Chronic illness and the college student experience : an anti-deficit achievement study of resilience in higher education
Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health indicates that students with chronic illness graduate college at half the rate of non-ill college students (18% vs. 32%) (Herts, Wallis & Maslow, 2014). Statistics such as this might explain much of the current discourse around college students with chronic illnesses centers on deficits and failure points (Devine, 2016; Agarwal, Moya, Yasui, & Seymour, 2015; Lombardi, Kowitt, & Staples, 2015; Oswald, Huber, & Bonza, 2015; Sniatecki, Perry, & Snell, 2015). Understanding challenges and barriers faced by these students is certainly important, however focusing on deficits has provided little insight into how the students who are staying succeed, which leads to the main research question of this dissertation: how do students with chronic illnesses use assets and resources to build resiliency as they navigate their educational path? To challenge the idea of deficit modeling as the right fit for explaining the phenomena of college students and chronic illness on campus, I employed an anti-deficit achievement and resiliency framework in the current study. The resiliency framework in and of itself is an anti-deficit theory that focuses on how someone uses internal assets and external resources to navigate risk (Stoddard, Zimmerman, & Bauermeister, 2012). At the same time, I wanted a theory that framed the entire research experience, from questioning to analysis in an anti-deficit light. The anti-deficit achievement framework developed by Harper (2010), was originally applied to black males in STEM fields, but provided the perfect mindset and framing for resiliency theory to reside, as the theory's line of questioning and interest in the student's past was strengths focused. The phenomenological approach was the best fit to explore the lived experiences of 13 college students with chronic illnesses in a large public university in the Midwest in this study. Participants were recruited through advertisements in the all-campus bulletin and through flyers around campus. Interviews of each participant were conducted at the beginning and end of the semester. During the course of the semester they also maintained journals to document their experience in real time. Once data was collected, themes were found among each participant and then across all participants in the study. Several important findings came out of the current study. First, participant's reported using internal assets in combination with external resources to build resiliency to navigate risks associated with their chronic illness, but also educational risk. Internal asset findings included development of personality characteristics, such as positivity, personal agency, and faith in a higher power as well as an overarching adaptability that was realistic and self-aware. External resource findings indicated that family, significant others, friends and professors were a major source of support. Institutional resources were also identified as important, in particular the disability center and student health. The findings resulted in rich knowledge of the participant's experience in higher education with a chronic illness. Findings resulted in significant recommendations for research, policy and practice, which are included in chapter 5. However, what is clear is that this population needs additional attention, and the best resource for understanding students with chronic illnesses are the students themselves. If higher education institutions and leaders intend to support their students at a high level that leads to satisfaction and matriculation, this population can no longer be ignored.
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