Black students who participated in a brief exercise during the transition to college to allay worries about belonging showed improvements in their life trajectory a decade after the exercise took place, according to a new study.
The research, published April 29 in the journal Science Advances, examined the long-term effects of a one-hour, one-on-one exercise that black and white students completed during their first year of college.
The one-hour intervention conveyed how “worries about belonging and difficulties in the transition to college are common,” said Shannon Brady, PhD ’17, lead author of the study, which took place while she was a graduate student and postdoctoral scholar at Stanford.
“Students from racially minoritized backgrounds enter college aware that their group is underrepresented in higher education and that how people treat them can be shaped by negative stereotypes and discrimination,” said Brady, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. “This reasonably leads students to worry about whether they belong—worries that can be exacerbated when they experience social adversities, like a bad grade on a test or getting left out of a social outing.”
The social-belonging intervention was designed to take some of the sting out of those experiences, Brady said. Past research has shown that the intervention improved black students’ grades in college, improved their health and bolstered their feelings of belonging.
In following up with the students some 10 years after the exercise took place, the researchers expected that any continued benefits of the intervention would be greater among black participants. Indeed, they found that black students who completed the exercise reported greater career satisfaction and professional success, better psychological well-being, and greater leadership in their communities than those who completed a control exercise.
“A change at a critical time can have really lasting benefits,” said the study’s senior author, Gregory Walton, the Michael Forman University Fellow in Undergraduate Education and an associate professor of psychology at Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences. “Especially if that change allays a concern that prevents people from integrating into an important community like college.”
The study’s other authors were Geoffrey Cohen, the James G. March Professor in Organizational Studies in Education and Business and a professor of psychology at Stanford, and Shoshana Jarvis, a graduate student at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley.
This study marks the third time researchers have revisited this group of students, who participated in the intervention beginning in 2003.
One follow-up study found that black students who had the intervention scored higher grades one semester later. When another study showed that the benefits persisted through the end of college, the researchers wondered whether benefits could last beyond that.
It took the researchers two years to track down the original participants. Eventually 80 of the original 92 completed the follow-up survey, reporting on their lives seven to 11 years after they completed the exercise as first-year college students.
Well after the original exercise, black participants were still seeing benefits. Those who received the intervention rated their potential to succeed in their careers in the future as 16 percentile points higher than their counterparts in the control group. They also rated their general psychological well-being almost a full point higher on a seven-point scale.
Sixty-eight percent of the black adults in the treatment group also reported holding a leadership position in a non-work community group (often outreach, service or cultural groups), compared with just 35 percent of people in the control group.
“The intervention gave students the message that they do belong and can succeed,” said Cohen, who developed the intervention with Walton. “Getting this message credibly at a key transition can be liberating.”
The importance of mentors
How could an hour-long experience in the first year of college improve people’s lives a decade later? It wasn’t that the students frequently recalled the experience throughout their lives. Only 8 percent of students who received the intervention as freshman even remembered message as seniors, and just 14 percent attributed any of their success in college to the session.
Instead, the researchers suspect the intervention early in college helped prevent students from inferring that they didn’t belong after a bad day. “It sapped everyday negative events, like critical feedback or feeling homesick, of a global threatening meaning,” Walton said.
That, in turn, changed students’ social reality. A key finding of the new study was that the students who had the intervention were more likely to reach out to professors, go to office hours and participate in class. This in turn increased the likelihood that they would develop mentor relationships.
Mentors—not grades—seemed to lead to the long-term benefits, Brady said. “Black students, absent intervention, were less likely to access these powerful relationships. And if you didn’t have strong mentorship, you were less well off as an adult.”
Sending a message
The researchers said that a major takeaway for college leaders is that, while making efforts to remove structural barriers, colleges and universities also need to be thoughtful about the message they send to students.
“We want to convey pride and enthusiasm, but also that starting college is a difficult transition,” said Walton. “It’s our coming-of-age ritual in the United States. There will be times you feel you don’t belong. That’s normal, and that’s OK.”
He cautioned against giving the intervention too much credit for the students’ success. “All our intervention did was to help to make the system work in the way it was intended,” he said. “But it was students who did the hard work of building relationships, navigating challenges, and gaining skills. And it was professors, staff members, and others who responded as mentors and supports.”
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