A simple exercise on belonging helps black college students years later

Black freshmen who participated in the training had higher life satisfaction as young adults

Black students who complete a one-hour exercise helping them feel like they belong in college are more likely than peers to seek out mentors, which helps foster professional and personal satisfaction years later.

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A simple, one-hour exercise that helps black students feel like they belong in college can pay off. Even a decade later, students who took the training reported higher levels of personal and professional satisfaction than their peers.

The findings, reported April 29 in Science Advances, indicate that benefits from a “social-belonging” intervention endure, says Christopher Rozek, an education researcher at Stanford University who was not involved with this study. Though the study is small, involving a few dozen graduate students from a single university, Rozek says the findings are exciting. “It is the first really long-term follow-up with this sort of intervention.”

Black students entering college, who are aware of negative racial stereotypes and are underrepresented in higher education, can experience uncertainty about belonging, says study coauthor Shannon Brady, a social psychologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. That uncertainty can cause some black students to see commonplace challenges — a bad grade or a spat with a friend — as a confirmation of those negative feelings. Consequently, such students become less likely to seek help when needed, which can hurt their academic performance and overall well-being. Social-belonging interventions aim to break that negative loop.

In the early to mid-2000s, researchers recruited 92 college freshmen – split almost evenly between black and white students — at a selective East Coast university. Forty-three students in one group read partially fictionalized vignettes from a diverse group of upperclassmen describing how their sense of belonging at school increased over time. The upperclassmen emphasized their efforts to reach out to professors and classmates for help. Participants then wrote an essay reflecting on their own experiences. The 49 students in the control group also read vignettes and wrote an essay, but learned about how upperclassmen adjusted to physical challenges, such as navigating campus and bad weather.

The first indication that the intervention helped longer term came at graduation: Black students in the intervention group had higher grade point averages than black students in the control group, the researchers reported in 2011. And these students had halved the racial achievement gap in GPA between white and black students in the study. In an earlier pilot project, the researchers had also shown that black students who received the intervention became more likely to attend office hours and e-mail professors for help. The intervention did not affect outcomes for white students.

Now, Brady and colleagues show black students in the intervention group continued to see benefits after graduation. The researchers tracked down 80 of the original 92 participants. In an online survey, respondents, average age 27, were asked to rate their potential to succeed in the future relative to other students in their graduating class. Black participants in the intervention group rated their potential to succeed as the same or above 69 percent of their peers; blacks in the control group said they expected to do better than 53 percent. Those in the intervention also rated their life satisfaction one point higher on average on a seven-point scale.

And almost 70 percent of black participants who received the intervention reported holding a community leadership position — a sign of a continued sense of belonging — compared with 35 percent of black participants in the control group.

These differences could not be explained by the intervention group’s higher grades, or even directly by the original one-hour exercise itself, as few participants recalled it. Instead, the researchers found a statistical link between those successes and securing a mentor in college: Eighty-four percent of black students in the intervention group had such a relationship; only 43 percent of black students in the control group did. 

The initial intervention appears to have triggered a snowball effect. “Having that different lens on the world leads you to take different actions and very likely end up with a different [life] experience,” Brady says.   

Looking ahead to next fall, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could make it harder for marginalized students to find their footing, especially if classes are offered remotely, Brady says. In previous work, though, she and colleagues showed that social-belonging interventions can be delivered online with positive, though slightly weaker, results in students’ first year of college. More than 50 colleges and universities use an online version of the program.

Even if classes are taught online, colleges can still facilitate virtual relationships between students and faculty, Brady says. “These relationships seem to be really, really important.”  

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