ThriveRU: A Framework of Beams
I dabble in carpentry. And, in that dabbling full of trial, and error, and observation, I’ve come to (pretentiously) understand this: carpentry is about the ways in which elements combine to create sound structures, the construction of material frameworks around which finishing touches are made and within which things find a place, a shelter. How can I resist the promise of that as a metaphor to help illuminate our work in RyersonSA? I can’t.
Elements combined to create structure…
…a process that often begins by putting a post in the ground. (Post. Another word for “pillar”.) Here’s what I know about posts. Posts are precarious standing alone. Yes, we can drive them into the ground, lodge them in concrete, and brace them with stone. But they remain perilous in that formless state. What gives them real strength is a structure of beams—the pieces that connect horizontally from one vertical post to another—thus forming the frame around which other connective tissue, like walls, roofs, or fence boards can be applied. It is an ancient and beautiful way of creating structure. Posts and beams, connected in an elegant arithmetic. I like this idea applied to RyersonSA and its five pillars. I think we have done well to drive these pillars into the ground as a way to constitute our work. But their structural strength will come from the apparatus of connective material we build between them—the beams. As we embark on the more difficult work of weaving a common thread through the various RyersonSA Pillars whose shapes differ in dimension and character and angle, we embark on a project of carpentry, building a structure for students, a shelter. So, how can we conceive of these beams, these connections between the pillars? Consider one possibility—something a few of us have been working on that we’re calling ThriveRU. I’ll explain, in my usual way, by going on a bit of a tangent.
When I was two and half years old I had my tonsils removed. My response to the post-op sore throat was to stop eating—seemed reasonable at the time. But, there were predictable consequences to this, a kind of cascade of bodily demise that led my doctors to the vague and unsettling diagnosis known as “failure to thrive”. I think about that now and then; failure to thrive. It’s a phrase full of potential shame and loathing. But also aspiration; an acknowledgement that the goal of a human life is something more than mere existence. The doctors, the nurses, my parents—they demanded something more for me than simple presence in the world. They demanded a life of vitality, flourishing, growth, thriving. And I was failing. So, with needle jabs and medical prodding, I received the right flow of nutrients and bounced back. I re-thrived. It’s my earliest memory. And my first experience in resilience.
Fast forward sixteen years. I’m eighteen, heading off to Western University in London, Ontario. My first week there was a kind of metaphorical tonsillectomy, a loss of my voice. And my appetite. My response was to stop taking in sustenance—it was a post-secondary version of failing to thrive. I remember it well. My first semester was not pretty—it was bleak actually. I had arrived, fresh out of high-school, having chosen this place for a variety of ill-conceived reasons, not ready, angst-ridden, groping for anything that could give meaning to the experience. I was sinking. But nobody knew. I pushed through each day alone, slipping deeper into bewilderment until, finally, in a moment of confused adolescent desperation, I got on a train and left town without looking back. I never asked for help. I never even thought to. I just bolted.
I wonder about my decision back then, bolting from my dorm room to the train station and not looking back. I mean, I have no regrets—it was an impulsive and consequential decision—but things got better after that. I worked, traveled, spent a year growing a beard and tramping barefoot in batik through Java and Sumatra. That was what I needed, and I was lucky. But I do wonder how things might have gone differently if, instead of packing my bags and walking out of my residence room without telling anyone, I had stopped at the counselling centre, had a chat with the residence don, or checked out what workshops or clubs were available to me, if there was a baseball team I could join. What if I had just talked to someone? Anyone.
But I was badly equipped for that—an introvert, a stoic, a WASP, the great triumvirate of aloofness. And, I don’t recall there being much of a culture of campus support making itself known to me. It was probably there, but back in those days, we didn’t talk about these things like we do today. I don’t even think I had any vocabulary for it at all. I still feel on foreign territory just writing about it. I probably knew about the hockey team, and what bars had cheap beer, but the Counseling Centre? Student Affairs? Forget it. It’s better now, the idea of reaching out for help a more customary thing to do. But let’s face it; asking for help is still hugely difficult for many people. There are students out there going through shit. Alone. And in those darkest days some of them don’t just get on a train out of town. They escape in other, more desperate and unimaginably sad ways.
When I think about my young sons heading off to University (if that is what they decide to do), I think about this. The thought of them alone on campus, choking inside the grip of whatever demons have taken hold, without any wherewithal to find a path out—it hits me like a kick in my gut. Maybe I’m feeling a bit… paternal about it all. Success is important, however we define it, of course. But imagining that phone call to my son during his first semester away, my first question won’t be “Hey kiddo. Are you successful?” It will be, “Hey kiddo, are you ok?” Period. And maybe for some this is the same question.
