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Finding resilience is a lifelong journey

'Failure seems very personal': ASU community reflects on resilience.
September 21, 2017

ASU community explores grit from the perspectives of health and the arts, both through research and in the classroom

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2017, click here.

Bouncing back.

How do you recover from a setback?

It’s an age-old question that the Arizona State University community is pondering in innovative ways, looking at resilience from the perspective of research, health and the arts — and personally as well. What are the strategies that people use to get through adversity over many years, or day to day, or even hour to hour?

Last spring, ASU started a new initiative, the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, which will connect researchers, practitioners and scholars across disciplines at ASU in the study of well-being. Teri PipePipe is also dean of ASU's College of Nursing and Health Innovation and a research professor., ASU's chief well-being officer, said mindfullness is a skill that “will help all of us cope much better as a society.”

“Each of us face adversity in life. Resilience is the human capacity not only to 'bounce back' from life's slings and arrows, but also to become stronger and more capable of facing the next challenge,” she said. “The connection with mindfulness is that we must be alert to the opportunity to learn and grow through the experience. We have much to learn from individuals and cultures that have faced adversity; thus resilience is not only an individual capacity, but also a societal one.” 

Under Pipe's leadership, the center focuses on deepening ASU's culture of healthfulness, personal balance and resiliency among students and employees.

Here are some other ways that ASU is reflecting on the concept of resilience:

The research

Frank Infurna, an assistant professor of psychology at ASU, is interested in how people develop and change over time as a result of adversity.

“How do individuals grow as a function of various life events or adversities, such as chronic illness or unemployment or bereavement? What are the resources and strategies they use?” asked Infurna, who is a developmental psychologist.

He has found that resilience is social.

“The individual’s ability to have relationships, a good social network in place, has been the strongest predictor of whether someone is able to overcome adversity,” he said.

Infurna received a $3.4 million grant from the Templeton Foundation last year and together with ASU colleagues Suniya S. Luthar and Kevin Grimm is now working on a new research project looking at the nuances of resilience in midlife. They will follow people age 50 to 65 for two years, giving them monthly questionnaires that assess different aspects of their lives — physical health, mental health, quality of social relationships, as well as character strengths such as empathy and gratitude.

They’ll also record life events: whether they were fired, had a major disagreement with a family member, become a caregiver.

“A lot of the research within resilience follows people every three to six months or year to year. With that time frame, you lose detail in terms of the immediate changes that occur,” Infurna said. “Our primary aim is to look at the nature of the changes and what are the factors that predict better outcomes? When something bad happens, what or who are they relying on to overcome this?”

So far, the project has recruited 280 adults, with a goal of 350.

Infurna said his team is challenging the research that says resilience is the norm.

“I think under that is a lot of variability in terms of how individuals respond to adversity and that it’s OK to struggle for a period of time after something traumatic happens,” he said.

“We’re trying to adjust this cultural narrative, in the U.S., of what it means to be resilient.”

The creatives

Navigating setbacks is especially relevant to artists, so this term, the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts offered a class called “Failure, Design and the Arts.”

“They’re critiqued all the time. They’re critiqued in public. Nine out of 10 times they won’t get a call back from an audition,” said Megan Workmon, the manager of student engagement for the institute, who is co-teaching the course with William Heywood, assistant director of the Design School, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Visual Communication and a clinical psychologist. Both have creative backgrounds — Workmon as an opera singer and Heywood as a photographer.

“With critique, what you produce is so tied up with your identity that it’s hard to divorce yourself, as the creative person, from your individual identity. Failure seems very personal,” she said.

Workmon and Heywood created a one-credit course that’s being offered for the first time as a 300-level elective. The 20 students span all disciplines within Herberger.

Each class session begins with a period of mindfulness.

“In class, we had a conversation about critique and how you get ‘unstuck.’ A lot of them talked about how they bottled up their emotions but it came out another time. Mindfulness is a way to check in with how you’re truly feeling about things as they’re occurring,” she said.

The course covered the “inner voice of judgment” and, a few weeks later, “the inner voice of persistence.”

