Building student resiliency

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–Trustees of The Duke Endowment have approved a $3.4 million grant to help four schools in the Carolinas collaborate on increasing student resilience.

Davidson College, Duke University and Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina and Furman University in South Carolina will use the four-year grant to study resiliency on each campus and pilot interventions to enhance it.

Based in Charlotte, N.C., The Duke Endowment is one of the largest private foundations in the Southeast. Part of its annual grantmaking is focused on the four schools, along with rural United Methodist churches and organizations working in health care and child care.

With today’s college students reporting extreme levels of stress and anxiety, this effort will focus on ways that campuses can build “resiliency,” which the project defines as the ability to thrive despite adversity and difficult circumstances.

“As our students increasingly deal with the growing stresses of contemporary college life, understanding and positively influencing their resiliency will, we believe, enhance their coping skills and enable them to optimize their academic and career pursuits,” says Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs at Duke University. “With ever-growing pressures to innovate and lead, a foundation of resiliency will enable our students to be courageous, adventurous and creative – all prerequisites to excellence.”

Tom Shandley, vice president for student life at Davidson, calls it a “critical issue.” He anticipates the research will have a ripple effect for other colleges and universities “and lead to ideas and models for new practices and strategies far beyond the four schools.”

Campus leaders will begin the project this school year by designing the research model, which will include opportunities for students and faculty to work together and share their findings.

The focus for Year 2 will be data collection and analysis, which will help identify key sources of stress at each school. In Year 3, the schools will pilot interventions and assess their effectiveness. By the final year, each campus will have developed its own program to enhance student resiliency.

The schools will hold two symposia to share discoveries and outcomes.

“The Duke Endowment grant offers faculty the rare opportunity to conduct research that will directly inform interventions and benefit student health and well-being,” says Dr. Beth Pontari, associate professor of psychology at Furman. The collaborative research efforts, she says, “will enhance faculty scholarship, provide rich educational opportunities for students, contribute to the body of knowledge on college student resilience, and eventually improve the lives of our students.”

Planning began in early 2012 when The Duke Endowment met with staff from Davidson, Duke, Furman and Johnson C. Smith to discuss student health and wellness and to see if the schools saw value in working together on the issue. The Endowment sponsored a one-day “student resiliency summit” in August 2012. And in May 2013, the Endowment awarded a $600,000 grant to add case management services to the four schools.

Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard, executive vice president at Johnson C. Smith, says the focus on resiliency will give the schools new tools to help students succeed.

“This is a pivotal moment in higher education as we focus on getting students to and through colleges and universities by more strategically and intentionally understanding the interplay of personal characteristics and institutional factors that support persistence to graduation,” he says.

The diversity of the schools offers a unique opportunity to identify interventions that could influence student well-being across the nation, says Moneta at Duke University. Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, The Duke Endowment Trustee who chairs the Endowment’s Committee on Educational Institutions, agrees.

“These four educational institutions have unique cultures and priorities,” she says, “but this timely effort will allow them to work together on an issue that affects students in the Carolinas and beyond.”

The Duke Endowment has distributed more than $3 billion in grants since its inception in 1924. The private foundation shares a name with Duke University and Duke Energy, but all are separate organizations.

For more information, please visit www.dukeendowment.org.