Iowa Alumni Magazine | September 2016 | In Class

True Grit

By Shelbi Thomas
College students learn to face adversity with resilience.

When Molly Fobian looked into the gleaming eyes of her newborn girl, she knew all the struggles of the past nine months had been worth it.

Nearly every college student faces challenges as they move away from home, adjusting to new responsibilities in an unfamiliar environment. For Fobian, this transition was further complicated by an unplanned pregnancy.

Determined to stay positive as she balanced schoolwork with prenatal care earlier this year, Fobian enrolled in “Resiliency and Your College Experience”—a UI health and human physiology course in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that teaches practical coping skills to help students adapt to life’s inevitable hardships. Through the course, Fobian gained support to persevere through her final semester at Iowa, graduate with a degree in enterprise leadership, and find an event planning job in Colorado.

“When you’re young, you feel like it’s the end of the world if one bad thing happens. This class taught me that I’m so blessed with the life that I have and the people in it,” says Fobian, who graduated in May and welcomed Mia Joye in June. “I’m blessed to even have the opportunity to go to college."

At the start of the semester, students learn that 75 percent of their peers admit to being stressed, whether it be from rigorous academic demands, peer pressure, or financial concerns. Resiliency is the psychological strength that allows people like Fobian to bounce back from such problems rather than see ripples in their plans as insurmountable obstacles.

Research shows that highly resilient people have a clear advantage when facing adversity. Though “Resiliency and Your College Experience” has been previously taught as psychological theory, it has been tailored this year to meet undergraduates’ needs and offer real-world advice for dealing with everything from breakups to roommate troubles. The revamp comes at a time when university counselors nationwide have reported an alarming rise in students who seem unable to cope with even the slightest setback, such as a bad grade on an exam. Used to their parents’ intervention, many millennials later struggle to solve problems on their own.

Resilient people are flexible and quick to adapt. They don’t disengage from their problems or become consumed by their feelings, but delay processing their emotions to more effectively find solutions instead of exploding, imploding, or blaming others. Such an approach allows them to persevere with grit and determination, despite the circumstance. Believing success is on the horizon—and that failure is often par for the course for those with big dreams—resilient people develop a positive attitude that’s more gracious to themselves and patient with challenges along the way. As former Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said, “If I’m not failing, I’m not succeeding.”

While resiliency comes more naturally to some people, it’s not just a characteristic gifted to people at birth; it’s a set of skills that can be developed by anyone over time. Such flourishment is the goal of “Resiliency and Your College Experience,” where students like Fobian learn practical skills at a crucial time in their development to support lifelong growth and well-being. “For many of them, this is the first time they’ll hit those bumps in life,” says course instructor Catherine Solie, “and it’s not going to get easier.”

Regardless of their background, undergrads in the class discover that nearly every life challenge—from receiving a speeding ticket to dealing with a noisy neighbor—offers the opportunity to problem-solve and cultivate perseverance. Students learn to look at their trials from a fresh perspective in order to build self-esteem, communicate better in conflict situations, and develop an optimistic outlook on life. Course instructor Christina Nash, 03BA, says, “Students always think of resiliency in terms of dramatic life-changing experiences, but little things can make a resilient person, too—like failing a test and how you come back from that.”

During the semester, professors introduce the latest psychological research and TED Talks from luminaries like former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords. They also share SMART advice to set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Students then practice applying these concepts toward their personal struggles. Fobian says using this method to set financial goals helped her avoid self-pity and gain confidence in her ability to be a good mother.

“Resiliency and Your College Experience” provides a welcome change of pace from the typical UI course, offering an intimate class size of 18 where students can easily interact and support one another in problem-solving exercises. They learn to establish values, own their mistakes, and consider others’ viewpoints in order to develop greater resiliency. In one class session, a student confesses he’s given his roommate the silent treatment for leaving dirty dishes in the sink. Classmates share ideas to help him address the problem directly without further escalating tensions: to step back and reassess, listen to both the roommate’s verbal and nonverbal cues, and respond with a spirit of reconciliation. They later follow up to see how the situation has improved with better communication. Instructors also encourage him and other participants to be willing to seek help and take advantage of the many resources the UI offers to support students, such as counseling, academic advising, and the Career Center.

“When you’re young, you feel like it’s the end of the world if one bad thing happens. This class taught me that I’m so blessed with the life that I have and the people in it.”
Molly Fobian

During one class period at the Field House, students put their problem-solving skills to the test through a series of experiential learning exercises. Instructors first challenge students to line up in order of their birthdays without saying a word. Many use hand gestures to communicate the month and date in which they were born, although confusion arises as some messages are lost in translation.

Later, the class splits into teams to build towers with the unwieldy materials of balloons and tape—where students’ natural resiliency and adaptation skills are on full display. Only half of the balloon towers stand upright. When the class reconvenes oreflect on its approach to this challenge, one student shares how prior experience building balloon sculptures for family birthday parties helped her lead the group to victory. While she applied practical intelligence to the situation, others took an analytical or creative approach to problem-solving. One student whose initial strategy didn’t work admits, “I just wanted to give up,” but her willingness to switch to a new plan helped her team move forward.

While these exercises help students understand their reactions to adversity, another class project invites them to learn from the life experiences of others. For their final project, students report on a resilient person in their lives and how they overcame a difficult situation. One student picks a single mom balancing two jobs, seeing her in a new light after realizing all of the sacrifices she made to provide for her children. Others choose friends who have overcome abuse, illness, or the death of a parent.

“Resiliency and Your College Experience” instructor Catherine Solie says she’s inspired by the growth she sees in students over the course of the semester as they tackle adversity head-on and challenge the “stigma with college students that they’re unengaged, that they don’t care, that they only think of themselves.” Defying all stereotypes, undergrads in this class show an investment not only in their personal growth, but in one another as they build coping skills that will prove useful for the rest of their lives.