“If you want to replace that voice that tells you you’re not good enough with something that will tell you you’re going to make it through no matter what, then what does it look like?” Workmon said.

The class projects are art-based, and students work in whatever medium they feel most comfortable — poetry, illustration, essays, video. For the project on the “inner voice of judgment,” a dance student did the same movements over and over to symbolize repetition.

The students answered a questionnaire at the beginning of the class and will take one at the end as well. Workmon will measure their self-efficacy, mind-set, grit and persistence, then use the results for her dissertation. She is a doctoral student in educational leadership and innovation in the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College.

“Mind-set” is a continuum from “fixed” (the belief that our characters can’t be changed) to “growth” (the belief that we can learn and overcome struggles). The duality is particularly interesting for artists, she said.

“Part of fixed mind-set is talent, and growth mind-set is hard work — and in their fields, talent and hard work are equally valued.”

The final component of the class, which Workmon hopes to offer again in the spring, is a reflection. The students must do that project in a medium that makes them uncomfortable.

“Do something risky. That can give you an opportunity to interrupt those negative thoughts,” she said.

The personal journey

Lynne Nethken, an ASU mechanical engineering graduate student, talks through video chat with students from Prescott's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University about AZLoop. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Lynne Nethken led a team of Arizona studentsThe AZLoop team is made up of students from ASU, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Northern Arizona University. in the AZLoop project — a high-speed, futuristic transportation system — that garnered international attention at Elon Musk’s SpaceX Hyperloop Competition recently.

But her journey to engineering success was anything but fast, and it required an enormous amount of persistence and grit.

Nethken went to a poor inner-city high school in Memphis, where physics wasn’t even offered. After graduating, she enrolled at Memphis State, majoring in business.

“I made an attempt. It went poorly. I was not interested in my classes. I dropped out,” she said.

She worked in some retail jobs, moved to Colorado and, in her early 20s, decided to give college another try.

“I said, ‘I have to have this piece of paper.’ So I went right back into business, and, no surprise, I dropped out again,” she said.

“It was lot of trial and error. A lot of really rough patches. There were some low times. There were times I was flat broke and I had nothing.”

She found a job in health administration that paid well but wasn’t challenging. It did give her time to explore her interests, and she realized she was always fascinated by space exploration, which she mentioned to a few people.

“Nobody understood. I didn’t have a lot of support or any sort of encouragement to do that.”

Finally, in 2010 she decided to sell everything she owned, move to Arizona and pursue an engineering degree at ASU. Although her mother lived in Phoenix, the move still was terrifying.

She started classes at Scottsdale Community College, where calculus was a struggle.

“I didn’t go to good schools, and I had a poor math background,” she said. “Math scared me, but it really was about how hard are you willing to work to learn it?”

Community college is where she began to develop her power to focus on her studies, and she transferred to ASU’s Polytechnic campus.

“I had classes I was interested in, and it was like nothing else mattered. I saw this light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

At Poly, she found the support she needed from her professors.

“I was able to build relationships there to where if I was struggling with something, they could talk sense into me and encourage me,” she said.

Nethken earned her bachelor of science degree in engineering in 2016, and now, at age 33, is in graduate school in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy. She hopes to pursue a doctorate.

“I had to have a crazy level of determination and to struggle along this path for 10 years before I really figured it out and said, ‘I can do this,’ ” she said.

“I think my definition of resilience is if you fail or a hit a roadblock, how hard are you willing to work to get around it? If you have determination, nothing will stop you.”

Learn more

  • The Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience is hosting a “Mindfulness in the Park” event from 5:30-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, in Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix. The event is free and open to the public. Find details here.
  • A free workshop on stress and resilience will be offered by Leadership and Workforce Development for faculty and staff from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4, on the Tempe campus. Find details here.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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'Asia Mediated': 1 year later

Asians make up roughly 50 percent of the world's internet users.
ASU prof: Communication technologies and Asia are the future.
September 21, 2017

ASU professors bridge Asian digital media knowledge gap through outreach to area educators, open-source learning

ASU Japanese Lecturer Bradley Wilson wishes his American students knew more about the cultural influences behind the anime comics they love so much. Chandler Gilbert Community College Adjunct Professor Elizabeth Daly wants to make sure her composition courses are catering to a changing student demographic. Jacque Starks, diversity coordinator for Maricopa County Community Colleges, hopes to be a resource for faculty who want to know more about the Asian experience.

