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Our Resilience Reservoirs are Drying Up


We are running out of words to describe the emotions, experiences, and overall expressions for what life is right now. 

July 2021 was a difficult-face-plant-learning experience for me. I always thought I was a pretty resilient person: I assumed life would never be easy, and that there was an honor in that. 

By the end of July, however, my toughness turned flimsy. I began to think, maybe I’m not as resilient as I thought I was. 

But now I know I’m not alone. 

As I reflected on the self-doubt I was experiencing about my own resiliency, I reached out to others to get insight and inspiration. Many told me they, too, were empty, that their resilience reservoir had been used up.

Resiliency is described in a variety of ways – from the ability to recover or adjust to adversities such as illness, change, or difficult life events, to toughnessbuoyancyrecovering quickly, or strength

No matter what the definition, there is no getting around it – resilience is about getting knocked down and recovering. It’s hard. Messy. Raw. 

It may feel as though it goes against the perfect and polished higher education experience we imagine for our students. The earned degrees, the bright and shiny smiles at the pinnacle campus events, or the consistently well-groomed quad.  

When the Delta variant dropped in, it wrecked havoc in our communities. This left higher education scrambling and strategizing with the double duty of contingency backups while going full speed ahead for the coveted on-campus experience. 

Perhaps unlike the summer of 2020, vacations were had, travels made, PTO was taken. But was it enough to rebuild the resilience reservoir for the new academic year? 

The resilience of higher education professionals is being tested.

Is there space and grace for a resilience recovery for campus professionals? When will the reservoir dry up beyond repair – or are we already beyond that point?

With all these questions swirling in my head, I started digging. I explored definitions and frameworks for resiliency and resilience during COVID-19, as well as tools like self-compassion and critical hope. I also reached out to campus leaders who are seen as advocates, allies, and ambassadors in action to resiliency.

So what does resilience look like in higher education? How can we be honest with our current realities as leaders and give support and space to our team? And what are some tools and resources to support and guide us through? And of course, how does all this resilience talk relate to digital leadership?

Reality Check: Higher Ed Resilience in 2021-2022

When seeking out leaders to feature in my work – this was the first time I had not just one, but many campus leaders respond by saying, I am not feeling very resilient right now. The responses from these presidents, VPs, and deans echo in my mind. From the executive cabinet to entry-level pros, campuses are hurting.

Similar to the previous definitions of resiliency, David Surrat, VPSA, and Dean of Students at the University of Oklahoma, offered his own definition:

“The ability to respond and recover from difficult circumstances.”

So I asked David, how are you pursuing resiliency while not judging yourself through difficulties? 

He shared, “During COVID, I absolutely lean into trauma-informed approaches to both leading and taking care of myself. Understanding trauma allows me to better understand how to manage my own anxiety and fear and to empathize with others who might experience those emotions, too.” In March 2021, David tweeted a thread advocating for trauma-informed approaches to recovery plans. 

Six trauma informed core principles venn diagram.

                              (Surratt, 2021)

A trauma-informed approach is absolutely called for, whether we define it for recovery or just everyday life. While some names or principles may vary, you can learn more about the six trauma-informed core principles in this tool from the CDC. 

This pandemic has inflicted trauma. To deny or gloss over its destruction on our globe, local communities, and individual resilience is also in itself destructive and traumatic. Therefore, I want to press against the pursuit of “seeing the bright side,” which is becoming more known and identified as toxic positivity. Leaders must shine the light but not neglect the real harm being done to the humans under their care – including students, but also their staff and faculty.

Dan Bureau, assistant VP for student health and wellbeing at Louisiana State University, echoes a trauma-informed model. “Right now, our resiliency models must be informed by larger concerns about short and long-term trauma for our staff. Consider the impact this has had on our physical bodies, as discussed in this article/podcast.”

I found myself tearing up as Dan went on to share, “Our people are not well, and to not address their humanity as we address their level of contribution is an injustice.”

He went on to contextualize what higher ed pros are faced with. “All of that said, we have to have perspective. This is hard work. Sometimes it’s superhuman work, but we are not the only ones facing these challenges.”

It’s not just higher education that is hurting. Parents are hurting. Caretakers. Doctors. Nurses. The list goes on.

