Researching & Strengthening Student Resilience on College Campuses

Higher Education  |  Promote Learning and Pursue Shared Opportunities

To derive full value from their college experiences, students must be equipped to handle the pressure and stress of college life. To help ensure that students can thrive, the Endowment has awarded $3.4 million in grants to support research and interventions through the Student Resilience and Well-Being Project on the four Endowment-supported campuses in North Carolina and South Carolina. The project aimed to understand and reinforce the conditions that strengthen college student resilience and well-being.

Challenge

College is a one-of-a-kind opportunity. It also can be overwhelmingly stressful. In addition to the pressure of a competitive academic environment, many students worry about the cost, about fitting into a new environment or about family issues back home. While learning to manage stress is part of the experience, many students report extreme levels of anxiety, depression and other conditions that negatively affect their overall wellness and ability to succeed and thrive. These challenges can increase for students who are among the first in their families to attend college or who have experienced trauma or mental health challenges before arriving on campus. Over the past decade, the emotional health of college students has become an issue of national concern. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to focus on student well-being.

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Response

In 2013, The Duke Endowment provided $3.4 million to the four institutions named in Mr. Duke’s Indenture of Trust — Davidson College, Duke University, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University — to intensively study the issue of student resilience and to develop new interventions to test and refine.

The Student Resilience and Well-Being Project began with data collection across all four campuses to better understand the causes of student stress, how stress manifests itself, what tools students possess to deal with stress and become resilient, and where interventions to improve resiliency are most needed. Using this data (collected longitudinally from the Class of 2018 over four years) campus teams are designing and implementing new interventions and restructuring existing ones to help enhance resiliency.

The Student Resilience and Well-Being Project aimed to identify the factors that contribute to and mitigate student resilience, and to increase knowledge about the effectiveness of interventions designed to improve resiliency, and to share that knowledge among the four campuses and beyond. The study found that four key factors strengthen student resilience and well-being: self-control, academic engagement, self-compassion, and supportive and meaningful relationships. 

Using these factors as a foundation, the project has already resulted in:

  • A more effective array of interventions and supports for students
  • Scholarly findings that contribute to the higher education and mental health communities
  • Measurable enhancements in student resiliency and wellness on all four campuses

The Endowment has seen increased collaboration across and within the four schools, as well as an increased understanding of student resilience and promising intervention ideas. In addition, the study helped inform the schools’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis on campus.

In addition to working within their own campuses, the schools contributed to shared data collection and analysis, created joint studies and interventions, and shared findings and ideas. During the 2016 Student Resiliency Symposia at the Endowment’s headquarters, the four schools welcomed representatives from other colleges and universities to showcase their own resiliency efforts and participate in shared learning.

Participating Sites

Higher education map

North Carolina

South Carolina

Campus Highlights

In addition to taking part in shared data collection and analysis, researchers and practitioners on each campus worked to develop interventions tailored to their particular campus culture and needs.

Davidson College

Davidson explored several interventions, including:

  • A focus on pre-major academic advising
  • The use of therapy-assisted online counseling, which began in the fall of 2016
  • A bounce break’ during April, in which students can attend sessions on mindfulness, healthy eating and yoga, among other things. One bounce break activity includes an art cart” that encourages students to stimulate creative centers in the brain

Davidson also was home to the Student Resilience and Well-Being Project’s summer research program, hosting two undergraduates from each of the four campuses to explore specific aspects of resilience and well-being through individual and joint research projects. Students studied a range of factors, from the effects of overusing electronic devices to the impact of social rejection.

Duke University

Duke’s interventions focused on creating quality relationships with adults on campus, which research shows is a positive predictor of academic engagement and success. Duke also explored the negative effects of the Greek rush system and possible improvements to the process. Other areas of focus at Duke include:

  • A deep dive into mindfulness and meditation
  • A new Duke Experience” undergrad curriculum for all first-year students that will bring wellness attributes into early conversations
  • A new emphasis on encouraging students to use time management skills, via Duke’s Academic Resources Center
  • Programming to support second-year students’ academic engagement and friendship
  • A study to understand if assigning roommates results in increased student interaction with peers from diverse backgrounds

Furman University

Furman has named its resiliency effort The Fourtitude Project (four universities, four years, for you). Furman was one of the first schools to monitor stress and resiliency issues surrounding Greek life on campus and is exploring interventions to mitigate the social stress that increases during rush season.

In addition, Furman’s research shows that academic stress has a greater influence on mental health over time than does social stress. In 2016, Furman used data collected from the Student Resilience and Well-Being Project to create a pilot intervention that uses web-based tutorials and texting to give students skills to manage academic stress, such as goal-setting, if-then” plans for obstacles, etc.

Insights from the resiliency study are contributing to The Furman Advantage, which creates pathways for students that combine classroom learning with real-world experiences and self-discovery.

Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU)

As the only Historically Black College and University among the Endowment’s higher education grantees, JCSU provided a valuable perspective to the project. Intervention activities at JCSU included:

  • The Transitions Project, which helps entering students cope with stresses of college life and with the stress associated with college costs
  • Case management for male students, who typically are more concerned about confidentiality than female students
  • A book study and discussion series about civility, with a goal ofhelping first-year students develop a sense of social responsibility, self-compassion and optimism

JCSU partnered with Furman to conduct a study of student physical health and resiliency. It also conducted its own ongoing studies, including the relationship between technology use and sleep quality, and the impact of problematic internet use on school connectedness.

Impact

The Student Resilience and Well-Being Project collected data on more than 6,600 variables across 11 waves of data collection from more than 2,000 students.

The project provided a rare opportunity for researchers on campuses to analyze and apply their own learning directly back to their campuses. As one said, Doing research that will be used locally on campus is unheard of. Basic researchers never get to do this!”

Issues of resiliency are tied to perceptions of value when it comes to the college experience. The Gallup Purdue Index report shows key elements of the college experience that are powerful predictors of later thriving and well-being. For example:

  • If graduates strongly agree that they were emotionally supported” by a professor or other mentor during college, the odds that they are engaged in their work and thriving in overall well-being double.
  • Graduates who had experiential and deep learning” — such as a long-term project, internship or intense extracurricular engagement — had more workplace engagement.
  • Graduates who interacted with people from different backgrounds during college are more than twice as likely to say their education was worth the cost.
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Lessons Learned

The Student Resilience and Well-Being Project has produced several lessons, some about the nature of cross-campus research and others about resiliency and opportunities for intervention.

Insights

  • Gathering data across multiple campuses over several years is a daunting task. Since student participation was voluntary, campuses had to develop creative ways to encourage ongoing involvement.
  • Mass data collection requires a clear focus and framework for common analysis. Campuses worked together to create a framework that would be useful to all.
  • Resiliency is not just in the mind. It is closely tied to overall wellness, and includes aspects of physical, mental and emotional health.
  • Student engagement is a key indicator of resiliency and is largely influenced by the degree of faculty and staff involvement.
  • Students provide valuable insights as researchers and as research participants. In many cases, student input helped to develop interventions and intervention delivery systems (such as delivering resiliency information through short BuzzFeed videos rather than via in-person lectures).
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as JCSU, have traditionally offered more support for student resiliency than non-HBCUs, and have a lot to contribute to the discussion.
  • Promising interventions are those that address both academic and social issues, promote long-term engagement, provide an authentic connection with a caring adult, and recognize that failure and imperfection are a normal part of college life.

Resources

pdf – July 28, 2016

The Student Resilience And Well-Being Project

A five-year initiative to assess and promote the conditions that help college students flourish. Learn how four campuses in the Carolinas worked together to study college student resilience.

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