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Reflections From an Independent Study: Resilience in Higher Education

Angela Duckworth’s Grit (2016) begins with a fascinating look into military cadets’ acclimation to life at West Point, setting the stage for a thoughtful overview of her research on perseverance and passion. As a student affairs professional, I couldn’t help but notice connections between her studies at West Point and undergraduate students I’ve worked with. Whether it be a top tier military academy or any given undergraduate institution, the transition to collegiate life requires some level of grit and self-control. Much like Duckworth, I often wonder what factors into our students’ academic and co-curricular success. Further, I often ask myself what practitioners can do to aid in our students’ development of short-term self-control and long-term resilience. This blog post will delve into these ideas and ask questions about how these concepts manifest.

Learn more about Duckworth, pictured above, and her findings by watching her Ted Talk.


Sriram, Glanzer, & Allen (2018) define self-control as regulative behaviors that contribute to one’s everyday achievements, while grit leads to exceptional achievements over time. Studies tell us that both are predictors of academic success. Nonetheless, it’s easy to simplify these terms and assume that people are inherently self-regulative or gritty, whether it be the product of nature and/or nurture. An example Duckworth gives is Olympic athletes: there’s an assumption that these athletes are inherently talented and self-driven instead of focusing on the hard work it takes to truly excel.

Olympian Simone Biles, pictured above, must have remarkable work ethic.

Given this widely adopted belief, it’s equally as easy to assume students are predestined to thrive or fail by the time they’ve started their collegiate journeys. However, I believe that educators and practitioners play a crucial role during an extremely important developmental period. Duckworth’s research shows that individuals get grittier over time. In the case of traditional students in their late teens and early twenties, they are likely beginning to develop their personal and professional goals and commitment to executing them. As Johnson, Gans, Kerr, and LaValle (2010) posit, emerging adulthood is often defined by instability, often due to changes in one’s living situation, work experience, and relationships, especially for college students. Given this information, it’s also important to take social capital into consideration.

In a world where instant gratification has become the norm, how do we teach our students self-control in their daily activities?

Social Capital

Relationships with family and friends prior to college play a crucial role in one’s academic and emotional adjustment. Given that we are living and working in the age of helicopter parents, a largely middle-class affliction, it’s important to consider how familial relationships will affect one’s development of self-control and grit. In contrast, first-generation college students and/or those from low socioeconomic class backgrounds may struggle with the financial transition while trying to navigate college with fewer resources and without experts to support them.

During students’ transition to collegiate life, it’s hard to know what their social capital looks like unless they’ve told us, so I believe that practitioners can put more effort into programming for self-control and resilience during this developmental phase.

As student affairs professionals, how can we fill in the gaps for those who need social capital?

Growth Mindset

The first year is an important period to foster growth mindset both in and outside the classroom. During this crucial developmental phase, the transition to college becomes a make-or-break moment for many depending on their own conceptualization of their intelligence and self-efficacy. Those with a fixed mindset, believing that their ability and achievement is unchangeable, may falter when faced with failure. Contrarily, those with a growth mindset will realize that they’re consistently improving by virtue of failure and feedback. By being upfront with students and helping them understand the importance of failure, we can help them embrace growth mindset while becoming increasingly self-regulative and gritty.

What are small steps that we can take every day to move away from a fixed mindset and toward a growth mindset?

Healthy Coping

Without effective and long-lasting strategies,

students may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Often, it seems that students are afflicted with difficulties adjusting to collegiate life, especially away from home. By developing self-control, establishing social capital, and embracing a growth mindset, we can help our students grow from failure instead of turning drugs, alcohol, or other detrimental behaviors. Not only will this inform retention and academic achievement, but it will set our students up for success beyond college if they can responsibly respond to failure and hardship.

What are some early intervention strategies for healthy coping during the first year?

Next Steps

I implore my fellow educators to critically consider how our preconceived ideas about our students influence our perception of their retention and worth. For me, this requires an acknowledgement that success is not the result of natural talent, as Duckworth passionately reiterates. It’s easy to mystify success and to conflate talent and grit, but there’s so much more to achievement. We cannot simply embrace the students who easily acclimate to college and jump into leadership roles or excel academically. We must notice those who struggle more and are harder on themselves. As educators, we have the gift of potentially making a difference. In this case, that means teaching a growth mindset, self-control, healthy coping, and grittiness to the malleable minds we interact with.

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