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Journal of College Student Development 45.2 (2004) 207-221



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Adjustment to College Among Trauma Survivors:

An Exploratory Study of Resilience


Researchers have examined students' adjustment to college—why some students make the transition successfully, whereas others struggle or leave school after only a short time (e.g., Ezezek, 1994; Holmbek & Wandrei, 1993). Efforts to support students through this transition must draw upon a more complete understanding of variables that place students at risk for a stressful transition and protective factors that promote positive adaptation. Recent research has been focused on both individual and contextual variables including gender, racial identity, coping strategies, stress, social support and attachment (Feenstra, Banyard, Rines, & Hopkins, 2000; Klasner & Pistole, 2003; Pritchard & Wilson, 2003) and suggests the need for more research that goes beyond explaining academic success from "demographic and academic variables" (Pritchard & Wilson, p. 18). The current study is an examination of a group of students potentially at risk for a stressful transition to college: students who are survivors of traumatic stress. For the purposes of this research, trauma is defined broadly as a range of events that overwhelm an individual's coping capacities and involves threats of serious injury or death to self or someone close to the individual (e.g., Pynoos, 1993). This examination was of variation in the transition to college among a sample of trauma survivors, of the roles of social relationships and supports, coping, and making meaning of the trauma in explaining variance in resilience in adjusting to college.

Trauma and College Students

Many college students arrive on campus with a history of exposure to traumatic events. Researchers have found rates of child physical and child sexual abuse that are comparable to community samples (e.g., Duncan, 2000; Himelein, 1995; Kenny & McEachern, 2000; Priest, 1992) and have described college students as a particularly at-risk population for further victimization while on campus (e.g., Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000), with prior victimization a risk factor for experiencing retraumatization while in college (e.g., Koss & Dinero, 1989). Recent trends in the stress literature also have highlighted the importance of examining cumulative traumas over a segment of the life-course, with greater numbers of traumas related to higher levels of psychological distress (e.g., Banyard, Williams, & Siegel, 2001; Turner & Butler, 2003; Turner & Lloyd, 1995). Meta-analyses of the negative effects of traumas such as child maltreatment have generally found smaller effect sizes for college student samples (e.g., Jumper, 1995), leading some researchers to [End Page 207] discuss whether college students are a more resilient sample of trauma survivors. Himelein did not find differences between college women with and without histories of child sexual abuse on measures of academic adjustment. In a qualitative study of older returning college students, LeBlanc, Brabant, and Forsyth (1996) discussed how college may actually be part of survivors' healing. However, other work shows that for some students this transition may be complicated by trauma exposure (e.g., Duncan, 2000; Lauterbach, 1999; Zamostny, Slyter, & Rios, 1993). Indeed, childhood traumas such as abuse have been linked to an increased likelihood of dropping out of college (e.g., Duncan), depression (e.g., Mazzeo & Espelage, 2002; Turner & Butler, 2003), and suicide (e.g., Bridgeland, Duane, & Stewart, 2001).

Further research that goes beyond documenting the risk posed to college students by their trauma histories, to a more complex understanding of resilience, and supportive processes among trauma survivors in their transition to college is needed.

Examining Positive Adjustment

Recent developments in the field of psychology have called for the identification of strengths among survivors of stressful events and processes of "positive psychology" (e.g., Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). As educators work to understand and more effectively intervene with survivors who are experiencing difficulties, they have much to learn in designing improved interventions from those who are able to function well (Lyons, 1991). To date, there has been only minimal research on positive adaptation among survivors of traumatic stress.

One recommendation that has emerged from the growing literature...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-3382
Print ISSN
0897-5264
Pages
pp. 207-221
Launched on MUSE
2004-04-30
Open Access
No
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