UC Santa Barbara Resilience Summit offers new perspectives for college students during pandemic


As the pandemic drags on, it can feel like an accomplishment to get on Zoom, sporting a dress shirt and sweatpants. But we’re powering through and banking on better times ahead.

It might not be a lot, but it’s a sign of resilience.

“My definition is being able to bounce back from difficult times and just any sort of setback, being able to reach that and even being able to improve upon that from where you were,” says Samantha Blodgett. She’s a senior studying psychology at UC Santa Barbara and the co-founder of the school’s Resilience Summit and Certificate Program.

The series of 13 talks covers mental health topics such as mindfulness, and encourages participants to take stock of their lives through the lens of “positive psychology.” She came up with this not-for-credit speaker series with her former teacher.

They thought the webinars they organized for the winter quarter might help a few UCSB Gauchos navigate the emotional ups and downs of the pandemic.

Katya Armistead, USCB’s Dean of Student Life, says the school has tried to maintain a vestige of community through digital events. However, the harsh realities of the moment are intruding into the leadership course she teaches. 

“I am ultra flexible,” says Armistead. She’s had students asking for extensions due to parents losing their jobs because of the pandemic, or because they suddenly had to step up and take care of loved ones who are sick with the virus. 

When it comes to her own students and the broader campus community, Armistead reflects, “Mental health is a huge concern.”

Smaranda Lawrie just completed her PhD in psychology at UCSB and is the co-founder and primary organizer of the Summit. She says, “You know, [students] hear about these things all over the place in this weird, free-floating way. But most students don’t know that much about this stuff, so I’m giving you … a few exercises that you can use, try it out, reflect on it, see what works for you.”

Smaranda Lawrie first learned about positive psychology several years ago when she was tapped to lead a course on the subject. Over the years, she says those classes always get the most feedback from students, with some saying they continue to use its principles years later.  Photo courtesy of Smaranda Lawrie.

Each online lecture in the series is framed by positive psychology, a branch of the science that got its start in the late 1990s. The idea is to look at what’s going right in somebody’s life and how to strengthen the good, as opposed to traditional psychology which centers on fixing things that are going wrong.

Lawrie says she rooted the Summit in the discipline not only because of the scientific research behind it, but because it’s rife with practical applications.

“Positive psychology is very much based in practices that people can learn, and eventually they become habits and they become a part of your life,” says Lawrie.

The presentation Adia Gooden delivered to the Summit is a perfect example of the solutions-based approach. Gooden is a clinical psychologist who gave her talk ahead of one of the most dreaded times of the year for students — finals week. The subject: imposter syndrome.

“Imposter syndrome is the phenomenon of feeling like a fake or a fraud, despite evidence of high achievement,” Gooden explained to students during her digital seminar.

Before many of the participants sat for their exams, she delivered a talk building them up, telling them they themselves were responsible for their successes. But there was more to the presentation than just words.

(Clockwise from top left) Adia Gooden answers questions from the virtual audience during her presentation on imposter syndrome as Resilience Summit co-coordinators Nick Barrett, Samantha Blodgett, and Smaranda Lawrie moderate the Q&A portion of Gooden’s talk. Image courtesy of Resilience Summit and Certificate Program.

“We’re going to spend most of our time today talking about strategies to help you overcome imposter syndrome,” Gooden told the online audience. “So my hope for this is that you really come away with some practical and tangible strategies that you can apply to your life today, tomorrow, and start to feel better.”

Actions. Strategies to feel better. That’s why the series was put together. Lawrie and Blodgett, her former student, were looking to create something that would not only ease the near-limitless mental stressors of the moment — e.g., COVID, a massively interrupted college experience, and bitterly divisive politics — but would give participants actual tools to encourage a better state of mind.

As it turns out, there’s a lot of demand when it comes to ways to feel better in the COVID era.

UCSB senior Samantha Blodgett took the lead in pushing Smaranda Lawrie to develop a course highlighting positive psychology for the broader campus community after taking one of her classes in the school’s psychological and brain sciences department. Photo courtesy of Samantha Blodgett.

“Initially we thought it was just going to be a series of presentations by probably UCSB faculty, and it sort of exploded, I guess,” Blodgett recounts.

“Exploded” seems apt, considering they thought they’d get a handful of participants but had to cap attendance around 1,000 people. 

“Within the first week, we had hundreds of sign-ups,” recalls Blodgett. “We were sort of blown away by that.”

That flood of responses was a loud and clear message to Lawrie.

“I think just the sheer number of people that signed up when they’re not really getting a grade, they’re not getting credit, speaks to the fact people are looking for ways to live better lives,” Lawrie says.

The UCSB Dean of Student Life, Katya Armistead, believes the perspective the Resilience Summit offers to participants — the focus on things that are working rather than underscoring negativity — is powerful.

“Using that language and thought process, I think, can be a lot healthier than just spinning — I call it spinning — in what’s not going right,” says Armistead.

Whether you call it spinning, brooding, or just being stuck in a rut, the Summit is a hit with students. 

“I’ve got my little book of notes right here,” says Sean Jawetz as he reaches for what looks like the quintessential little black book. “It’s just turned into a little journal of the thoughts I have in this class. We opened up one of the earliest lectures with just the question, ‘Did you get better today?’ The idea of continual change, continual improvement really has served, for me, as a guiding factor in darker times.”

Sean Jawetz says one of the most enriching parts of the Summit is seeing the outpouring of support and resources participants offer one another in the chat feature of the online speaker series. Courtesy of Sean Jawetz.

Jawetz is a member of UCSB’s class of 2020 who’s now continuing at the school for his masters. While he sees the usefulness of the Summit in dealing with the pandemic, he says its strategies go beyond COVID. It’s life stuff.

“One hundred percent this is not stuff you learn and then you forget,” Jawetz reflects. “Nobody is saying anything in these lectures that is, you know, like crazy groundbreaking. Because it’s all part of the human experience.”

As he says, reflecting on what we have or just taking a little extra time to be aware of the moment aren’t groundbreaking. But the Summit has hit a nerve with almost 1,000 people at UCSB. Rather than the path of least resistance and focusing on the negative, they’re choosing a different route, highlighting what’s going right. You might call it the path of most resilience.