The word resilience is really seeing its moment in the light. Deep-rooted in the fields of psychology, ecology and engineering [1], the past two years allowed this word to be adopted by multiple causes and domains. In some instances, it was the call to action — let’s fight back, let’s make change in ways that challenge status quos and transform cultures and systems to make them even better than before. In others, it induced a reluctance, a resistance that said — let’s take a moment and feel and experience the loss and just grieve, let’s not rush into responding and rebuilding.

We’re so tired, burned out and languishing — maybe it’s OK to not feel resilient or even want to be resilient this minute. Regardless of where you are in your experience and reaction to this word, chances are it has entered your vocabulary. It is here to stay for a while. So, in this piece, I reflect on the way this word has played out in my professional and personal lives before the pandemic and how these two worlds merged over the past two years, thrusting me into both camps — the “I’m resilient” and “I don’t want to be resilient” — depending on the day and the moment in the day.

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Dr. Tara Kulkarni

In fall 2015, one of my heroes tapped me on the shoulder to build a research center on resilience and security to be named after one of his heroes – Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan ’59 – the Center for Global Resilience and Security (CGRS). Sullivan’s 2016 Todd lecture connecting national security with climate change was the catalyst. Amid assembling my tenure binder and wondering what was next, this seemed like an incredible opportunity. It also created ample space for my imposter syndrome to play out with all sorts of questions, concerns, doubts.

I believe that that was the beginning of my informal MBA. Over the next several days/weeks/months, I met with a lot of colleagues, mentors, advisers, peers and through conversations and brainstorming started developing and then refining the concept of CGRS. Almost a year later we finalized a proposal. CGRS’ mission would be to build resilient and secure communities and even though we decided to zoom in on the intersections of four core areas — water, energy, infrastructure and climate change, we wanted to underscore that resilience is a human issue. We were creating a sandbox in which multiple disciplines could work together to better understand resilience challenges to help in ways that only collaborations can. We finalized our logo and planned for a formal launch event in March 2017.

This ended up being a really successful event. Along with the Norwich community, many of Vermont’s leaders were in attendance. Sullivan brought in poetry from Vermont’s own Robert Frost and in multiple parallel roundtables in Milano Ballroom, we discussed Vermont’s resilience. Student leaders took notes and summarized conversations from each table.

On the evening of the launch, my husband drove me to Boston’s Logan airport, through a winter storm, to fly to India. I lost my Mom a few hours after I got there. All I can say is that life has a way of throwing curveballs that give new meaning to the word resilience.

Meaningful growth

Since that March, CGRS has grown in meaningful ways. We’ve researched the intersections of water, energy, climate and infrastructure, adding initiatives, creating programs and disseminating our findings through conferences, articles, talks and panels. We’ve strengthened our unit with student, faculty and senior fellows who are learning, mentoring, and collaborating in new ways across disciplines, really enjoying the sandbox. I grew in meaningful ways, too. I learned about hiring and managing, budgets and timesheets, and donors and foundations. I also learned about water, energy, climate and infrastructure, how each can challenge and build resilience and security, and impact people and communities.

In March 2020, all of our worlds changed. Almost overnight. One evening of our spring break week my family was enjoying our daughter Daphne — an exchange student from Germany —dance and act her heart out in Montpelier High School’s musical performance of “Grease.” The next day, we were crying all day because her exchange program had decided to send all German students back home immediately given the uncertainties around the new coronavirus, cutting short her exchange year.  

We barely had time to process Daphne’s departure because like most schools, Norwich was preparing to pivot online. This is where the spring break was extended to offer professional development workshops for all of us to transition and get ready to face the unknown. How were we to manage home and family and kids and teach in different ways? Again, so many questions, concerns, doubts. All shades of the imposter syndrome arose anew.

Yet, once again, with the help of an amazing group of people who came forward to lead, some well trained in this art and others who adapted quickly, repurposing previous trials and experiments into frameworks, sharing best practices and collaborating and learning from one another — we did it, some of us well, some of us not so well, and most of us perhaps somewhere in between.

So, what I’ve learned through this ongoing journey of personal and professional resilience is as follows:

  • I believe that collaboration is the main reason that CGRS has been able to have as large an impact as it is starting to have. Whether it is teaming up with the John and Mary Frances Patton Peace and War Center to help our environmental security student fellows compete on an international stage or expanding the network of colleagues who are now building curriculum for CGRS’s Dog River Conservancy or energy resilience work, working on hard challenges together makes them not only a little easier to conquer, but is also so much fun!
  • In building CGRS and now through the pandemic, I’m really learning to accept and even embrace the unknown and become more and more comfortable with the many, many, many uncomfortable situations I’ve been in. I’m really taking the time to sit in discomfort, asking myself why this is making me uncomfortable and discovering new insights into myself and the world around me. I’ve been challenging my students to do this, too.
  • Right around 2015, as I was preparing my tenure binder, I had realized that I had forgotten how much I loved reading. All I was reading were academic texts; since then, I’ve gone back to reading for pleasure, then over the pandemic, to listening to podcasts and to nature. These new habits have helped generate some great ideas that I got to implement in my honors class in fall 2021, when 26 faculty from 17 disciplines, two staff members and five non-Norwich experts shared the role that sustainability plays in their personal and professional lives with my students. It has helped craft new ideas for CGRS programming and most importantly I am learning to be an advocate for colleagues and students. I’m pushing them — supportively — to lead, take the stage, get in front and express themselves. I believe it is working.
  • Finally, I’m rediscovering my humanist strengths. It is all about the people — the ones we work with, the ones we work for, and of course the ones we live and grow with. I believe this side is in my genes, a gift from my mother, who was a writer and imaginer of worlds unknown. I’m learning that my professional choice as an environmental engineer was about trying to make the world a better place for humans to thrive in, my calling as an educator is to help people see their potential and help them build resilience through challenges. And my role at CGRS is to make it our collective center — where we play in the sandbox to learn how different fields intersect, and use our research to build communities that are resilient and secure.

If you managed to read this far and are interested in anything CGRS, in building resilience and security in your own ways, please reach out.

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SOURCES:
Aldunce. P., Beilin, R., Handmer, J., and M. Howden (2014). “Framing Disaster Resilience:

The Implications of the Diverse Conceptualizations of “Bouncing Back,” Disaster Prevention and Management, 23 (3). Emerald Group Publishing, Page 252 – 270.


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