Claudia Schrader, president of Kingsborough Community College, pointed out the silver lining of social distancing and overcoming campus challenges together. “In many ways, it served to bring us together because of this common experience.”

I asked Claudia what she thought not just her people but all of higher ed need to hear right now? I fell in love with her answer within just the first line, 

“This message is brought to you by one of my faves– the Game of Thrones: “Chaos is not a pit, it’s a ladder.” 

She went on to reflect, “As trying as these times are, they present opportunities to rethink how we function as leaders and how our institutions operate to support student success. The events of the past year and a half have brought to light many practices that are not aligned with our stated mission and many gaps in service and operations. We now have the opportunity to rectify these issues for the good of students and the institution.”

A Toolkit to Replenish Your Resilience Reservoir

Is COVID a ‘ladder’ to a more resilient higher ed?

While this is yet to be determined, we need practical resources to build a stronger ladder when (not if) the next crisis comes.

There are three tools I’d like to briefly offer for replenishing resilience reservoirs: self-compassion, critical hope, and digital leadership.

Self Compassion

This first one is, as noted in the title, for the individual self. And it’s about kindness and acceptance.

Compassion should be very familiar to those who work in higher education. There has even been research on compassion fatigue because of the high touch/relational work required in this industry.

But we’re going to pause the outward compassion, and turn inward to your compassion for yourself. 

While I was in the depths of writing my book, I had a good friend that saw I was struggling. She gifted me the book Self Compassion – The Proven Power to Being Kind to Yourself. I learned from this book on self-compassion how important it is to reflect, “Are you speaking to yourself like you would a good friend?”

At least in my case, self-compassion can serve as a strong rainfall that replenishes my resiliency reservoir. 

In the book, self-compassion author and researcher Dr. Kristin Neff writes, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, whoever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

She encourages us to recognize the difficulties instead of pressing on or having a stiff upper lip. For example, “This is really difficult right now. How can I comfort and care for myself at this moment?” 

As you add self-compassion to your resiliency toolkit, consider these three elements:  

  • Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement – Be gentle and warm with yourself when difficulties occur. Do not ignore your pain.
  • Common Humanity vs. Isolation -To be human is to be vulnerable and imperfect. Acknowledge the shared vulnerable experience of being a human. You are not alone. Do not face these challenges alone. 
  • Mindfulness vs. Over-identification – Gently acknowledge negative thoughts/emotions using a mindful non-judgemental practice. Be curious, while not ignoring your pain. 

Critical Hope

In my resilience research, in addition to compassion, I started to see another common word: hope. And then I discovered critical hope. 

Without a foundation of hope, resilience can drain your reservoir. 

In Cultivating Critical Hope: The Too Often Forgotten Dimension of Critical Leadership Development, the authors discuss how losing hope “causes us to become stagnant, decreases our efficacy to engage in leadership, takes away our sense of agency to act as leaders, and widens the gap between espoused and actualized values” (Bishundat, Phillip, Gore, 2018, p. 94). 

Critical hope is a realistic assessment of your environment/realities, but importantly, it also includes a lens of equity and justice as we work toward a more resilient future (Dugan, 2017; Duncan Andrade, 2009).

I asked Marlene Tromp, president at Boise State University, how she is approaching challenges and caring for herself as well as her campus.

She didn’t sugarcoat it. “The challenges will continue. Personally, I’m working out and meditating a lot. For our community, we’re encouraging people to engage in self-care, providing support, and having open forums. This is critical, but not sufficient, in this challenging time.” She went on to state, “It will take years for people to recover.”

For healing to happen – not just the COVID kind, but also racial battle fatigue or organizational resistance to social change – well-being must be a pivotal priority – not just an extra (Bishundat et al., 2018). “Especially for communities at the margins, we must prioritize our individual and community well-being while moving beyond simply coping and managing” (McGee & Stovall, 2015, p. 100). 

Professor at Bishop’s University, Jessica Riddell (2020) applied critical hope as a way to combat toxic positivity. Riddell writes how a critical hope framework acknowledges what is and centers the most vulnerable and marginalized, whereas toxic positivity doesn’t make space for dialogue or disagreement and pursues going back to “normal.”

