I remember the first time I heard the saying: surviving or thriving. I was an Assistant Director at a school in Northern California and we would talk about the importance of our students thriving and not just surviving. There was an urgency and a passion and I totally bought into it! In my opinion, surviving was barely making it, while thriving was growth and vitality. I mean college students felt like they should be the symbol of growth, strength, and curiosity. The imagery I had in mind was of a plant and how it would need to be watered and fed. I also thought about the process of photosynthesis and how plants give off oxygen after receiving energy from the sun. While I am not a scientist or a middle schooler in 6th period science, I knew that if we were able to provide certain programmatic elements, then we could create spaces where students could thrive (i.e., when plants get what they need they are green and they provide oxygen, hence thriving!). Although I am no longer at that institution, the saying has stuck with me the last several years.
Fast forward to 2022 at my current institution. Each quarter, there is a departmental retreat, and this retreat has been a dream of my supervisor’s for quite some time. The retreats are great because she serves as the Associate Vice President and we always get this really great birdseye-view download of information from her. She also sets it up in a way that creates engagement and thought provoking conversations. A new component to the last retreat was to have the Graduate Assistants share their areas of study and/or what they have learned in their Campus Living assistantship. I really enjoyed learning from them and I must admit that there were some moments where I teared up. There was one presentation that stood out to me and actually challenged my ideas on surviving or thriving.
But first, a little backstory. Each day I try to say hello to each human I encounter and I also ask how they are doing. It is so easy to say fine or okay because who knows if the other person has the time to stop and invest in how you are really doing. Well, there is a graduate assistant in our department who always responds with thriving and surviving. My response has always been, “No! I want you to thrive!!” It wasn’t until recently, during their presentation at the retreat, that I was able to accept that both could be true. This person referenced that when asked how they were doing, their response was surviving and thriving. They then said that folx would give a response that wanted to push them towards thriving but this did not capture the spirit of their response. Because they are doing just that: surviving and thriving. And they attributed it to being positive and well, by acknowledging that both can be true.
There is power in acknowledging that perhaps each of us are doing both versus striving towards one. I think it allows us to not put so much pressure on ourselves. In our line of work we are constantly taking note of surviving and thriving behaviors. For example, we want to know how our students are doing socially and academically because we want to know how we can support them. We are trained to notice behaviors that indicate that our students may be “surviving” and we document that and we refer. We have a student organization dedicated to recognizing those who are thriving in our communities. We also display the countless resources available when students are surviving/struggling. And for us as professionals, we are also operating in this celebration and struggle mode because we work in a field where we are navigating so many needs and emotions in addition to our own.
Sometimes it seems we are so busy that we barely keep our heads above water, and other times we are on top of the world because a really amazing thing took place. We do this work because we like to help others and that help must include an awareness that we are all doing both; surviving and thriving. So, my former institution did not get it wrong, per se, but perhaps sitting with both ideas, could normalize that it is okay to not be okay all of the time.
It is okay to say that you are not at your best. I can now better appreciate this both/and response especially in a field where there is pressure to be everything to everyone. Guess what? I am surviving AND thriving in this field. Our students are surviving and thriving in our communities. What are the tools that we provide to navigate this idea of both being true? How do we respond with resources and perhaps solidarity for the survival moments? And how do we celebrate and uplift the moments of thriving. How do both of those show up in our bodies and how do we communicate that?
We work in an industry that can be equally rewarding and difficult. I want to share some examples of moments that could create the feeling of surviving in Housing:
- When we are yelled at or the recipient of not very kind language.
- The number on our paycheck.
- Living where we work and feeling that our lives are on full display.
- When we have a day when we are not feeling 100% yet we come into work and put on our game face because it feels like the show must go on.
- Days when another horrific thing has been reported on the news and no one checked in to ask if we were impacted.
- It’s the 3rd time in the week you’ve had to confront a microaggression.
- That colleague or student who is causing harm but not enough for anything formal to be done about it.
Next, here are some moments that could create the feeling of thriving in Housing:
- Your student staff member completed all of their intentional 1:1 conversations with their residents.
- Your supervisor gave you a shout out at the departmental meeting.
- That conduct meeting where the student understands that you are concerned about their behavior vs. them being a bad person.
- All of your residents completed the roommate agreements.
- Your conference proposal was accepted.
- Being placed on a departmental or division committee
- Taking vacation time and no one calls or emails you
What do you need to imagine yourself as a beautiful, green thriving plant? And what do you need when you feel like you are surviving? Below is a list that I thought of that can help navigate holding both of these ideas. What would you add?
The Surviving and Thriving List:
- Set boundaries and keep them
- Be open about the moments of when you are surviving, and thriving
- Know available support resources
- Find folx who will celebrate with you and cry with you
- Do not feel guilty for thriving
- Do not feel shame for surviving
- Keep every thank you that you receive!
- Ask how folx are doing and then listen to and honor their response
- Create moments for reflection and sharing of experiences
- Try to minimize exposure to behaviors that impact your ability to thrive in your role.
If we can acknowledge that both thriving and surviving can be true for our students and for ourselves, how might we go about our work? Hello, person I supervise, how are you surviving and thriving today? How can I support you in both areas? While that might sound awkward, it could open a door to our shared humanity. We are all struggling and we also have these beautiful moments of gratitude to share. How might that show up in a conversation with your students?