In one of my classes, we read an article about students who fail to complete college.
In the article, they followed the journey of one young girl who was the first in her family to go to college. Raised by a single mother who wasn’t able to go to college after becoming pregnant in her teenage years, the girl was determined to make a life for herself that her mother never had access to. The college she was attending- a well-respected one in Texas- had decided to finally tackle an issue that universities all across the countries have been noticing for decades: students from underprivileged households tend to drop out and never receive their diploma.
What they found in their studies is that what mattered for graduation- more than how well their high schools prepared them for college, more than their performance on tests, more than the tutoring or other resources made available to them – was how they felt about themselves.
A common trend in students (largely ones who came from underprivileged households where they were the first family member to attend college) was arriving with confidence, hitting a bump in the road like a failed test or a poor grade on an assignment, and immediately believing that they “weren’t good enough” to be in higher education. For these students, those kinds of bumps in the road, which would be discouraging but not the end-of-the-line for most other students, proved what they had been told they’re entire lives:
You’re not ready for this.
And it’s not that colleges aren’t offering enough resources for students who struggle academically: it’s that they’re not offering the right ones. Researchers at a university in Texas found that placing students in remedial courses at the beginning of their college experience, placing them in mandatory tutoring sessions based on “underperformance,” or otherwise singling out students who weren’t performing academically didn’t help improve their chances of graduation. In fact, it did the opposite: it sent these students the message that they were right, they weren’t good enough.
They found that they key to significantly decreasing a student’s risk of dropping out of college was making them feel like they belonged there. By implementing community-building workshops, offering and promoting resources targeted at all students (not just those labeled as “underprepared”), and reminding all students of their capabilities and worth, the university was able to drastically increase their student retention rates.
Whether or not you’ve gone to college, or come from an underprivileged household, we’ve all heard that little voice in the back of our head that says “You’re not good enough.”
New experiences dredge up our deepest insecurities. I’m reminded of my first time taking a yoga class: it was hot, it was loud, and it was crowded. Despite the fact that it was clearly advertised as an “all-levels class,” I was absolutely certain that everyone else in the room new exactly what they were doing, and I was the one lagging behind. This feeling continued throughout my first few months of practice: whenever I didn’t understand a cue, or found myself standing on the wrong foot, or had a teacher correct me, I felt that little voice in the back of my head say, “I told you so.”
In fact, these kinds of new experiences cause us to seek out validations for our insecurities. We’re on red alert for even the smallest signs that “we’re not good enough.” That’s why one failed test in the first few months of college feels so devastating to a new student (especially one who comes from a family that’s never been able to experience higher education before)- the whole world has been telling them they’re not good enough, and now they’ve subconsciously trained themselves to find the things that prove them right.
Reading this article further proved to me something I’ve come to believe in the past few years of my life: your mindset is an incredibly powerful tool.
You can get all the extra tutoring for school or attend all the extra workshops for yoga you want, but if you aren’t made to believe that you’re worthy of success, you’re not going to find it.
The university in Texas that performed these studies completely revamped their tutoring resources for underperforming students. For one thing, they stopped indicating that these resources were specially designed for targeting “underperformance.” They tied the programs in with financial aid: if you wanted financial help, you had to attend this workshop. No mention of grades or worth. For another, they treated the students not as burdens, but as adults gathering for the privilege of higher education. Students wore business attire, were treated not as people who had to be “pulled up to standards,” but as people who were being given training for the challenges of academia.
And instead of just offering math help, they also offered resources for students to build their communities and protect their mental health. Students weren’t just given the tools to learn academic material: they were given the tools to succeed in life and all of its challenges.
This kind of revamping seems so obvious in hindsight, particularly if you put it into the context of almost any other situation. Imagine you’re a yogi, and you really want to learn how to do a handstand. You can go to a workshop with the most knowledgeable teacher who will explain to you the mechanics, physical requirements, and needed exercises to achieve a handstand, but unless you believe that you are capable of someday achieving this goal, you’re not going to find the motivation to do so. In fact, the first few times you fail to do a handstand- even with all of this helpful information- you’re going to feel like a failure.
You’re going to hear the little voice in the back of your head say, “Yup- you were right. You aren’t good enough.”
Changing your mindset is a ridiculously challenging task if you’re going against the entire world. If everyone in your life, if all of the media and authority you’re exposed to tells you that because of your gender, race, social class, or any other characteristic you’re not good enough, you’re going to be hard-pressed to overcome that. While it’s not impossible to do, it’s one of the most challenging obstacles you’ll ever face.
That’s why it’s our responsibility to prevent everyone we can from hearing these messages.
We have to become the beacons we wish we would have had. We have to ensure that our children, our friends, our students never receive the message that they can’t accomplish what they want, and work, to accomplish. We need to be the everyday equivalent of those resources offered by the university in Texas: the people who offer support not by forcing material and information down other’s throats, but by reminding them that they can handle the challenges that come their way. We need to make a positive, confident mindset something that is natural and accessible in a culture that seems to promote anything but.
Words are incredibly powerful. What you say to other people matters, and if we give people reason to believe that the voice in their head is right, we are only contributing to the problems that plague vast swaths of our communities every day. Every interaction you have with another human being is an opportunity to lift them up, to remind them that they matter and they can do this.
Just a few weeks ago, I ate breakfast with a girl I ran into in the dining hall. We got to talking about grades and school and how we were handling the transition. At some point, she said, “I just wish I was the kind of person who did their homework and studied.”
Without thinking about it, I said back, “But you can be that person.”
I’ve never seen anyone’s eyes light up that way before.