Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth as much as possible. Everyone will encounter challenges at some point in their life but framing them as opportunities is a way to positively orient yourself with a forward-looking mindset. Despite the many challenges of COVID-19, I will look back on the last year and a half as a time when I was able to connect with people. We did family hikes on Sundays, and I really cherished those moments as a time for connection as a family. Challenges can also be great opportunities for self-discovery and new learnings. Recognizing that change is a part of our lives and taking advantage of these moments of self-growth can make the difference in building and strengthening resiliency.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Erica Weiler-Timmins, Ph.D., ABPP, director of psychological services and training at Milton Hershey School, a cost-free, private, residential school and home for children from lower income families located in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Erica Weiler-Timmins Ph.D., ABPP is the Director of Psychological Services and Training at Milton Hershey School, with 25 years of experience serving youth who are from low-income families. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loyola College in Maryland, her master’s and doctoral degrees in School Psychology from Temple University, and completed her doctoral internship at MHS. Dr. Weiler-Timmins is a member of the American Psychological Association, Pennsylvania Psychological Association, and American Board of Professional Psychology, with areas of professional interest and expertise that include child abuse prevention, diversity, equity, and inclusion, ethics, and supervision.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Thank you for having me! I grew up in the Philadelphia area, and from a young age I knew I wanted to devote my life to helping others. In high school, I became passionate about helping children and adolescents who were struggling. I became particularly interested in working with children who had experienced adversity by helping them work through challenges and build resiliency to improve their lives.
I went to Baltimore for my undergraduate degree at Loyola College in Maryland (now Loyola University Maryland), before returning to Philly for my doctoral degree in school psychology at Temple University, which launched my career in helping others.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I’ve been very lucky that my career has had many interesting stories, but one that sticks with me involves an adolescent who was really struggling with a lot of anger due to her personal circumstances. As we worked together, I witnessed her transform that resentment into caring, positive relationships based on trust. She became a strong student, involved athlete and overall great role model for other students. I was so proud of her journey, and I remember how happy I felt when she graduated high school. This occurred earlier on in my career, and it was incredibly powerful to see the impact the psychology team — and the Milton Hershey School community — could have on a student.
One of my favorite parts of my career is that there are countless students who have had similar stories and being able to be part of that journey is humbling, to say the least.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Milton Hershey School has an amazing mission, and I feel fortunate to be able to live that mission each day. The school has touched so many lives, and it really puts into perspective for me the greater impact of our work. I’m proud to work alongside some incredibly dedicated and passionate colleagues who genuinely want to support our students and their families, and see them succeed. It’s truly unlike any other place in the world, and I really enjoy knowing I have made a difference.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I immediately think of my father — he lost his own father at a young age, immigrated to the United States and had to attend high school not knowing English. His strength, fortitude, hard work and drive really has left an impression on me. I define success as being caring, loving, dedicated and loyal, and my father exemplifies all of these traits. He was both personally and professionally successful, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today had it not been for his example.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
In psychology, we define resilience as the ability to adapt well when faced with adversity, challenges, trauma or stress in our lives. None of us is immune to difficulties, whether they are personal, professional, familial or societal. And in the last year and a half, the pandemic has certainly been a challenge in so many ways! Being resilient is about bouncing back and growing through those experiences over time.
Resilience is connected to our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and actions surrounding our circumstances. It is also a skill that that we can build over time. I believe that some of the traits associated with resilience include having courage, a positive mindset, a focus on your strengths, flexibility, healthy relationships and seeking support from those relationships, acceptance, positive self-care and being able to see challenges as opportunities.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is the strength of mind, or our ability to have strength doing something difficult. This includes taking steps to tackle challenges at work or in our personal lives. It similarly describes a mindset to do something difficult.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
There are so many students and families at Milton Hershey School who come to mind when I think of resilience. Their strength and positivity in the face of challenges inspires me every day and make me grateful for the opportunity to work at MHS.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Truthfully, I can’t think of one. There have been times when someone told me something would be challenging, but I continued to move towards the goal that I had in mind.
