One of the key differences between well-resourced students and students of lower socioeconomic status is a “resilience gap,” finds one EAB study.
Many low-income, first-generation, and minority students are vulnerable to doubting their ability to succeed in college. These students question their place at university and may take any one misstep as a sign that they shouldn’t be there, according to EAB’s Student Success Insights Blog.
However, recent studies suggest that positive messaging can help students foster a sense of belonging and build the confidence to persist. Here are a few of my favorite words of encouragement that every student needs to hear.
Message 1: “You can do this”
One of the biggest barriers students impose on themselves is believing they’re not cut out for college. Higher ed leaders can help students break a self-defeating attitude by encouraging them to see early setbacks as challenges to overcome, rather than proof of inferiority, recommends Annie Yi, a student success researcher at EAB.
A positive message of “you can do this and you do measure up” can motivate students who struggle with self-doubt, says Donisha Barnes, a retention advisor at the D.C. College Access Program.
Message 2: “You’re not alone”
You can help students feel less alone by sharing your own struggles, writes Christina Hubbard, community college expert at EAB and former advisor. Hubbard, who became a parent at 16, recalls how sharing her experience as a teen parent helped her connect with student-parents on campus.
“I was advising a young mother who was struggling in her second semester of developmental coursework… It was clear that she didn’t believe I understood her struggles… [and] my advice was falling on deaf ears,” writes Hubbard. “The impasse ended when I told her my story. She realized that I knew the fear that caring for a child at home could mean failure in college.”
The student “had newfound trust in my advice. She was more open in our meetings, and this allowed me to offer her more targeted support,” explains Hubbard. Sharing how you “overcame some of life’s hurdles can invite that same openness from [your] students,” she argues.
And if you haven’t experienced the same struggle as your student, you’ve probably met—and helped—others who have, Hubbard points out. Share the stories of others who have overcome challenges “so [your students] can see that they, too, can succeed.”
Message 3: “You belong”
First-generation students tend to feel as if they don’t belong, even after they’ve been accepted to an institution. However, research shows that with encouragement and mentorship, these students can become more confident in their abilities and successfully graduate.
Some colleges are tapping in first-generation faculty members and administrators to connect their student counterparts with campus resources. When campus leaders show pride in their first-gen experience, it encourages students to seek guidance and makes them feel that they belong, says Janet Napolitano, president at the University of California.
Message 4: “It’s okay to fail”
College can be an ideal space for students to make their own mistakes, says Jennifer Sager, a mental health expert. Students who struggle or even fail will likely come away from the experience knowing more about themselves, she notes.
Failure is also critical to build student resilience, argues Tim Davis, the executive director for student resilience and leadership development at the University of Virginia. According to Davis, when students go beyond their comfort zones, they learn to build resilience.
Message 5: “We love you”
To engage and support students, faculty must express how much they care for them, argues Matthew Wright, an assistant physics professor at Adelphi University.
Wright explains that he frequently tells his students he loves them. Showering his class with appreciation and encouragement can make students from different backgrounds and experiences feel more at home, notes Wright, who was named the university’s 2015 professor of the year.
(Elmes, Times Higher Education, 12/1/16; McLaren, Washington Post, 8/21/17; Musso, VOA “Learning English,” 10/29/16; (Steinberg, Washington Post, 9/13/17; UC press release, 9/1/17; Wright, Inside Higher Ed, 11/9/17)