“There are so many stereotypes and misunderstandings” about such a vast area of the world, Starks said.

That’s why she, Wilson and Daly all attended the Engaging Asia workshop last week at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. The workshop, hosted by ASU’s Center for Asian Research, served as an introduction to the center’s Asia Mediated project and a chance for local community college faculty and staff to network with one another as well as ASU faculty and staff.

“This event came out of a desire to connect better with community colleges and examine ways we might collaborate and better serve all of our students,” said Maria Hesse, ASU vice provost for academic partnerships and a former community college professor herself. “It’s a way to have a conversation about what we might be doing together to advance this area.”

The Engaging Asia workshop is just one way ASU Professors Juliane SchoberJuliane Schober is a professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. and Pauline CheongPauline Cheong is a professor in ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. have been working to increase knowledge and understanding of that area since receiving a two-year U.S. Department of Education UISFLUndergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program grant to fund the Asia Mediated project last year.

They’ve also developed a lunch and lecture series; a new multimedia course, COM 394: Digital Media, Culture and Communication in Asia; a suite of open-source online modules; and an internship program for Barrett Honors students.

“Asia is more than 40 countries, with a whole spectrum of media [platforms], from traditional media to brand-new digital applications,” Cheong said. “So we are talking about a rather deep and broad, rapidly evolving terrain.”

However, it’s a terrain not often trod by those in Western countries, resulting in a potentially problematic knowledge gap.

“What happens in Asia doesn’t just stay in Asia. It’s not like Vegas,” Cheong said. “It affects us here [in America and other Western countries] in our everyday lives.”

The Asian influence is felt in a variety of areas, from tech hardware to immigration to entertainment — not to mention the internet. Asians make up about 50 percent of internet users worldwide, Cheong said.

“In terms of internet users, Asians dominate the scene. … I tell my students, if you’re studying anything to do with communication technologies and Asia, you are the future,” Cheong said. 

Biological sciences and Asian Pacific American studies double-major Ronae Matriano was one of three Barrett Honors students chosen to work as interns for the Asia Mediated project. Together, they helped translate ASU professors’ research into two weeks' worth of online course material, available to anyone. Each module covers a different topic, such as Wilson’s “The Shadow of WWII” and ASU history Professor James Rush’s “Truth to Power: Activist Journalism in Southeast Asia.”

“Each professor has a unique and interesting field of study, and being able to work side-by-side with them to put their research into a module for use state-wide, and possibly even internationally, has been invaluable to my learning,” Matriano said. “I have not only learned more about Asia, but I have also developed skills for module development and communication.”

Both Wilson and Rush presented their modules to the community college faculty and staff at the Engaging Asia workshop. Cheong hopes the open-access material will get all educators thinking about “teaching to a larger audience and engaging the wider community.”

The Asia Mediated lunch and lecture series will begin Thursday, Oct. 19, with a talk by Aswin Punathambekar, associate professor and director of the Global Media Studies initiative at the University of Michigan. His talk, “A Sound Bridge: Listening for the Political in Digital South Asia,” will explore the centrality of sound and listening practices in the mediation of politics and citizenship in Indian public culture.

During the final year of funding, Cheong and Schober have plans to compile all the activities and knowledge accumulated for Asia Mediated into an electronic book of sorts. Cheong hesitates to use the word “book” because it will be highly interactive, with hyperlinks, keyword search capabilities and a linked index and glossary.

All of the faculty who have contributed “have been tremendous, and very creative,” Cheong said. She hopes the project and the resulting compilation will serve as an enduring resource for students, faculty and the community.

“Not everybody learns from lectures or multiple-choice questions,” she said. “[Asia Mediated provides] a new way of learning that’s more interactive and textured, so that the subject matter becomes richer and more memorable.”

It’s how Schober, Cheong and their ASU colleagues across different campuses are trying to “do a better job of teaching and engaging in these critical issues.”