Kathryn Quina

How do we build resilient girls? How do you build resiliency in your own life?

These questions have been ever-present for me through the years I have taught and advised students, studied trauma and recovery, and tried to be a good daughter and mother. I still don’t have an answer, but I have learned a lot.

I think we must redefine resilience. I used to marvel at people who had “gotten over” abuse or who had “made it” in men’s worlds. I thought they must be endowed with super-woman emotional strength (and I wanted some too!). Maybe they were. But I also rejoiced at the self-confidence that emerged as adult women earned their college degrees, escaped violent relationships or birth countries, came back from devastating childhood abuse, and found inner peace even while behind bars. I came to see resilience not as an innate talent granted only to some, but a learned process. I began to measure resilience not by external achievements, but by the very act of coping itself, taking power over ones own actions, regardless of the circumstances. And I came to view “thriving” as helping others do the same.

How can you and I help build resilience? Almost every adult learner, abuse survivor, refugee, or incarcerated woman who I could call “resilient” described, with gratitude, someone who believed in them, and in doing so helped them find their own strength. Whether a mother, teacher, a sister, or helping professional, whether they were always there or only in their lives for a brief time, the impact was palpable: “She believed in me, so I believed in myself.” I realized that neither role required superpowers – any of us can do it!

I’ve published research data to support this view, but it was harder to learn how to be that resilience-builder myself – especially for my own daughter! But I thought about my mother, who lived through the Depression and worked through World War II, but was forbidden to pursue the engineering career she craved. She wasn’t excited about my life choices, but she let me know she loved me with gusto. With that same gusto, she would take us Girl Scouts out into the Florida wilderness, braving snakes and using the latrine we dug with our little camping shovels, allowing us to discover our strengths as she was discovering her own. In her Sunday school class, she engaged fellow housewives in intellectual discussions, providing a space for them to stretch their minds as well as their faith.

Instead of judging her as “wasting” her potential, I began to admire how she had embraced a brave, subversive “Plan B,” building strength in others even as she discovered it in herself. Although I still have trouble labeling myself as resilient, I now know I can make a difference in the world. If I have thrived, it is not because I found that magic cape I was looking for, but because I helped others discover their own strength as I learned my own. May the young women in our lives never have to search for a cape at all!

Kathryn “Kat” Quina combined a passion for social justice with academia, teaching Psychology and Women’s Studies and serving in various administrative roles at the Providence campus of the University of Rhode Island. She has coauthored or coedited six books and numerous articles addressing sexual assault and trauma, incarcerated women, HIV risk, multicultural teaching, and gender in the workplace. Active in local and national organizations, she has been recognized locally and nationally for advances in multicultural psychology, mentorship for women, and service to feminist psychology.

photo by Agapao Productions