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.”