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Marginalized Students’ Backgrounds a Strength, Researchers Say

February 25, 2021
Mesmin Destin and Shirin Vossoughi
School of Education and Social Policy professors Mesmin Destin (left) and Shirin Vossoughi

Rather than “fixing” students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, colleges and universities should view their experiences as assets and a source of strength, according to two new publications by researchers from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Both research publications focused on the importance of positive messaging, shifts in policy and practice from the institution, faculty, and peers. When students feel seen, supported, and connected to their environment, they do better in school and have fewer stress-related health consequences, the researchers said.

In the first publication, coauthored by Mesmin Destin, associate professor of human development and social policy, the researchers found that when low-income college and Black and Latinx middle school students received support to consider their identities as a source of unique strengths and value, they became more likely to find meaning in academic challenges and to persist through difficulty.

Providing opportunities for students to recognize their backgrounds as assets–rather than liabilities– to their school and society helps to sustain their well-being and motivation in school, according to the study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“This belief increases their tendency to persist when they face academic challenges,” the researchers wrote in “From deficit to benefit: Highlighting lower-SES students’ background-specific strengths increases their academic persistence.” The improved mental health was “significantly associated with middle school students' end-of-term grades,” according to the study, which was coauthored by psychology doctoral students Ivan Hernandez and David Silverman.

A second publication coauthored by Destin, Shirin Vossoughi, assistant professor of learning sciences, and doctoral student R. Josiah Rosario argues that assimilation or “checking their backgrounds” at the door when they arrive on campus is the wrong way to support marginalized students in higher education.

Instead of trying to fit minoritized students into a largely White campus culture, offering bridge programs, or working to promote independence, it’s better to invest in the students themselves, develop faculty skills, and foster interdependence by creating community connections, the researchers argue.

Building these connections–a central theme of the research–should extend within and beyond the college environment, the researchers wrote in the issue of Policy Insights from the Behavior and Brain Sciences, published online in February.

“First we need to recognize the value associated with the backgrounds of lower socioeconomic status college students because it has direct positive effects on both their achievement and well-being,” the authors said. “A second key step is to develop institutional policies and practices that build from rather than denigrate students’ diverse backgrounds.”

The focus on interdependence can help students who are wrestling with achievement guilt, or the unease that low income or first-generation students may feel for having more higher education opportunities and college success than their family members.

College is often celebrated as a time of leaving home and independence but “providing more opportunities to maintain important family connections would benefit students’ well-being,” they wrote. “Achievement guilt may be productively understood as a positive sense of ethical responsibility to one’s family and community.”

Family relationships can be woven into students’ learning and development during college by connecting academic work with students’ family histories and communities, through service and community-based work and giving families the chance to participate in campus events beyond first-year programs and graduation.

Sustaining ties between the college experience and these deep social connections can have lasting positive effects not only on students’ achievement but also on their physical health, according to previous research by Destin.

It’s also important to build connections with other low income or first-generation students because many are grappling with their own changing identity and struggling to fit in. As they grow increasingly disconnected from their home communities, they are also likely to feel excluded or alienated from the higher socioeconomic college environment, the researchers wrote.

A physical community space for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds provides regular opportunities to connect with students from similar backgrounds as they navigate a culture dominated by students from wealthier backgrounds. It can also serve as a hub for emergency financial assistance, mental health or other resources.

“These connections are essential to exploring and co-developing ways of being within the university environment while maintaining a sense of personal authenticity and rootedness in community,” Vossoughi said.