Graduate Insider - From the Dean's Desk

Resilience can turn setbacks into opportunities

You’re all familiar with the expression “when one door closes another door opens” and in honor of women’s history month, I want to share with you one such story.

On a rainy day in 1932 in rural Ohio–east of Columbus near the Pennsylvania border–Susan Conaway was rushing to protect her children from the rain as she headed toward the bank carrying the money she needed to pay the taxes on her and her family’s small home. Susan tripped and fell to the ground hard, and the money spilled out of her hand and washed away into a storm drain. Money was tight just a few years into the Great Depression and she and her husband lost their home because of that tragic fall. 

Her husband, who fortunately had a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad, decided to move the family to Columbus, Ohio so he would work in a railroad hub so that he could stop  “deadheading” to work to pick up the train. Moving to Columbus was a huge change for the family of eight, who left the comforts of their small home for an unfamiliar city. But the move also meant big opportunity. Both Susan and her husband only finished the 8th grade - never attended high school much less college. The family rented a home near Ohio State, which gave all 6 children the opportunity to attend college. This event – the loss of their home – set into motion changed the lives of their children, grandchildren and many future generations.

Life is full of small and large setbacks but those setbacks can create opportunities that might not be obvious at the time.

Resilience of women in history

This is just one of the stories in Women’s History Month. A common thread I’ve observed in the stories of women we read about during Women’s History Month is the high level of personal resilience these women demonstrate. Personal resilience is the ability to bounce back from a setback or even make changes during long-term stress. In many cases, it is about bouncing back better than before. When faced with a challenge, few people feel resilience at the moment. I’m sure Susan was devastated at the loss of her home in rural Ohio, not knowing the transformation that would occur as a result

During Women’s History Month, we can all reflect on the resilience of women in history,  but we can also take time to recognize our own capacity for resilience and build on it. Each of us has lived long enough to know that setbacks will occur, so how do we prepare for them? There are lots of resources out there to help you build your resilience (Here’s one I like from the American Psychological Association). The two characteristics I’m embracing right now are courage and curiosity in both my job and my personal life.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the history of the Conaway’s of Columbus, Ohio is my history. It is an honor to share the story of my grandmother, who supported her family during a major transition, and my mother, who adapted to city life as a child and went on to earn a college degree. And while my grandmother held certain gendered viewpoints (like girls shouldn’t ride bicycles), she believed in the value of higher education for all of her children. My mother is now 102 years old and continues to tell me stories of life during the Great Depression and World War II; about being a college student in the 1940s and about why education was so important to her and her family.

It’s important to remember the resilience, courage and curiosity of the women in our lives and histories, not just those we’ve all heard of. Be inspired and write down your own stories of women in your life – their histories and share them to inspire others. I love to be inspired too so please feel free to share them with me.



Elizabeth A. Wentz