and supervisors. And while a worker may feel that they are coping well with the rigors of their position for some time, it is not uncommon for one event or series of events to change that.
“Our assumptions get shattered all the time,” Horwitz says. “Things that happen to us shatter our understanding of safety and meaning, and we shut down a little bit until we rebuild our beliefs about this world.”
It is important, he adds, to distinguish between burnout and trauma. Both can happen in the workplace, though burnout is more commonly referenced. That’s a mistake, he says. “No one talks about families being burnt out. They talk about families being traumatized.
“I counter a trauma perspective with a burnout perspective,” Horwitz continues. “All the burnout work we do in the world is great. The challenge with a burnout lens is that it’s not very discriminating. It catches true stuff, but most people who are burned out are sort of doing okay.”
That distinction creates a space for resilience. Whereas one may respond to burnout with some personal time—a vacation, a night out with friends, a massage—the response to trauma must be more internal and more reflective. An individual needs resilience to deal with trauma, whether at school or work.
“We know from the science that you can develop skills to cope with these things, to deal with these things. Day by day you can start building up your resilience,” Oehme says.
But how does one build resilience? “It’s the strength of your inner voice,” Wagner says. “Resilience has to come from within. You have to have a strong ability to trust yourself and trust your inner voice and have that confidence.”
Horwitz agrees, noting that self-esteem is a key component of resilience, as is problem solving—and the two are closely linked. In the workplace, for example, as professionals gain experience, they develop more confidence in their ability to address crises, as well as daily tasks. “As you do [the job] for a while, your problem solving skills get better,” Horwitz says. “As your problem solving skills get better, you become more resilient.”
Another factor in building resilience is accepting that personal change is inevitable, Horwitz continues. No person is identical at 72 to who they were at 27. “We’re changing all the time,” he says. “Those changes can heighten our vulnerability to what our clients are putting out there.”
But it’s not just internal factors that contribute to resilience. The people and institutions surrounding an individual play a part, as well. Horwitz notes that social workers with access to supervisors and colleagues who can discuss, support, and offer feedback have a better opportunity to build and maintain resilience.
At college, the support should come from fellow students, professors, the institution itself, and the experiences had. “One of the best opportunities I had in school outside of internships was the opportunity to do a course where you traveled abroad,” Wagner says. “Having the ability to experience different things outside of the classroom allows you to stretch and build those muscles that you don’t necessarily know you have.”
However, it is not common for colleges to focus on building resilience in its students. “I’m not saying that schools don’t do this,” Wagner notes. “[But] I feel like it might rely more on individual professors rather than a structural school implementation. There’s a difference between learning about resilience and being given the opportunity.”
The Resilience Project
But what exactly is the Resilience Project? “It’s part of a campaign. It’s not just a website that’s going to collect virtual dust,” Oehme says.
Rose Antoine, a Bachelor of Social Work student currently in her senior year at FSU, agrees: “We wanted it to be a bridge, a connection to the students. There was a disconnect with how students were receiving information and processing their experiences.” Antoine has been working on the Resilience Project since her sophomore year.
Furthermore, the Resilience Project “is available to everyone,” Oehme says. “Everyone is capable of using it. Everyone is entitled to use it.”
Those who are new to campus—freshmen and transfer students—are required to explore the project but are not told how. They may access any part of it that strikes a chord with them. “You have to watch two videos, [listen to] two audios, and learn one new skill,” Oehme explains.
Once accessed, the site has a variety of tools available to help students, such as “What I Wish I Knew” videos—a favorite of both Antoine and Oehme.
“It’s about storytelling,” Oehme says. “One way we can really learn from each other is to hear each other’s stories. Students talk about being away from home for the first time. We have a young man who identifies as LGBTQ who talks about a breakup with his boyfriend. We have people who talk about feeling overwhelmed. The idea is, if you had a younger sibling who was going to be coming onto a college campus, what would you want them to know?”
There is also information on activities such as yoga and self-care, exercises to complete, and additional videos with content on, for example, coping. The goal is for every student at FSU to be able to find an aspect of the project that resonates with and helps them.
“People learn in different ways. Some learn visually; some learn experientially. Some want to hear things; some want to try things like yoga. So the idea is to provide lots of different kinds of things in lots of different ways,” Oehme says.
For professors and other staff on campus, there’s an implementation guide, Antoine says. This is designed to enable professors to integrate the toolkit in classes, as well as give the professors the tools they need to connect their students with appropriate resources. “A lot of times, students will bring up concerns to their professors. They may not know who to refer their students to,” Antoine says. “This bridges that gap.”
Antoine has been a part of presenting the project to students in assembly and individual classrooms. She says that the students she speaks with are very enthusiastic about the project, having found it helpful and meaningful.
On a more personal level, she notes that the Resilience Project gave her a resource to turn to when she began to struggle. “A month or two after we rolled it out, I had to take off my developer and disseminator hat and be student Rose. I needed to understand that this [what she was experiencing] was normal. I went on the site, and I listened to the pieces on journaling, yoga, and mindfulness. Those helped me process what I was going through.
The Resilience Project also helped Antoine with stress relief. “I am a first-generation student. I have such big dreams. I want to do everything. Sometimes I overload myself,” she says.
There is, however, room for growth within the project. Oehme says that, since launching, the toolkit has added content specific to different populations, such as international students and graduate students. The team behind the Resilience Project is constantly looking for feedback, she says, so that they can continue refining and expanding this resilience resource.
In doing so—at the very least—a campus of students will have the opportunity to better recognize and cope with the challenges they face during college and beyond. They will have the opportunity, Antoine emphasizes, to better understand their experiences.
They should know, she says, “Your story doesn’t end at trauma. It continues with resilience.”
— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2020). Teens & young adults. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/find-support/teens-and-young-adults.
RAINN. (2020). Campus sexual violence: Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence.