“Relativity, Resilience and Progressivism – One Woman’s Way” by Trisha J. Scarcia-King, Ph.D.

With the economic challenges facing many institutions, there has been a significant amount of change as a result.  Positions and entire divisions of student affairs have been eliminated at institutions across the country.  People’s jobs have been expanded and individuals are taking on more and more work to try and sustain the level of service and educational programming to support student’s co-curricular development.  To be sure higher education and student affairs professionals are being challenged to provide services, educational support and to produce demonstrable results.  For many this can create an unyielding pressure.  To be sure there is no distinctive solution that can be applied to every institution.  As professionals however, there are ways to assimilate successful strategies from multiple sources to create an effective method to address these increasing demands.

As I look back on the past 20 years of working in student affairs and higher education, I’ve come to realize that there have been three key constants woven through my experience.  For better or worse, and often both, I experienced a distinctive perspective of relativity, resilience and progressivism.  These three components or, common threads have helped to propel me through new environments, personal and professional challenges and the quest to create a successful career and life.

Before I share my journey of relativity, resilience and progressivism, I’ll add the caveat that of course everyone’s perception of success is unique.  We all have our own priorities as to what drives us and what we deem as success for any given situation.  This brings me to the concept of “relativity”.



It is interesting to me how diverse and distinctive policies, procedures and simple definitions are from one institution to another.  This is a result of the various personalities of our institutional, divisional leaders as well as the culture of the organization.  There have been plenty of NASPA conference sessions over the years that have stressed the importance of learning the institutional culture.

Sometimes your supervisor or colleagues will expect a “nose to the grind stone” attitude and at other times the situation may call for a relaxed atmosphere where one can cultivate a sense of lightheartedness over the challenging situations that arise.  As an example, there are significant changes in the state fiscal support for both public and private higher education throughout the country.  As is typical in the spring, the politicians are in the process of planning for the next fiscal year.  Many state colleges and universities are anticipating heavy cuts in state funding.  At a peer institution, one Vice President felt it was important for all his direct reports to join him in watching the live telecast of the Governor’s budget plan.  To make it more enjoyable, it was suggested that everyone bring a dish to pass.  Although everyone was expecting to hear the difficult news of the anticipated fiscal affairs for the 2012-2013 academic year, the team was able to be light hearted about it by listening to the telecast, eating lunch and discussing how these changes might impact our institution while informally brainstorming ways we might be able to address the cuts.  Certainly the seriousness of the budget cuts were not taken for granted.  However, the atmosphere of a shared meal and the comradery of receiving the difficult news together as a team provided a positive approach to planning for a difficult task of addressing the budget cuts.

Several years ago, I read the book “who moved my cheese”; it provides an illustration of how things change in an organization and the importance of paying attention to the subtle nuances of change (Johnson, 1998).  In the book, there were two sets of mice.  The first set of mice was happy and content with life and didn’t notice that they were depleting their resources a.k.a. the cheese.  A second set of mice were regularly observing that their resources were being utilized so they took action and set about identifying new resources.

Certainly it would be beneficial to observing the changes taking place at an institution, while considering how to make a positive contribution in the midst of a changing environment. Bringing this back, full circle to the topic of relativity, I have found it helpful to consider how a work-hard attitude is helpful in one area and a laid back experience can be just as helpful in another situation.  The challenge lies in appropriately understanding the environment and then effectively applying oneself to complement it.


I learned of the concept of resilience while working toward my doctorate and proceeded to research it, use it for my academic challenges and later completed my dissertation on the topic.  As a woman who is fascinated with new ideas, I’ve found this single theory to be applicable to a host of personal and professional situations.

While there are several models of resilience, the one I’ve utilized was developed by Dr. Darryl Conner (1992) in his book “Management at the Speed of Change”.  Conner developed a five construct model:  positive (about oneself and / or the world), focused, flexible, organized and proactive.  When used together or separately these constructs aid people in bouncing back from setbacks and striving toward developing a full, flourishing life.  Resilience can best be understood in the format of a Likert scale, with someone who is having significant challenges, being at the negative end of the continuum, such as the case of an individual who may be in the midst of fighting a difficult addiction.  To the opposite extreme, on the positive end of the scale someone who is highly successful.  When conducting training sessions on this topic, I utilize Oprah Winfrey as an example a highly resilient professional woman since she has addressed a number of challenges in her personal and professional life.  At the height of her career, Oprah Winfrey has been considered not only highly resilient, but also had a flourishing personal and professional life.

Each of the five constructs is simplistic and easy to understand and apply.  Although there is no specific order required when applying these constructs, if in doubt start by utilizing the positive construct.  Simply by thinking positively about a situation, such as believing that a successful solution will be identified is often enough to ignite new ideas and lead to a solution, perhaps incorporating one or more of the other constructs.  To begin utilizing Conner’s (1992) resilience theory, simply take note of each construct when faced with a solution. During the rigorous doctoral process, I kept a post it note on my computer screen with the five of them listed. Then, when I found myself feeling frustrated that a situation isn’t as smooth as I expected, I ask myself if any of the five components seem to be at the heart of the challenge.  Sometimes it will be one and other times I have found that several can be applied in succession to advance myself through the problem to a more amenable solution.  To this end, the concept of progressivism has enabled me to move beyond my challenges.



Simply put progressivism is the act of knowing when to keep moving.  If you ever saw the movie “Finding Nemo” Dory, provides us with a formula “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim, swim. … …?” (Retrieved from http://bit.ly/SNqgqP  on 3/18/12).

Or, another popular perspective of progressivism is identified by the Toyota automaker slogan “moving forward”.  Sometimes we are faced with a situation and simply need to keep moving forward.  While it is always best in life to create win-win situations, perfection is frankly impossible.  Sometimes a challenge may come your way with no desired end or a lack of ability to have an impact on the situation or outcome.  In that instance, it is important to simply move on.  Some challenges may not be able to have a win-win outcome.  Certainly, it is impossible to make everyone happy in all situations.  Calling on the wisdom of Oprah Winfrey, I’ll never forget her claim to the nation that “I am not a nice person”.  While at the time I wasn’t sure where she was going with that perspective, but by the end of that shows’ segment I realized that she simply was explaining that even in the midst of a challenge, we do have the option to put our priorities first.  If that doesn’t work out, simply keep moving forward.  I have been able to apply this in my daily life and career with some benefit.  I no longer dwell on the “why did that happen” and simply have learned to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have control over what other people think and do, but I do have control over myself, my feelings, actions and decisions.

Life certainly hasn’t always gone my way, but I’ve utilized these strategies and gained an understanding that all things are relative to the culture of an institution or timing.  When I’m faced with a problem that doesn’t have an easy solution, I explore and implement the resilience constructs and finally, when faced with a situation that may have no positive outcome, I strive to just keep moving forward.

I encourage you try these strategies on your own journey.

Trisha J. Scarcia-King, Ph.D.
Kutztown University

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