Resilience and COVID-19: College Student Mental Health, Mary McLeod Bethune and Finding Silver Linings

Let me say, right out of the gate, a global pandemic is NOT a good thing.  Death, prolonged illness, economic hardships, and despair … as I search for a silver lining, I’m NOT advocating for COVID-19.  But, humans are incredibly adaptable (Massey, 2013).  No doubt there’s plenty of “bad news” right now;  I’ve also heard families talk about how nice it is to eat dinner together again, enjoy a walk, and for me, to plant and garden as I never have before.  So, what is it about how we adapt, as humans, and how might it be our greatest asset?

Those who read my writings know I focus on working with college students and those who work with college students.  We know college student mental health issues have been on the rise for more than 20 years (Anderson, 2020).  During those 20 years, I have raised my own college student, now a junior who is studying remotely this fall semester due to the virus.  I have studied human development.  I know that facing adversity creates growth (Hochandel & Finamore, 2015).  Despite knowing this, as a parent, I have worked to pave as smooth a path as possible for my daughter – maybe sometimes working too hard for the smooth path. What parent doesn’t?  It doesn’t mean there haven’t been hardships but parents (in most every case) want the best for their kids and work for it.  

If conquering adversity creates growth, the lucky kids who get to go to college are the same who have likely faced less adversity – not all, of course, but many.  Thus, with our country’s, dare I say, many privileges, we may inadvertently create anxiety about facing hardship as kids who haven’t faced significant adversity, suddenly face pressures of college and the unknowns of life after college, without having been buoyed by knowing “they have what it takes” on their own.  So, as parents and educators, how do we manufacture adversity while we’re simultaneously working to provide an easy life for our kids?  

Enter COVID-19.

Recently, while on a walk with my husband, which is something we do now more than we ever have before, he remarked as he has many times these last months, “People aren’t meant to be locked away from one another.” He has dealt with his own frustrations of grappling with the difficulties of managing work amidst our global crisis. He’s right; people are not meant to be locked away. We are social creatures (Young, 2008).  But, as humans, we’re also adaptable.  And, adaptability is closely related to resilience.  Is it just possible that there is opportunity in COVID-19 to focus on how we can teach and encourage resilience?  Might this horrific situation, as the old cliché goes, help us understand what we’re made of?  

A heroine of mine is Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune – an educator, a philanthropist, an advocate for civil rights before the term was even known.  My mom, a teacher, never passed on an opportunity to teach us something and Bethune was a fast heroine for me.  My early years were spent in Florida with frequent visits to New Smyrna Beach, only a few miles south (as the pelican flies) from Bethune-Cookman University in nearby Daytona. The historically black college formed from the combination of Cookman Institute and Bethune’s Educational and Industrial Training School (Florida Memory, n.d.) which Bethune created with $1.50 and benches and desks made from discarded crates. Bethune preached self-sufficiency and was known to carry a cane, not for support but because she said it gave her “swank.” 

One of the outings we would take as kids at New Smyrna was to the Turtle Mound, an archaeological site dating back to the Timucuan people, before going to our favorite restaurant, where we’d eat outside at picnic tables lined with newspaper and peel shrimp and pick crabs until dark.  On the way to Turtle Mound was Bethune Beach, a 2-mile stretch purchased by Bethune as people of color were restricted from swimming at White beaches during the era of Jim Crow laws.   I remember vividly the day, likely only around 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, my mom stopped and taught us about Mary McLeod Bethune who, among many other things, was an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, helped form the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, opened the first hospital for people of color in the Daytona area, served on Herbert Hoover’s White House Conference on Child Health, organized the first Officer Candidate School for black women, co-founded the United Negro College Fund, sat on numerous corporate and nonprofit boards, started a life insurance company … I could list her accomplishments for days  … and even bought this stretch of the Atlantic so people of color could enjoy a day at the beach.  To this day, amidst all the waterfront homes, a sign reminds people of Bethune’s persistence and resilience in the face of great adversity.  Despite threats from an active Klan community in the area, widespread segregation, poor health care and educational offerings for people of color, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune persisted and showed resilience in the face of great adversity, created the silver linings that were so desperately needed during a very difficult time in our nation’s history.  How can we encourage even a sliver of that resilience in others?

Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg coined the idea of the 7 Cs of Resilience:

  • Competence: When we notice what people are doing right and give them opportunities to develop important skills, they feel competent. 
  • Confidence: People need confidence to be able to navigate the world, think outside the box, and recover from challenges.     
  • Connection: Connections with other people and communities offer the security that allows them to stand on their own and develop creative solutions. 
  • Character: People need a clear sense of right and wrong and a commitment to integrity.    
  • Contribution: People who contribute to the well-being of others will receive gratitude rather than condemnation. They will learn that contributing feels good and may therefore more easily turn to others and do so without shame.   
  • Coping: People who possess a variety of healthy coping strategies will be less likely to turn to dangerous quick fixes when stressed.
  • Control: People who understand privileges and respect are earned through demonstrated responsibility will learn to make wise choices and feel a sense of control.

So, maybe, just maybe, there is a silver lining.  If we follow examples of great leaders like Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and encourage situations of resilience, we then position ourselves and those around us to, in the words of Bethune, “Cease to be a drudge, seek to be an artist.” As we consider the mental health issues of college students, we must practice our resilience – each day – and we must encourage that resilience in others – each and every day.  We don’t choose when adversity happens and we certainly didn’t choose this pandemic. But, we can choose how we face adversity.

Be resilient.
Be adaptable.
Be confident.
Be an artist.
Be well, friends.


Anderson, G. (Sept 11, 2020). Mental Health Needs Rise With Pandemic. Inside Higher Ed.

Florida Memory. Senior class, Daytona Literary and Industrial School of Training Negro Girls.  Florida Department of State. Retrieved at:

Hochandel, A. and Finamore, D. (2015). Fixed and Growth Mindset In Education and How Grit Helps Students Persis in the Face of Adversity. Journal of International Education Research, 11 (1).

Massey, N. (Sept 25, 2013). Humans May Be the Most Adaptive Species. Scientific American.

Young, S. (Sept 2008). The Neurobiology of Human Social Behavior: An Important But Neglected Topic. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 35 (5).  

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