“One narrative threatens to break us apart because it denies the fact of our transformation. The other narrative offers us a way to be broken open, to occupy the position of learner, to embrace empathy, and to relinquish authority in favour of collaboration – with our students, with our colleagues, with our communities” (para. 5).

She goes on to quote philosopher and author Parker Palmer, who asserts that “wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life. … These are the broken-hearted people whose hearts have been broken open instead of broken apart.” 

Let me just state that again.

Broken-hearted people, broken open – not broken apart.

Campus leaders and supervisors – this is your call to action. Do not say everything is great when it isn’t. Recognize and embrace brokenness. You must be community builders, to overcome an enemy of hope: isolation. 

In the critical hope framework, there are enemies of hope and allies of hope. I’d like to highlight one of each in particular from Devita Bishundat, Daviree Velazquez Phillip, Willie Gore (2018).

Isolation is an enemy of hope

Community is an ally of hope

“Educators who resist isolation by finding community can be more resilient leaders” (p. 94)

Reflect on: 

  • Who are the people that support and challenge you with care? 
  • Who else may feel isolated?

Digital Leadership And Community Building 

As promised, this toolkit for resiliency has an application and amplification of digital communication tools. Social media can scale your ability as a leader to not just communicate, but strategically bring your community together, overcome isolation, and scale values such as critical hope, care, and compassion.

Numerous leaders shared with me how a weekly video series or regular email messages were tools for consistent connection in COVID. However, it was important to not just “do” them – they each had a clear purpose. Leanna Fenneberg, VPSA at Rider University, modeled taking your vacation days. As she shared, “I hope to model this (taking time off) for my team and encourage their own vacation time to restore, reconnect, and rejuvenate, and include these messages in my regular divisional weekly e-newsletters.”

President at Kingsborough Community College Claudia Schrader reflected on how her weekly motivational messages to students filled the gap when she used to often walk around campus offices pre-pandemic. But these messages weren’t just filled with deadlines, reminders, or robotic calls for encouragement – as is sometimes found from university administrators. 

Claudia explained her strategy, “Instead of telling students not to despair about exams, I encourage students to knock it out the park; instead of talking about a defeat, and students canceling themselves, I talk about completion culture; and instead of telling students about critical dates, I reinforce their ability to be successful by stepping into success and their greatness.” Check out one of Schrader’s weekly messages here!

Dan Bureau, assistant VP for student health and wellbeing at Louisiana State University offers the following for campus leaders,

“Social media should be a vehicle through which care is conveyed. Additionally, it should help us to rethink ideas through sharing new concepts. How we show up in social media should be as honest and authentic as we should in person. Let’s not put identities not true to who we are out in the public when in private we are showing up differently.”

As you consider your digital leadership practices with the intent to increase connection and decrease the isolation of your campus community – think about these questions:

  • Is your feed just a highlight reel or does it acknowledge realities right now? 
  • Overall, do your messages evoke interaction and emotion, or are they one-directional in information or robotic?
  • Are you posting in a voice that “sounds” like you actually speak? Does your personality come through?
  • At this very moment, who within your campus community are the most vulnerable with the least resources? Are you directly speaking and connecting with them in any way possible – including on social media? 
  • Considering your own resiliency rollercoaster, life difficulties, or struggles – are there any you are willing to share/reflect on that would acknowledge others going through similar challenges? (Hint think about the tools of self-compassion and critical hope)
  • Instead of thinking about and getting overwhelmed by all the social platforms, what is just one that you can define as your resiliency communication tool? 
  • Can you post one thing per week that cultivates your goal to be a connector through difficulties, decreasing the isolation of your campus community? 

The Journey of Resiliency and Pandemic Recovery

Resiliency is about getting knocked down and recovering. It’s hard. And it’s happening to us over and over again right now. One day you may find a flow state – the next day you are completely depleted. The waters are rough out there, friends. 

This is why trauma-informed practices have to influence the expectations of our own current resiliency, as well as the reservoirs of everyone we come into contact with.

Be kind. Listen. Ask caring questions. Give grace. 

Recognizing and honoring the journey and partnership between resiliency and recovery will be the ultimate test for the field of higher ed.

More Resources and Readings for your Resiliency Reservoir

*This post was originally created for my newsletter, Digital Leadership Download. Subscribe and keep up with everything I’m writing, podcasting, and speaking about!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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