University of Washington: UW Resilience Lab aims to change campus culture toward compassion and mindfulness

Recent studies show that 53% of first-year students reported a substantial increase in mental and emotional exhaustion. Inside Higher Ed reported that 30% of students noted increased depression, 27% said they experienced greater loneliness and 20% felt more hopeless.

Traditionally, the intervention to help students was to send them to individual counseling. While that remains an important pillar of support, the University of Washington is broadening the way it provides help not just to students, but to faculty and staff as well. Using a broad toolbox of mindfulness, compassion and well-being centered programming, officials are trying to change campus culture, said Megan Kennedy, director of the UW Resilience Lab and co-chair of the UW Student Well-Being Collaborative.

“By aligning and strengthening the work that we’re doing as a campus writ large, around supporting student mental health, we’re actually preventing some students from getting to a point where they need more serious intervention,” she said. “We can bolster the resilience of folks within the system at multiple levels and in doing so, support our entire community.”

Research over the past several decades has shown that teaching social and emotional learning skills to K-12 students has promoted higher academic success and persistence to graduation. Extending that into higher education makes sense, officials say, catering to students’ emotional intelligence, better preparing them for a career and allowing them to be their whole selves.

Students at UW were arriving on campus with skills to succeed, but not to stumble and then rise, said Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

“When they actually got here and encountered situations where they might trip up or even fail, students were underprepared for that,” Taylor said. “What students were saying — high on their list of things that concerned them — was their fear of failure and not being able to recover when they did encounter difficulties or challenges once they left home and came to college for the first time.”

Facing uncertainty, let downs and even failure is part of the college experience.

“They should be stepping into those challenges, especially here,” Taylor said.

The Resilience Lab helps students — and now faculty and staff, too — do just that.

Founded by Anne Browning in 2015, the Resilience Lab originally was intended to help support and retain undergraduates by helping them cope with stressors, including failure. Then in 2019, Browning transitioned to become assistant dean for well-being at UW Medicine. That’s when now-director Kennedy came on board.

Officials decided to take a step back to view student well-being and mental health along a continuum, broadening the scope of the Resilience Lab to embrace faculty and staff as part of the mission.

Today, the Resilience Lab’s three-fold mission is to support UW students in becoming change-makers on campus and in their communities; provide students, staff and instructors with training and tools to build their self-awareness, respond to stress more effectively and cultivate compassion; and advocate for policies and systemic changes that promote a more resilient, compassionate and inclusive campus culture.

They do this through a growing variety of programs that includes research, community building, instruction and programming.

Resilience Lab programs focus on well-being

Be REAL (Resilient Attitudes and Living) is an initiative that promotes mental health and well-being by equipping participants with cognitive behavioral skills to manage emotions and cope with stressful situations, mindfulness skills to strengthen self-awareness, and practices to encourage compassion for themselves and others. Be REAL was developed and evaluated by the UW’s Center for Child & Family Well-Being and, in partnership with the Resilience Lab, expanded to staff and students on all three UW campuses.

Try Be REAL for yourself. Check out the audio library or contact Robyn Long, [email protected], if you’d like to learn more about Be REAL trainings.

To date, most of the Be REAL skills groups and trainings have been open to the entire UW community, but moving forward the intention is to develop expertise within university units and departments. For example, several people in the College of Engineering went through the Be REAL program over the summer and the entire staff at the UW Alumni Association are scheduled for fall quarter, Kennedy said.

“It’s really encouraging to see these teams wanting to learn together and dive into this work together,” she said.

Tyneshia Valdez, who works as the assistant to the chair in the Department of Astronomy, said that participating in Be REAL has helped her through the pandemic, return to work and in interactions with others.

“If I’m more graceful and less burnt out and I do things to make myself happy, I know that that will really trickle downstream,” she said. “Be REAL is surprising. It’s free. It’s easy to do. You don’t have to bring a lot with you, just yourself, your authentic self.”

In 2020, the Resilience Lab published an 87-page guidebook combining research, best practices and personal testimony tailored to support the whole student. The guidebook was distributed to all instructors, deans and chancellors and advising staff across the UW. Leaders convened a tri-campus community of practice where more than 40 instructors and staff across nearly 20 academic departments still meet monthly to exchange ideas and teaching strategies. A new community of practice started within the School of Medicine this fall across their five-state region.

“What we’re doing is creating both a venue and a map — if you will — toward healing and compassion in our community,” Dean Taylor said.