Since Milton Hershey School is a residential school, it is common for students to begin their journey feeling homesick. It can be a difficult transition despite all of the wonderful resources they have access to on campus. In order to assist students with fully engaging in their academics, athletics or other extracurricular activities they will need support in working through this adjustment. When students are able to focus on the opportunities, goals for their future and engage in programming, they are positioned for success. Our students are very resilient and we have thousands of success stories, as noted by the nearly 11,000 alumni of MHS.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
An example that comes to mind when I think about facing challenges is the transition that I experienced in my childhood. During my middle school years, my dad’s position moved abroad and my new school didn’t have a 5th grade, so I needed to transition from 4th to 6th grade in the same year. I also had to learn a new language, make new friends and adjust to a new way of life in a short time. When working with students at Milton Hershey School, I can appreciate what it can feel like to navigate changes. I can also appreciate how moves between schools can impact learning, and also what is necessary to support students through these types of transitions.
It certainly felt daunting at the time, but in hindsight I appreciate how much I learned facing that transition. It taught me that I could grow stronger by working hard, and that with the right mindset I could achieve what I put my mind to. It also provided me with empathy for students who might feel like they are facing setbacks because of their circumstances.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
My move abroad definitely contributed to my resiliency. As a psychologist now, I understand the impact of formative experiences. I try to keep that in mind in my work.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Build positive relationships and connections with other people. By maintaining good connections with family members, friends and surrounding yourself with opportunities to give back (such as through volunteer opportunities or mentorship), you can remind yourself that we’re all in this together. It’s important to focus on these healthy relationships built on trust, so you can talk about what is going on in your life in a productive way.
- Prioritize your health and wellness. Taking care of your mind and body can have a measurable impact on your resiliency. This includes everything from proper nutrition and exercise to adequate sleep and limiting electronics. Personally, I have found that exercise has been a great stress reducer, which in turn boosts your mood and overall mindset.
- Develop realistic goals for yourself. Everyone goes through challenges at times, and small goals can be a powerful way to give you the motivation to keep going. This applies to any type of project, activity or habit. Celebrating the smaller “wins” will help put you on a path to achieve even bigger accomplishments.
- Maintain a positive mindset and practice self-compassion. Resilience is about thoughts, behaviors and actions. Trying to be optimistic (even when it can be difficult) can give you a positive perspective and help you work towards healthy areas of improvement. Self-compassion is a key component of this. We tend to be more compassionate towards others, but being honest and non-judgmental towards ourselves can remind us that nobody is perfect. Especially in the past year and a half during the pandemic, this healthy mindfulness and grace has helped people see the bigger picture: that we’re all in this together.
- Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth as much as possible. Everyone will encounter challenges at some point in their life but framing them as opportunities is a way to positively orient yourself with a forward-looking mindset. Despite the many challenges of COVID-19, I will look back on the last year and a half as a time when I was able to connect with people. We did family hikes on Sundays, and I really cherished those moments as a time for connection as a family. Challenges can also be great opportunities for self-discovery and new learnings. Recognizing that change is a part of our lives and taking advantage of these moments of self-growth can make the difference in building and strengthening resiliency.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I wholeheartedly support equity, access and opportunity for children and adolescents. That includes but is not limited to mental health care, physical health care, and educational opportunities. When kids receive the care they need, they grow into healthy adults, who in turn can impact our society at large.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I am a huge reader, and I like to practice what I preach in terms of looking for opportunities to grow and improve myself. I love Brené Brown’s work as I feel that it is incredibly useful and helpful. I especially enjoy her podcast and how she uses it as a platform to help people improve their lives. I appreciate how she reminds people that we are all on our own journey and all face our share of challenges, and that self-reflection is a crucial part of personal growth.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Most of my work surrounds supporting the students at MHS, and I occasionally contribute content that is posted on the Milton Hershey School website and social channels. And sometimes I have the opportunity to be interviewed in publications and platforms like this one!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for having me! I really enjoyed our conversation.