Landmark Research Project Aims to Build Student Resilience

College life isn't all parties and fun. A number of studies reveal that increasing numbers of students feel a tremendous amount of stress amidst the ivied walls of academe.

In fact, one study documented that 37 percent of incoming college students suffer psychological problems. Psychologist Jean Twenge documented the influence of pressures on young people's mental health in her 2006 book "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before." She reported students face a plethora of factors that can harm their health and well-being – relationship problems, unrealistic expectations, eating disorders, drugs and drinking, academic pressure, money woes, poor employment prospects and over-commitment to extracurricular activities.

An annual survey conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute concludes that the emotional health of college freshmen has dropped to its lowest level in 25 years.

The primary response by colleges to help students cope has been hiring more counselors. Davidson's student health center now employs four full-time counselors, with additional staffers in the dean of students, chaplains and residence life office helping on an informal basis. Still, a quarter of Davidson students seek formal help at the counseling center during their Davidson careers. "Students come to us tightly wound," said Georgia Ringle, a Davidson health educator. "They're a vulnerable population, and college can be messy."

A Creative Approach

A research project funded by The Duke Endowment is now underway, and will allow its four partner schools – Davidson, Duke, Furman and Johnson C. Smith – to help students by approaching the situation in new and creative ways.

While it's true that some students descend into depression and anxiety, it's also true that others sail through the rough seas of their college years with little problem. "Some fall apart, while others face troubles head-on and don't appear to miss a beat," observed Tom Shandley, vice president for student life at Davidson. "The Duke Endowment project will study the resilience of that group and shape campus programs and activities accordingly to make the experience better for all students."

The proposal for the $3-million grant states, "Today, we are even more convinced that enhancing students' resilience offers a promising path to promoting the health and well-being of our students."

The project began about a year ago, and thus far has convened two gatherings of student mental health providers from the four colleges.

One of the sessions included a keynote talk by Coery Keyes, a sociologist from Emory University, who pointed out, "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. 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."

Summer Homework

The project is continuing this summer with an appeal to all incoming first-year students at the four schools to complete a comprehensive online survey about their life experiences and attitudes. The 400-item survey will take about an hour to complete, and surveyors request that it be completed in one sitting.

The survey calls for responses about a wide range of issues – academic background, extracurricular involvement, health, physical activity, relationships and emotional well-being, eating behavior, life values and goals, employment history, sense of purpose, life events, resilience, mental health, alcohol and drug use, sleep habits and family situation. The survey will identify not only stressors in college life, but also those characteristics that are associated with positive adjustments to college life, such as self-efficacy, optimism and self-compassion.

Several days prior to the student notification in mid-June, their parents will receive information about the project that includes the opportunity to exclude their children from the project. Parents also will be asked to complete a much shorter survey covering some of the same ground as the student surveys.

Further surveys of the same students during their collegiate careers should provide guidance for implementing campus programming that reduces student stress and increases student resilience. The first of those additional surveys will be administered during orientation activities for the Class of 2018 in late August. The two initial, pre-college surveys will give researchers a base line of data for comparison to data taken during the college experience.

Four Years of Data

Reflecting the facts that the project involves all four schools, but that each retains some autonomy in its administration and implementation, the projects are referred to as "You@Davidson," "You@Duke," etc.

Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs at Duke University, emphasized that success in the effort will require multiple initiatives, rather than a single one. "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 our students."

The third year of the study (2015-2016) will feature pilot plans for enhancing population-level resilience. For instance, they might target residential communities, students who are connected by interests and identities, and non-traditional students. Continued assessment surveys throughout that academic year should help determine program effectiveness, and highlight interventions that best enhance students' resiliency.

The final year of the project will feature expanded application of treatments to enhance students' resiliency. Each campus will have developed its own distinctive campaigns, which may include approaches common to multiple institutions and others unique to the culture, environment and students of each school. Shandley said, "We're not looking for one solution for everyone. We'll decide what we do here at Davidson based on our own data, while others will seek their own solutions."

Davidson Hosts Student Researchers

Though the program is being administered primarily by faculty and staff at each institution, with Duke University serving as overall coordinator, Davidson is hosting an undergraduate research experience each summer for two students from each school. They will serve as research fellows under Lauren Stutts, visiting assistant professor of psychology, developing their own projects about resiliency while working collectively to support the overall goals of the study.

"The summer program is a unique experience that trains students as researchers and allows them to have a voice in a project about their cohort," said Stutts. "They are excited to be part of a project that will have direct translational value to programs on campus."

The Davidson students involved are psychology majors Meredith Nakano '15 and Grace Lee Simmons '15. Nakano will investigate the relationship between emotional well-being (loneliness vs. belonging) and the quality and quantity of peer relationships. Simmons' project will investigate whether there are gender differences in coping strategies.

Other student researchers are tackling issues such as the relationship between number of stressful life events and the ability to be resilient, how ethnicity affects a student's ability to become resilient, and the relationship between sense of belonging and making healthy choices.

The student researchers will summarize their findings in a poster session for The Duke Endowment board members at Davidson on July 24.

Administrators expect that the results of the project will benefit not only the four Duke Endowment institutions, but also the higher education community at large, providing scholarly findings about an important issue for higher education.


  • June 16, 2014