It has been a tough couple of years. As the U.S. gradually starts to return to something like normal, many of us are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Death, illness, grief, job loss, businesses closing, and mental illness are just some of the challenges we face as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, and it’s hard not to feel hopeless.
The reality is that many of us have already experienced substantial adversity, in one form or another. And, unfortunately, many people experienced that adversity at a young age. Experiences like these are so common, in fact, that the CDC has a term to describe them: adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)1. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of really difficult experiences, stretching from abuse, to domestic violence, to living in a household with someone who was abusing substances, incarcerated, or experiencing mental illness, to the divorce or separation of parents2. ACEs are alarmingly widespread. The CDC reports that 61% of adults have lived through one or more ACE, and 16% have experienced four or more different categories of ACEs1.
A lot of what researchers have learned about ACEs is hard to hear, and links being exposed to ACEs to even more challenges later in life, like diagnoses of heart disease and cancer3 and mental illness during college4.
However, academic research also suggests that the picture is more complicated than that.
Investigating Opportunity for Adversarial Growth
For a surprising number of people, overcoming adversity leads to positive outcomes. One of these outcomes is resilience. In fact, one study measured resilience in the aftermath of another large-scale traumatic event—9/11. Researchers determined that 65.1% of study participants demonstrated resilience in the wake of these terrorist attacks.5
Another positive outcome is known as adversarial growth. When people experience adversarial growth6, they actually end up in some way better off than they were before7. What might this look like? They might renew old friendships, turn more meaningfully to religion, or gain confidence in their abilities after realizing they can handle adverse situations8.
Adversity, resilience, and adversarial growth could be experienced at different points in peoples’ lives. However, they present particular challenges and opportunities for college students. What’s more, nearly one-third of college students nationwide have endured at least two adverse experiences4.
What happens to these students?
For several years, our team, led by Dr. Gregory Wolniak at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, has been tracking a large group of students across the U.S. as they make their way through their college experiences. These are not your average college students—over 80% of these students have been through at least one experience of childhood adversity—many have gone through much more. In fact, these students have experienced an average of two adverse experiences prior to college, with 32% experiencing 3 or more ACEs. Yet in emerging research, we have also identified a remarkable tendency toward positive growth and change.