Agility, Resilience and Student-Parents in the Time of a Pandemic

Saying Farewell to Welfare w/ Elease A Wiggins
July 19, 2020

According to a 2018 study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), 1.7 million single mothers were enrolled in colleges across the United States between 2015 and 2016. These students were referred to as “student-parents” (Tehan, 2007), and many of them were first-generation college students of African American descent, from families with low socioeconomic status. Understanding the needs of student-parents amidst a global pandemic is important, both in terms of psychological theory and interventions. This paper provides a look at concepts of agility and resiliency as it relates to student-parents. Through the depiction of adversity experienced by the student-author of this article as a student-parent, this paper will demonstrate how agility and resilience help in the achievement of academic success. Implications for research and support are discussed.

Nouriman Ghahary, PhD

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered one of the most unparalleled health and economic crisis of our times. The strains posed by the pandemic have exacerbated the already challenging experiences of student-parents. Recent studies report that pandemic-related psychological stress can significantly undermine students-parents’ ability to cope with their learning and completion of course requirements perpetuating academic stress (Lin, 2021).

These challenges may take a harder toll on student-parents who are single mothers. Extensive research has documented that single mothers face psychological distress such as maternal depression and anxiety, as well as financial insecurities. These experiences can adversely impact the daily lives of single mothers and the development of their children (Lashley, 2014). With the sudden closure of schools and childcare facilities, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, student-parents have been forced to balance remote learning for themselves and their children, along with having to manage many other salient responsibilities.

The construct that characterizes individuals who survive stressful and maladaptive situations is called resilience. “Resilience is a term deeply rooted in the world of stressful life events and circumstances” (Garmazy, & Neuchterlein, 1972, as cited in Cowen, 1991), and according to Jew, Et al. (1992), in the absence of environmental stressors, resiliency is not evident. Research in the field of trauma and on the sequelae of restrictive conditions, adversity, stressful life events, political violence, and oppression shows that where certain conditions can cause trauma, they can at the same time lead to growth for some people (Ghahary, 2003). Resilience explains “posttraumatic growth,” and its brief definition is the ability to bounce back. Resilience is not necessarily the absence of trauma or lack of impact by adversities one has endured. Resilience is not mere survival, but it is standing up stronger than before, having integrated the lessons of traumatizing events into one’s knowledge about one’s strength and how to manage one’s environment in a meaningful way.

Agility is defined as “the ability to adapt and innovate by adding new practices to react to a crisis.” (NJPA, 2021). A recent paper from Columbia University’s Teachers College found that people who are learning agility usually exhibit six characteristics. The first of the six characteristics are being “open to learning.” Gligor, et al. (2019) examined the relationship between agility and resilience and found that these two constructs share three common dimensions such as the ability to adjust tactics and operations (flexibility), speed/accelerate operations, and scan the environment/ anticipate.

Many individual and group examples illustrate how this phenomenon crystallizes in individuals and communities. For example, exiles, who, despite numerous dangers and difficulties, reach the host countries and become part of the most successful people in those societies, can be named as resilient people. Forced abandonment of a familiar environment, the ascent of dangerous mountain slopes, and rebuilding of life in a country unfamiliar with a language and culture that often does not value the part of the “identity of the exiled man,” along with economic problems, distance from loved ones and acquaintances, asylum conditions, etc., leaves most exiles wounded. Despite enduring this wound, they reappear as useful and successful individuals in society. And, this is the meaning and crystallization of resilience (Gligor, 2009). During chaotic and uncertain times, educational institutions will benefit from “developing interventions and educational programs that may help foster resilience and effective coping strategies that assist in dealing with stressful situations” (Ghahary, 2003). These programs can specifically be built to support student-parents. Due to the diversity of the students-parent’s population, identifying and supporting their basic needs will advance educational intuitions’ efforts towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and belongingness while also increasing retention rates. If resources and opportunities are not available, student-parents can demonstrate agility by advocating administrators for “innovative” online support services. Such forms of support may prove vital in reducing isolation and loneliness and instilling strength and resilience in student-parents (Lin, 2021). Further research is needed for a further understanding of the students-parents’ experiences. This paper depicted the personal experiences of an African American woman in a counseling psychology doctoral program. Besides being a mother of two children. Challenges, adversity, resilience, and agility were illuminated.

It is not easy to “bounce back“ from a negative experience, overcome it, and get back to life stronger and wiser, however, it is possible. Agility and resiliency are essential characteristics in transforming pain into positive statements and actions. As a student-parent during the pandemic, I believe that people closest to the problem have the solution (Wiggins, 2015). Two years before attending Felician University, I was an adjunct professor who was homeless, on welfare, and supporting two children. During those challenging times, people closest to me labeled my behavior as “crazy.” I would argue that my “faith” was guiding me. McWilliams (2004) describes faith as “a gut-level confidence in a process despite inevitable moments of skepticism, confusion, doubt, and even despair.” In several other studies, student-parents identified spirituality as a strong influence and perceive it as a source of resiliency when trying to meet their educational goals (Mattis, 2002; Patton and McClure, 2009). “Belief systems are powerful forces in resilience” (Walsh, 1998), and I believe they can help student-parents navigate through their unique challenges.

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