Partnering to ‘interrupt racism’

In a new partnership, the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity, led by Ralina Joseph, and the Resilience Lab are developing a new training and speaker series, “Resistance through Resilience,” that focuses on the application of mindfulness and compassion-based practices to interrupt racism.

Prior to COVID-19, many people wanted to come together in community to talk about racism and combat microaggressions, but the months of isolation — combined with a national dialogue sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis — left the BIPOC community and other anti-racism activists feeling exhausted, said Joseph, who also is a professor of communication in the College of Arts & Sciences and associate dean for equity & justice and student affairs in the Graduate School.

“People also needed to attend to the health of themselves and to their communities while still continuing to do the vitally important daily work of protesting racism,” Joseph said.

Bringing together the Resilience Lab and the Center for Communication, Diversity and Equity will help lead to systemic change, leaders say.

“We’re really committed to addressing the systems of oppression and racism that exist, and to think critically about why we have a system that promotes so much stress,” Kennedy said.

Fueled by a $15,000 grant from The Mind & Life Institute, a Diversity and Inclusion Seed Grant and Communication Department funding, the groups will focus on bringing mindfulness and compassion-based practices together to address racial exhaustion, nourish each other and confront everyday oppression.

“The mindfulness and stress-reduction skills Megan has taught me provide me personally with other strategies, and give a whole other set of tools to my students, my community members, people that I know and love and am connected to. These are ways to make their lives healthier,” Joseph said. “The CCDE’s new partnership with the Resilience Lab just gives me hope in this moment, and I think that that’s what we need to make it through right now and to continue garnering the strength to fight.”

Sowing resilience through seed grants

In partnership with the Campus Sustainability Fund, the Resilience Lab awards seed grants to support projects that cultivate resilience, compassion and sustainability at the UW. To date, over $118,000 has been disbursed to fund projects led by students, faculty and staff across all three campuses.

We don’t want to go back to business as usual but rather develop consciousness about how we’re returning to campus. Staff and students are turning to the Resilience Lab to learn some strategies for managing stress effectively.
—Megan Kennedy / UW Resilience Lab
For example, UW Bothell Assistant Professor Ching-In Chen received a grant to support BIPOC students in sharing their personal stories during the pandemic. Chen had facilitated similar story circles prior to COVID-19, but had yet to bring them online. Chen worked with graduate students and undergraduates, and they came together in a safe, empathetic community to share challenges they’d faced through a difficult year.

“It was something different than what they got in their day-to-day in their classes,” said Chen. “It was a space of support, a chance to build community in a different way.”

Chen, who participates in the monthly Resilience Lab community-of-practice meetings, continues to work with BIPOC students in telling their own stories as part of the larger project, “Breathing in a Time of Disaster.” And, they’re implementing techniques in the classroom, like playing music or doing a grounding exercise to start class.

A path forward

The UW’s Resilience Lab also is part of the Flourishing Academic Network, an emergent consortium of research and teaching centers throughout North America. Together, the institutions are collaborating to explore innovative pathways that integrate academics and student affairs, with the overall goal of supporting student mindfulness and well-being.

This work has taken on new meaning during the pandemic, as students, staff and faculty were forced into months of being apart. Now, everyone is facing the stress of returning to a new normal.

“We don’t want to go back to business as usual but rather develop consciousness about how we’re returning to campus,” Kennedy said. “Staff and students are turning to the Resilience Lab to learn some strategies for managing stress effectively.”

That approach has made a world of difference for Brooke K. Sullivan, a lecturer in Landscape Architecture who works at UW Friday Harbor Laboratories and is part of the cohort of faculty engaged in the Resilience Lab’s work.

“This work has been transformational in my ability and desire to stay in academia,” Sullivan said.

She’s using a Resilience Lab seed grant to bring the compassion work to the College of Built Environments. She is also helping support compassion and mindfulness at Friday Harbor Labs and is participating in the cross-campus community of practice.

“Faculty are empowered and supported to reflect on and make needed change in higher education, and in turn, model resilience culture in our lives, disciplines and to our colleagues and students,” she said. “The results have been substantial.”

A strong culture of care and competence around these compassion issues is needed in all disciplines and is the backbone to a thriving and resilient university environment, she said.

“There is simply not enough vulnerability and compassion in higher education,” Sullivan said. “We are not robots. We can take the agency to change this culture — one interaction at a time. In fact, we already are.”