Navigating Back to Campus with Resilience, Mindfulness, and Compassion

With the fall semester fast approaching, anxiety is at an all-time high about the return to campus for many in the B.C. post-secondary sector. Staff and faculty want to be able to support students with the return of face-to-face delivery. In a webinar titled Navigating Back to Campus with Resilience, Mindfulness, and Compassion, held August 30, facilitator Dawn Schell used the analogy of being on an airplane when something goes wrong: You need to give yourself oxygen before you can take care of others around you. 

Post by Robynne Devine and Helena Prins

Dawn Schell is manager of mental-health outreach and training at the University of Victoria. She has facilitated over 300 mental-health literacy sessions for staff and faculty over the past seven years. Recently Dawn has focused on re-entry anxiety and its impact on students, staff, and faculty.

Staff and faculty need to find ways to navigate their own stress and anxiety levels before they engage in learning and teaching with students in a way that fosters mental health and wellness for everyone. This was the goal of Dawn’s recent BCcampus webinar.

Dawn surveyed students about the return to campus, and it was evident that faculty will be dealing with a mixed bag of emotions! While some students are super excited, some are extremely anxious. The feelings of excitement and fear of meeting new people coupled with the ability to participate in class again might lead to disappointment if things are not as anticipated, and faculty will be required to support students skillfully. Dawn suggested some helpful mindsets that could strengthen and prepare faculty for the task ahead. 

Helpful Mindsets

Dawn reminded as that “every pace needs grace.”

  • Re-entry and reconnecting

The work starts with yourself (think of that oxygen mask metaphor again). Reflecting on and responding to the following questions might prepare you for re-entry and reconnection with your coworkers:

  1. What did you miss and long for that you couldn’t do with your work colleagues?
  2. What acts or ways of spending time with your work colleagues did you not miss?
  3. What is one thing you have learned about yourself and how you work that you would like to bring forward to the next normal?
  4. What might you need from your work colleagues as you all navigate setting new norms and expectations?
  5. Are there things you would like to acknowledge or share with your colleagues that you have not yet shared with them?
  • Process vs. perfection: Do the best you can, and that will be enough.
  • Effective vs. efficient: Work smarter, not harder.
  • Normalizing vs. resolving: You don’t have to fix everything and everyone.
  • Anticipate potential challenges and plan helpful responses.
  • Remind yourself what is and what is not within your control. Dawn shared Reinhold Niebhur’s well-known prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Before reading on, it is worth reflecting on this question: How do you rate your ability to accept the things you cannot change?

Re-entry, Re-connection, and Transitions

You will experience changes and transitions on campus. Take time to acknowledge the change cycle, which includes the grief and stress associated with the current and recent changes and the opportunities and excitement they can present.

When dealing with change, it is worth exploring Kate Berardo’s 5Rs: routines, reactions, roles, relationships, and reflections. For example, is there something in your routine that can change to improve how you perform daily? Starting your day with a few deep breaths or a brisk 10-minute walk might be like pressing the reset button. Who are the people you need to hold closer during this time? What do you need? It might also be helpful to take a closer look at William Bridges’s model of transition. For some of us it feels so much safer to just hang out in the neutral zone. You can view the model in the slide deck for this session here.


Strengthening your resilience is a capacity that can be developed as an individual and in communities. Dawn shared this practical resource on resilience from Canada Life.

Mindful breathing is a proven technique for grounding yourself, creating self-awareness, and refining your focus. Dawn explained how four minutes of simple breathing can be as valuable as a night’s sleep. She also encouraged participants to develop these “distress tolerance skills”:

Incorporating some of these exercises into your sessions may feel a little awkward at first, but given our context this fall, can we afford not to?

Here is a quick grounding exercise to try:

Take two minutes to observe your environment: What do you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell around you?


Again, the work starts with yourself. You can help others be best when you have the compassion and energy to do so. Extend compassion to yourself. One way of doing this is to place a hand of kindness on your heart. Perhaps you want to rub your hands together to warm them up, then gently place your hand on your heart – extending compassion to yourself when you feel overwhelmed or triggered.

Creating a wellness plan for yourself does not have to be a huge undertaking. Consider using the 5 Ways to Wellbeing framework when you create your personal wellness plan. This well-researched framework was designed to help you incorporate simple practices as a way to build resilience, find balance, and boost your well-being. It allows a holistic approach.

Connect – Family, friends, colleagues, neighbours

Keep Learning – Something new; take on new responsibility

Be Active – Garden, step outside, walk, play a game

Give – Give, do something nice, volunteer, thank someone

Take Notice – Smell the roses

Choose one simple practice each day or each week that brings you more joy and more peace of mind and heart. Research has shown these will lift your mood, protect you against stress, and even strengthen your immune system.

Student Support

The best thing you can do for your students is take care of yourself. Do the work. If you are in a good place, you’ll show up ready and prepared to create a meaningful, positive learning environment for your students. Some other ways to support your students are:

  1. Model good coping behaviours.
  2. Have clear communication and set expectations and guidelines.
  3. Create time to acknowledge losses and celebrations.
  4. Issue reminders to be kind, compassionate, and allow space for all.
  5. Validate, support, and listen.
  6. Encourage resources. Many free and accessible resources are available for student support. Know them and share them with your students.

Let’s not go back to the same old, same old. This fall you have an opportunity to do things differently. Consider spending intentional time settling back in!

If you missed this webinar, you can listen to the recording.

The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Zen Chung from Pexels