Learning resilience and gratitude

1 Posted by - February 12, 2017 - science outreach, Thoughts

So life as a science student clearly does not include much time for blog posts. Am finally getting back to it. I am not enrolled in a class this semester but am involved in some other activities with science students that I plan to share here throughout the next 3 months.

I am attending weekly meetings with the Science Outreach office team to help plan activities – the main one being a large event in May called Science Rendevous. I will also participate in a couple of special demo labs that take place weekly for visiting high school classes. In the coming weeks I will be meeting and interviewing some science students and hopefully attending one class with each of them – Quantum Physics, Computer Programming, Advanced Math, Anatomy, etc. Lots to look forward to.

The Faculty of Science also runs an elective course for second year students that is designed to teach skills needed to be successful students and to encourage students to get involved outside of the classroom in unique experiential learning opportunities both in their faculty and in the larger university. We know that students who get involved and engaged in various co-curricular activities feel more connected to the campus community and are more likely to persist and graduate. A few weeks ago I was invited to sit on a panel for students enrolled in this course. It focused on the importance of students maintaining their health and wellness as these things are essential to ensure that they can cope with the many stresses of managing a full course load each semester.

We who work in the field of student affairs at colleges and universities are spending more and more time talking about mental health and the struggles we see in our students. Most of my colleagues see increased need and increased demands compared to 10 or 15 years ago. There are many theories as to the reason for this:

  • we live in a more challenging and stressful world and our young adults have to cope with more stress and uncertainty than previous generations
  • growth in the participation rate in higher education means we see more of the issues in the larger society playing out on our campuses.
  • efforts to reduce the stigma related to mental health means we have a generation of young people who are more comfortable with expressing their need and accessing services.

I would never begin to try and articulate which of these or other reasons has created the increasing awareness of, expectations about or demand for response to the mental health challenges that we see, but I certainly do see the impact of this change in our conversations and on our work.


RESILIENCE – the capacity to prepare for disruptions, recover from shocks and stresses, and adapt and grow from a disruptive experience.

We also talk a lot about the resiliency of our students or lack thereof. I think that this is one of the most important skills that parents can teach their children as they prepare them to head into the demands of post-secondary study. I realized when I was sitting on the panel talking to the assembled students that we could help students not just by talking about resiliency but by showing them that we all have to practice resiliency in our lives and will face challenges at every stage of our life that require us to draw on these skills. Would it help them to see that they are not alone and that teachers, and staff and administrators all around them are also trying to cope with stress and life challenges just like they are? We don’t have all the answers but they need to see that we are real, and human, and still learning to cope with what life presents while trying to manage all our responsibilities. So I took a risk and shared more personal information than may have been wise. I told them that while I was trying to learn Organic Chemistry in the very short 12 weeks of the fall semester, I separated from my husband, prepared a house for sale, sold the house, bought a condo, packed up all my belongings, moved and started over setting up my new home all by myself. I unpacked boxes, painted walls, made chemistry cue cards, shopped for furniture, assembled furniture, studied for weekly quizzes, and of course did my full time job.

I have spent a lot more time recently thinking about how we can help our students learn to be more mentally well by thinking about what I need to learn to be more mentally well. We have a new program at Ryerson that to date has been completed by over 3000 students. It is called ThriveRU and was designed by psychologist Dr. Diana Brecher. The program is focused on cultivating well-being and happiness. As part of this project I have signed up and am completing it with a group of students. It involves workshops, exercises and a workbook that focuses on topics such as Gratitude, Cultivating Optimism, Living in the Present Moment, Coping Strategies, Learning to Forgive, Meditation and Savouring Life’s Joys. I am starting with a focus on gratitude and sometimes that is as simple as thinking “I don’t have to do this…I get to do this”. Reminding myself to be grateful to have the opportunities that sometimes feel like too much work or too much stress or just too much.


One exercise suggested in our workshop on gratitude involves writing a letter to someone important to you and then reading it aloud to them. This impact on the other person of doing this is powerful as this video illustrates (have some tissues handy).

Given the state of things in the world right now and the constant influx of very disturbing news that we have all been faced with in the last few months, we need to learn gratitude, optimism, forgiveness and savouring joy more than ever. We all need this and I for one am especially grateful that this project has provided me with an opportunity to relearn and practice these skills alongside our students.