When Dr. Christie Stewart began her year-long pilot of APPH 1802, “Thriving, Not Just Surviving: Strategies for Health and Resilience,” she did not anticipate just how immediately relevant the topic of resilience would prove. Stewart, who holds a PhD in higher education leadership, centers her research and teaching on the development of communities to support well-being. In her current role as a faculty member in the School of Biological Sciences, she teaches the wellness requirement, which incorporates pillars of health and well-being including physical activity, nutrition, sleep, stress management, coping, and resilience.
Stewart’s mission to create a culture of resilience at Georgia Tech took a turn during a week-long training workshop. Preparing her class, Stewart wondered, “how can we continue to support our students’ well-being? How can we integrate the practical aspect of self-care? How do we best have students look at the different dimensions of well-being and evaluate where they are?” As she was introduced to the CliftonStrengths framework, she was intrigued by the potential of team dynamics for pursuing these questions. Through conversations with Caroline Dotts, associate director of healthy lifestyle programs at the Campus Recreation Center (CRC) and a member of the Effective Team Dynamics Initiative’s leadership team, Stewart developed a plan to teach the building of effective teams using a positive, strengths-centered approach.
Stewart’s year-long honors pilot class, co-taught with Lesley Baradel, took a two-pronged approach: learning about personal and team-based strengths and using “crucial conversations” to make differences, and even conflicts, productive. Students identified their own coping styles and strengths, learning to transform stress into positive challenges. As one student put it, “My learner strength helps me be very resilient. Anything in life is an opportunity to learn, and gathering knowledge and learning from problems helps me look at problems as challenges to learn and improve from. This way, I’m better prepared the next time a similar problem comes around.”
For Stewart, the concept of resilience is important especially for students who tend toward perfectionism and have deep anxieties about failure. Resilience provides a productive way for students to use stress, obstacles, and failure to come back stronger. In class, students are taught to use failure to set future goals based on personal values and purpose.
By the time her spring semester final exam rolled around, students were more than ready to observe and describe the strengths they used to be resilient. Stewart reports that students responded overwhelmingly in positive terms: being grateful, remaining connected, finding support, and being supported by others topped the list of strategies they learned from their resilience training.
Stewart’s use of CliftonStrengths extends beyond the classroom. She learned that her top five talent themes were “achiever, deliberative, futuristic, analytical, and significance.” In her work on APPH 1802, she found herself especially tapping into the “futuristic” and “analytical” themes as she ran her pilot and put together a course proposal. Stewart describes herself as “inspired by a vision of the future,” and as being deeply motivated by “looking for rationales or reasons for why we do what we do” – both strengths that are crucial to putting together a successful pilot course.
Completing the course, which strongly features interpersonal skills, in a remote learning environment was never part of Stewart’s original plan, but she has no regrets about the timing of her pilot. She hopes the time spent working through questions of personal purpose and meaning, team skills, adapting to challenges, and integrating setbacks into an overall growth plan will continue to benefit students in an uncertain time.