In 2015, colleagues at the University of Washington designed a novel framework to promote wellbeing on campus. The UW Resilience Lab aims to cultivate a culture of resilience that goes beyond the individual and reaches across the university’s three campuses and surrounding communities. A member of the Flourishing Academic Network (FAN), the lab drives systemic change through pedagogy and curriculum, interdisciplinary collaboration, research, strategic projects, and community engagement – all designed to help students thrive. 

The lab’s collective approach joins faculty, staff, and students with a wide range of academic backgrounds — Buddhist studies, economics, medicine — into conversation with one another. It is a living example of how, when bringing different people and departments together, colleges and universities have an opportunity to transcend individualistic ideas of wellness and instead engage community members in productive dialogue. At the University of Washington, that dialogue is driving systemic change.

Kizz Prusia, MPA, is the Community Impact Manager at the UW Resilience Lab. He describes a resilient campus as one that embodies a quality of spaciousness. “Is there space and psychological safety for students to engage in dialogue with each other and with faculty across disciplines and status or levels of hierarchy and power?” he asks. “Are there tools available to practice wellbeing and compassion?” Prusia’s work, much like the work of the lab as a whole, extends into many areas of campus life. The lab values collaboration and fosters symbiotic relationships with other offices and programs — the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance; the School of Social Work; the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity; and the Center for Child and Family Development, to name a few. That collective approach sets them apart, Prusia says. “I’ve seen centers and groups, here and at other institutions, that are insular and siloed. In the Resilience Lab, we think about individual wellbeing, but we also think about our collective ability to adapt and learn together; to shift wellbeing from an individual responsibility to a community effort.” 

Institutional Memory

Interdisciplinary initiatives maximize the Resilience Lab’s reach and impact across a large, multi-campus university. They also generate a new “institutional memory,” Prusia says, by embedding the culture of compassion and resilience into all domains of the student experience, planting the seeds of lasting change.

One such initiative, Resistance through Resilience (RTR), is the product of a collaboration between the Resilience Lab and the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity. RTR is a new training and speaker series that engages community members on and off campus in the application of mindfulness practices to interrupt racism and its intersections. One example is discussions on examining the meaning of resilience in the lives of minoritized students, for whom resilience often connotes “toughing it out” through challenging circumstances — “muscling through,” Prusia says, sometimes at great costs. Working to change that definition, Resistance through Resilience expands the conversation around what resilience looks like for students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and other marginalized groups by exploring “different ways to resist what exists,” Prusia explains.

“We are looking at how systems operate, how we can make sense of an organizational culture, and where individual actors fit inside that broader context.”

“Those conversations have talked about joy, about rest, about resilience, and about radical listening,” he says. RTR promotes wellbeing through conversations around power, privilege, and the environments in which students and community members develop, learn, and thrive. The initiative highlights the Resilience Lab’s commitment to understanding the roles of both individuals and systems: with regard to anti-racist pedagogy, whole-person wellbeing, and community engagement, Prusia explains, “We are looking at how systems operate, how we can make sense of an organizational culture, and where individual actors fit inside that broader context.”

The Resilience Lab also provides seed grants in partnership with the Campus Sustainability Fund. The grants are an opportunity for anyone in the community, including students, faculty, staff, and community partners, to apply for grant funding for a proposed project relating to sustainability, mindfulness, resilience, or anti-racism. Examples of recent grant recipients include the Critical Conversations Collective (CCC), a space for interdisciplinary doctoral students of color to engage in peer mentoring, and Embodying Abolition, a faculty-led project designing innovative pedagogy and curriculum that challenge systems of incarceration.

The Be REAL initiative is a collaborative project from the Resilience Lab and the Center for Child and Family Development. Be REAL (REsilient Attitudes and Living — the name predates the popular app) got its start as a research project in undergraduate residence halls studying the efficacy of “preventative tools to help students manage stress, understand their own needs and relate to others with compassion,” Prusia explains. The six-week program equips students and staff with cognitive skills and mindful techniques that help them flourish in their daily lives and respond mindfully to challenging situations. In partnership with the Center for Child and Family Development, Be REAL’s curriculum is in the process of being adapted to fit the needs of high school students and extend the culture of wellbeing beyond campus.

As faculty, staff, and students across the country gradually returned to in-person learning as pandemic restrictions lifted, the Resilience Lab published Well-Being for Life and Learning, a guidebook organized around four pillars of an engaged and resilient university: teaching for equity and access, nurturing social connectedness, building coping skills, and connecting to the environment. The guidebook represents a community approach to taking resilience and wellbeing from optimistic concepts to fully-realized, implementable practices. While the guide provides a framework for best practices, the Resilience Lab’s work is, by design, not one-size-fits-all. 

“Is there space and psychological safety for students to engage in dialogue with each other and with faculty across disciplines and status or levels of hierarchy and power?”

“We don’t expect that every department will implement the guidebook in the same ways or at the same time,” Prusia says. “Instead, we try to work with faculty and staff in a way that works for them. Maybe it’s not the whole guidebook — maybe it’s taking one practice and building a skillset around that.” This adaptability makes wellbeing tools practical and accessible to all community members.

Pedagogy and Curriculum

Integrating resilience into university curriculum “can be a light lift and as manageable  as professors implementing a mindfulness practice at the start of class, being intentional about co-creating the learning environment with students, or just bringing resilience into the classroom as a topic to consider,” Prusia explains. Most recently at UW, this integration has involved guest speakers and visiting artists who engage with questions of wellbeing in its many intricate forms. For some faculty, this approach has taken off — and taken their curriculum down unforeseen paths. 

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a poet, dancer, and artist-in-residence at the University of Washington’s Meany Center for Performing Arts for the duration of the 2023-2024 academic year. Joseph brought to campus his original Carnival of the Animals, a multimedia performance that “navigates the reality of the political jungle by embodying shifting societal values and our relationship to democracy” through poetry, dance, and music. Joseph’s residency at the University of Washington explores “what it means to go from art to wellness, from artistic joy to collective wellness,” Prusia says. Through multimedia performance art, Joseph hosts a conversation that asks viewers to consider art’s place in creating collective change. One professor in the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance saw a resonant connection between Joseph’s art and her coursework and invited her whole class of graduate students to the performance. From a government course to a multigenre stage production, the professor cultivated a nimble, adaptive, and innovative learning experience that embodies the Resilience Lab’s vision of the compassionate campus. 

If the University of Washington is any indication, that vision, when rigorously explored and thoughtfully implemented, can blossom into tangible change. Where wellbeing is a collective responsibility and a shared opportunity, the culture shifts to embrace it.