Where some people see crisis, others see opportunity. It can all be a matter of perspective. First-generation college students, for example, face a unique set of academic, social and cultural challenges as they work toward their degree. However, researchers at two leading business schools have demonstrated that a brief intervention can make a big difference in whether these students view their backgrounds as a hindrance — or a source of strength.
Sarah Townsend, assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, and Nicole Stephens, associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, along with their co-authors, suggest that a simple, one-hour information session with older students can help potentially disadvantaged first-generation college students find strength in their backgrounds — and thrive.
Their research — conducted with MarYam Hamedani of Stanford University and Mesmin Destin and Vida Manzo of Northwestern University — was published in Psychological Science in August.
We have demonstrated how to change students’ lives for the better.
“For the first time, in a well-controlled laboratory study, we have provided behavioral and physiological evidence of the long-term influence of a brief intervention on an individual’s future trajectory,” Townsend said. “More simply, we have demonstrated how to change students’ lives for the better.”
Nearly two years after an intervention that educated first-generation and continuing-generation students about how their backgrounds could matter in college, the researchers found that students who participated in the intervention were more comfortable talking about their backgrounds and that first-generation students, in particular, responded more adaptively in the face of common academic stressors, suggesting they experienced their backgrounds as a strength.
“Our results suggest that brief interventions do systematically alter how students respond over time to specific situations in the college context,” Stephens said. “For students disadvantaged by mainstream educational settings, these small changes to their default responses — for example, seeing their backgrounds as a strength — have great potential to improve their overall comfort in higher education and equip them with the tools that they need to thrive.”
First-generation and continuing-generation college students participated in a two-part study. Part one, the initial intervention, took place during the first few weeks of the students’ first year in college. For about an hour, new students listened to seniors talk about their experiences being successful in college. The “difference-education” group heard stories that emphasized students’ social-class backgrounds serving as a source of strength in dealing with challenges. The control group heard stories that did not mention student backgrounds in connection with strategies for success.
Part two of the study took place almost two years later, in the last few months of the students’ second year in college. During this lab portion of the study, participants gave a short speech about the ways in which their backgrounds influenced their college transition and then completed brief GRE and word-search tasks.
By analyzing the topics students discussed in their speeches, the researchers examined whether intervention participants were better able to view their backgrounds as a source of strength during their college experience. Additionally, by measuring the students’ hormone levels during the speech and subsequent tasks, they examined whether intervention participants were better able to manage stressful college situations.
As the researchers predicted, compared to students in the control group, students in the “difference-education” group talked more about the importance of their backgrounds in the speech, mentioning family, friends from home, hometown, high school and academic preparation. In the face of academic stressors, they were also more likely to cope adaptively, as evidenced by their higher ratio of anabolic to catabolic hormones.
“Our findings are very optimistic,” Townsend said. “They suggest that acknowledging how social class matters in students’ lives can provide a powerful tool for improving first-generation students’ experiences in college.”