Resilience and Academic Success
Monday, September 13, 2010 at 12:35PM
Rob Gira

One of the joys of my job is that I get to work with our AVID student speakers in the summer, occasionally serving as host during our institute luncheon celebrations.  I also get to read many of the student essays that become the basis for their speeches.  This past summer, we had over 40 AVID speakers, including current students and graduates.  All of them exemplified the “Individual Determination” we value so highly in the AVID world.  Another way to look at it is:  These young people are resilient, they persist; they believe that their efforts will result in achievement.   Just what is resilience?  According to an article I read recently, resilience is “the term used to describe a set of qualities that foster a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite risk and adversity.” (from Fostering Resilience in Children)   

I like the reference to transformation since that was one of our themes for the summer.  Sir Michael Rutter, often called the “father of child psychology,” and a foremost authority on resilience, has defined it as “facing up to a stressful event in a way that favors an increase in personal and social competencies by means of a responsibility rendered accessible by the circumstances.”  I admit it is a bit scientific, but it does have an AVID ring to it as well.

To offer case studies, I could describe many of our student speakers, but I will use Ivan Ildefonso’s story to offer a picture of resilience.  Ivan, who recently enrolled at Colorado State University, has a story similar to that of many AVID students.  He came to the U.S. with his parents from Mexico when he was in the third grade, speaking no English.  He was the only Latino in his class, and, as he says, “I was surrounded by Anglos.  There was nobody like me.  I was alone.  More than that, I was the student who was getting bad grades.  I was the student who was in depression because no one would talk to him.”

Years of difficulty and alienation followed Ivan, who struggled in school and then followed his brother into the “Southside” gang.  When his brother was injured in a gang fight and Ivan saw his mother’s terrified reaction, he promised he would do better.  This is where the school system began to respond, to see his strengths and not his weaknesses.  His eighth grade ESL teacher, Mrs. Reed recommended him for AVID and, when he failed to return the application, she filled it out and sent it in for him.  Ivan was interviewed and accepted and found himself in an AVID class with a diverse group of students.  Even in AVID, students formed cliques, but, they were united in binder competitions and support for homework.  “Their language was better than mine,” he says, “their clothing was not gang related, and they talked about college--something that I did not know about.”  Even more importantly, he says, “What I know now is that my angel had arrived.  Mr. David Falter, my AVID teacher at Greely West High School, said to me, ‘Ivan, I believe you can go to college.’”

Falter offered more than belief, however.  He offered a challenge.  He loaded Ivan's schedule with four AP® classes leading Ivan to engage in the work.  “I wanted to prove I could be an overachiever,” Ivan said.

By the time he graduated, Ivan had taken multiple AP courses, joined numerous clubs, and became captain of the soccer team.  He graduated with a 3.7 GPA.  “AVID,” he says, “has tamed me, taught me respect for education, given me a family.” 

I would offer that the AVID experience helped Ivan learn to respond to his environment, to hone his coping skills, develop the confidence to take on academic and social challenges. 

AVID’s Executive Director, Jim Nelson, often says that students like Ivan are exceptional but not the exception, that we have many other students who deserve the opportunity to be challenged, to demonstrate their “individual determination” or what psychologists call resilience.

Resilience, persistence, effort, or “grit,” as psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania describe it—are all excellent traits, but can they be taught?  In AVID, we argue that they can and should be taught. In fact, through the AVID structure, which includes the AVID elective class, the AVID site team and AVID tutors, these are being taught.  Many students refer to their AVID class as their "AVID family."  This AVID class, or family, provides “academic and social scaffolding” as described by researchers such as Drs. Mehan and Hubbard.

In a previous article last year (ACCESS, Spring 2009), I focused on effort as a key cultural factor in AVID, one that should be emphasized with students and staff, and I provided some research pieces to illustrate this.  Resilience is, of course, related but is a concept that AVID site teams would do well to explore and understand, as it relates to the AVID elective class but also creating a schoolwide culture of college readiness.

The fact that AVID students overcome remarkable odds should not be shocking to us.  Longitudinal studies, some of them following individuals over the course of their lives, have “documented that between half and two–thirds of children growing up in families with mentally ill, alcoholic, abusive or criminally involved parents or in poverty-stricken or war torn communities do overcome the odds…” (from Fostering Resilience in Children.)

It appears that resilience is actually much less about genetic make-up and family background than it is about the kind of educational environment we create.   More on this in my next post...

Article originally appeared on AVID Adventures in College & Career Readiness (
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