Are students ok?
I mean, all else seems trivial by comparison. I worry about students suffering in silence, thrashing their way through the thickets of growing up and wrestling with identity, and leaving behind the harbour of childhood, and facing the world, wondering what to do, what it means, how to proceed, as flawed human beings in a complicated world. How can we help them? How could I have been helped back when I ran to the train station? I was not mentally ill, but I clearly wasn’t thriving. And this is true for many of our students—not ill, not desperate, but not thriving either; the unheard majority.
This is an important distinction for me, and illustrates the rightness of our proactive focus, not simply on illness but also on wellness. We should continue to do whatever we reasonably can to address mental illness on campus, but we should also be doing what we can to promote the mental and physical flourishing of all students. Like the medical teams that tended to my languishing tonsil-less self, demanding for me something more than just baseline wellness, our goal as educators should be to help students, not just cope, but thrive. This is the guiding philosophy of the ThriveRU idea. It’s not a program per se, but a way of thinking, a set of principles that can be injected into the marrow of our work.
You’ve heard me before. I’m not a fan of mindless hand-holding and the perils of coddling. I actually think this is part of the problem. We shouldn’t be In Loco Helicopteris. We need to help nurture resilient, gritty young people, better able to flourish, to thrive. And we also need to watch out for them while we do this. SA folks already do this well. It’s in our DNA to be watchful and concerned about student well-being. But I think we can do this with even more purpose, with even more integration and connectedness so that students see, in our presence on campus, a place for them—a shelter. The ThriveRU project is about infusing all of our work in RyersonSA with the principles and frameworks that have emerged from the field of positive psychology, tenets that have proven superbly effective at helping people to move through the world with more vitality, more resilience, more happiness. By connecting our strongly rooted RyersonSA Pillars with an equally strong framework of beams made of the material of positive psychology, we build a shelter for students in which they can thrive and engage productively in academic life.
Ok. So what might these “beams” actually be? I’ll stop writing annoyingly in metaphor and get concrete. You’ll hear more about the ThriveRU idea in the coming weeks, but let’s start with this: PERMA–V. Remember that. PERMA–V is a powerful model of human well-being originally articulated by Dr. Martin Seligman that posits six essential building-blocks as follows:
These are beams. These are the elements that can connect our pillars, give us a shared vocabulary, an apparatus that can give shape to our work. We can weave PERMA–V into everything we do in RyersonSA. Whatever we design and offer, we can include ways to help students:
Feel more positive emotion
Imbue the work with optimism, make space for gratitude, take students outside, have a few laughs. Go beyond empty platitudes about happiness, and smiley faces—offer something that reminds students about the good things in their lives, the reasons for being hopeful and glad to be here.
Experience a sense of engagement
Help students find that state of flow we all love to have, give them a chance to get away from the tedious distractions that fill a day, absorb them in the full experience of being a student, even if just for a moment, by helping them move through the world according to their greatest strengths.
Cultivate better relationships
Get students together, connect them to each other, provide spaces where they can build friendships and share their triumphs as well as their struggles, reach out to the quiet, the stoic, the introverted.
See the deeper meaning of their life
However that may manifest, help students feel a sense of belonging in a larger community, engage in meaningful, purposeful work that takes them out of themselves, that goes beyond their own self-absorbed inclinations.
Have a sense of achievement
Help students know that their efforts at study towards long-term goals is the essence of achievement. And that they are also achieving things in their lives beyond school work and career aspirations. Help them see it all.
Live with greater vitality
Provide students with outlets for physicality, and energy, and vigor, and help them to connect their physical, emotional, and intellectual selves.
Honestly, I don’t normally go in for lists like this. I can’t stand our modern proclivity towards reducing the human condition to bullet points, inspirational messages, platitudes, and catchy slogans. And, at first, this PERMA–V stuff struck me as being in that camp. But it really isn’t. This is a model emerging from and grounded in a prodigious body of positive psychology research and validation. That’s what compels me so much. And if we start stringing up beams like PERMA–V as a vernacular to connect our pillars together, we make a structure in which all students can explore, take risks, grow, become strong, or, if it’s the right thing to do, leave. Gracefully. And be well while doing it.
I know it’s not magic. I’m under no delusions about the seriousness of mental illness. Weaving threads of PERMA–V through all of our SA programming will not be enough to support the students suffering from serious depression or anxiety. But it will help to create that ever-present culture of support in which greater well-being can be nurtured, and it will help to build a haven of comfortable help-seeking and challenging inquiry, where grit and resilience and optimism, can be cultivated. I want my sons to go to a place like that. And I want to work there.