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Spectrum

Resiliency

College embarks on new initiative to help students overcome life’s obstacles.

By Linda Blaser

It started with a grieving mother propelled to action by a news story that hit too close to home. 

The top Daily Mail story on May 29, 2015, covered the death of a
29-year-old investment banker in New York City who jumped 200
feet from his Manhattan building in the middle of the day.
The story struck Elaine Pawlowski P’05 hard. The circumstances
were too similar to her own son’s death to ignore. She had to
do something.

In a self-described “act of healing,” Elaine sat down to write a
letter to President Schutt. In it, she asked if the College would
consider holding a class for business and finance students to
address the stress of working in investment banking. That missive
sparked a new program on resiliency.

Michael Pawlowski ’05 worked for a New York City investment
firm, the same company that he interned with while a student
at Lake Forest College. The high-pressure job attracts go-getters
and risk-takers like him, and is accompanied by certain danger.
“The message is, ‘You’re a failure if you can’t take the stress and
live the fast-paced party life,’” Elaine said of her son’s 80-hour
workweek and expected after-work social life. “And it’s not just
the investment banking industry,” she noted. “The same thing
can happen in any career, really.”

In writing her letter, Elaine hoped the College would take measures
to ensure students better understand the true nature of their chosen
careers. “A liberal arts education is not just about educating students
for a job, but educating the whole person,” she said. “Michael
loved Lake Forest College. It would’ve been beneficial for him,
when he was doing internships and the College was bringing in
people from the industry to talk on campus, to hear about the other
side of their lives.”

“Our resiliency program– and other projects like it – is an outgrowth
of a current trend on college campuses throughout the nation
focusing on the values of resiliency, of hardiness and grit,”
Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Health and Wellness
Jennifer Fast said. “Resiliency is the ability, not only to bounce back
from obstacles and failures, but to use those as launching pads to
other possibilities. Resiliency lets us cope with stress and setbacks
that are natural parts of life and learn how to mold these difficult
experiences into personal strengths… to succeed not only despite
failures but because of them.”

A series of resiliency-focused programs held last fall included:

  • “How to Bounce,” a group class offered by Counseling Services,
    focuses on teaching students how to adapt effectively in the face
    of adversity and critical stress management skills.
  • A talk and visit by Dr. Alex Lickerman, an expert on resiliency
    and renowned author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science
    of Constructing an Indestructible Self. His book covers how to
    surmount suffering in life, and the tools that can help individuals
    stand strong when tested.

“Dr. Lickerman initiated a similar resiliency project at the University
of Chicago and is well-versed in what we want to accomplish
with our students,” Fast said. When he was on campus in early
November, Dr. Lickerman lunched with faculty, staff, and coaches to
get them to begin using the same language during student advising;
met separately with pre-med students to share stories of his own
failures entering the medical field; and delivered a public talk on
his book, The Undefeated Mind, offering tips on how to thrive in
the face of adversity, rather than falling apart. “Resilience isn’t
something only a fortunate few of us have been born with,
but rather something we can all take steps to develop,” he said.

  • A concerted effort to ensure alumni and other professionals who
    speak at the College’s career programs talk not only about the
    glamour side of their high-prestige jobs, but also the struggles
    they face along the way and the strategies they use to effectively
    overcome obstacles.

Dan Turk ’15, an investment banker, has returned to campus several
times to speak with students about how he got into the business, what
it’s really like, and how he adjusts. For him, long hours and working
up to seven days a week is the norm. At times, he has gone as far as
working more than 100 hours in one week.

“I think people hear the salary and decide it must be the right career
for them,” he said. “You are going to have to enjoy the work on a daily
basis a fair amount to persevere and, hopefully, have a keen interest
in finance.” The first year of investment banking is tough, he admits.
“I’ve been pretty adamant in telling them that it’s a real commitment
your first two years. But I also tell them, there is light at the end of
the tunnel and, ultimately, it leads to great opportunities. In the end,
a person needs to weigh the pros and cons—and make the right
decision for themselves.”

Helping students develop their resiliency skills is important to Assistant
Director of the Career Advancement Center Colleen Monks, who
heads up the resiliency project with Jennifer Fast. “Resiliency is not
something you’re going to build overnight,” Monks said. “It’s really a
lifestyle change of being better prepared to deal with setbacks when
they happen.”

One of the biggest challenges the College faces is helping students
realize that failure can be okay. “It’s how you deal with failure when
it happens, how you change your mindset so that you see obstacles as
opportunities that makes the difference,” she said. “We want to help
students so that when something happens in their first job that they’ve
never faced before, or they get their first ‘C’ in a class, or they didn’t
get that point in a game, it’s not the end of the world. They can decide
to change their strategy the next time or start on a new path that is a
better fit.”

A REAL NEED

Mara Negru ’17 supports the College’s focus on resiliency and grit.
A neuroscience major and studio art minor on the pre-health track,
Negru has dreamt of becoming a doctor for as long as she can
remember. In high school, she even shadowed nurses and radiology
technicians to see firsthand how they interact with doctors. Coming to
Lake Forest, Negru’s mind was made up. But even though she’d done
all the prep work, Negru has faced obstacles pursuing her dream.

“It’s a challenge coming into college, especially in the sciences,”
she said. “There are rigorous courses. You have to learn to manage
your time to study for your classes effectively, but still be involved in
volunteering—which is a huge part of the medical school application—
and other activities so they can see how you will interact with patients.”

Negru has seen some pre-health students throw in the towel, unable
to cope with failure. That’s one reason she helped establish a chapter of
Phi Delta Epsilon (PhiDE), a pre-med fraternity, on campus last spring.
“We saw a real need for it,” she said. PhiDE members met with Dr.
Lickerman when he visited campus last fall. It was a clarifying moment
for them. “He talked about his own failure and how he overcame it,
which was so important for all of us to hear,” Negru said.

A STEP FORWARD

Jonathan Stern ’18, a psychology major and member of the Forester
cross-country team, finds resiliency to be critical to his success. “It’s a
step forward in building a skill that’s essential if you ever want to be
successful in life,” he said. Stern credits his time-management skills
and ability to bounce back to running. “Being an athlete, there’s not
much time left over in the day after practice, classes, and studying.
It’s important to be on track,” he said. “I’ve had more bad races and
bad stretches in a season. Being a competitive long-distance runner
has taught me a thing or two about failure and testing my ability to
get through thick and thin.”

Director of Athletics and Senior Advisor to the President Jackie Slaats
agrees that student-athletes, in general, are more resilient. “They
earn valuable coping skills early on and, given the nature of athletic
participation, they’re sort of forced to as they navigate personal success
and failure as well as team wins and losses,” she said. “In the end, we
want all of our students to be as successful and resilient as possible in
their lives and we’re always looking for ways to help them.”

Elaine Pawlowski didn’t know what to expect after reaching out to the
College in 2015. Today, she is honored that the College is working on
resiliency to help students throughout their lives. “That’s what makes
me feel so good about my letter: they took it seriously,” she said.
“Michael was a kind person. He would support this legacy.”

How can you get involved with the resiliency initiative?

Share your stories–examples of time when you learned through failure, when you faced obstacles but were able to come out better and stronger on the other side. Go to lakeforest.edu/resiliencestories.