In her office at the Campus Y, Yalitza Ramos, interim director and director of the Bonner Leader Program, keeps an open door and a listening ear. “Students come to talk to me about a range of their experiences – being a student [at UNC], their families, their work and goals. [But, I also] hear from students about their challenges in adjusting to life on this campus, especially Black, Indigenous, Students of Color, students with lower incomes and students who are the first in their families to attend college.”
These conversations go deep. “I hear challenges about imposter syndrome, feeling like they don’t belong, wondering if their presence matters. I hear the spoken and unspoken questions they receive from classmates and others about whether they deserved to be admitted to Carolina.”
For many, they and their families have gone through real hardships related to finances, health and mental health, immigration, racism and discrimination, and significant responsibilities outside of the classroom. Adding to their stress are the ongoing hardships and re-traumatization. “They feel there is no space or grace given for them to focus, succeed or feel supported,” notes Yalitza.
While Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and Student Wellness provide psychological and broad health support, there has not been a mechanism in place that teaches resilience by trained people with histories that give them unique insight into what students are experiencing as they navigate an academic journey riddled by microaggressions, hate speech, violence, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and more.
All that is about to change.
The Carolina Collaborative for Resilience is a working concept currently being incubated in the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion. During this planning year, the focus is on collaboration and developing an institutional response to the cumulative impact of racialized or historical trauma based on individual or collective identities that harm the health, well-being and academic success of our students. The concept is based on the premise that students are less likely to ask for help within formal systems and often lean on faculty and staff, like Yalitza, with whom they share similar backgrounds or identities for support.
The brainchild of Jessica Lambert Ward, MSW, Counselor and Coordinator for Academic Appeals in Academic Advising, whose connection to her American Indian roots and the inherent post-traumatic resiliency initiated its formation, the Collaborative is a response to her own experience. As the first in her family to attend a four-year institution, she learned resilience early on. “I felt an invisible force weighing on me as I carried the hopes and dreams of my family and my entire community,” she recalls of her undergraduate experience at UNC. “I was balancing a full academic load, held leadership positions in several student organizations, and worked 60 hours a week to support myself financially. I was afraid to fail.”
As if these pressures weren’t enough, her grandfather passed away, her father lost his job, and a hurricane partially damaged her home. On her worst days, she turned to her most trusted allies on campus, Dr. Marcus Collins and Dr. Theda Perdue, who went outside their roles to share their wisdom, impart straight talk and resources, and encourage her to seek counseling. “Over time, I learned that while traumatic and stressful things were happening around me, they were often not happening to me,” she says. “I learned to focus on things I could control while deprioritizing things that were beyond my control.”
Some years later, as a social worker and academic advisor at Carolina, Jessica became the “go-to” person for students seeking a connection. In the wake of the protests following George Floyd’s murder last spring, she heard stories from students and colleagues. Students injured by rubber bullets or tear gas while protesting and others who were indirectly impacted dealt with such issues as insomnia, low motivation, stress, and anxiety. This trauma was exacerbated by the global pandemic, making it increasingly difficult for them to connect to their trusted allies. If the COVID-19 Student Care Hub and the Florence Student Success Hub were created as the institutional response to the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters, Jessica reasoned, why don’t we have an equitable institutional response to support students impacted by these and other events?
The proposal she developed to address this need was met with great enthusiasm by her colleagues and senior leadership, who were excited by its potential to have an immediate impact on students. The Collaborative will involve having resilience coaches within units across the University who would provide timely, holistic, student-centered, culturally responsive, intersectional and strengths-based support for students who are navigating challenges resulting from trauma related to their collective identities.
“We have such a rich network of caring faculty and staff at UNC that has existed informally for years,” she says. “Our goal is to identify these individuals and provide them with additional training, support, and compensation.”
During this planning year, Jessica is studying the problem and gathering information. The idea is that the Collaborative will match students with appropriate coaches through an online process. “Our goal is to serve as a visible and accessible bridge between students and existing campus support units. We hope to achieve this by creating a single point of entry web-platform that students can access to request support,” she said. “The site would also provide student-facing FAQs that outline the process, give support team bios, contact info for key campus support units (CAPS, Office of the Dean of Students, Equal Opportunity and Compliance, etc.) and educational materials on a variety of topics, including imposter syndrome, compounded minority stress, trauma and healing, etc.”
Continued engagement with student groups to hear their stories and allow their feedback will inform the work over the next year, build-out the web platform and resource materials, identify and train resilience coaches, and engage campus partners.
”Jessica’s proposal really resonated with me as a former student life and academic advising professional,” said Dr. Sibby Anderson Thompkins, special advisor to the provost and chancellor for equity & inclusion and interim chief diversity officer. “I would often have students of color make their way to my office in search of a safe space, friendly face and compassionate demeanor. For students facing adversity, the Collaborative will formalize this important informal network of support.”
“I believe that every UNC student has the intellectual capacity to be successful,” says Jessica. “I also believe that everyone does not experience the world and its challenges in the same way. I hope that we can come together as a community to design this initiative will become an equitable and authentic response to the issues that are facing our students. I want our students to know that they belong here – we see them, we hear them, and we care about their success. When we help one student cross the finish line to graduation, the impact is not limited to that one student. It is exponential, extending beyond the student to include their family, their community, and the generations that come after them.”
Faculty, staff and students interested in participating in a focus group to help plan the Carolina Collaborative for Resilience can complete this brief form.
Written by Adrianne Gibilisco