From Jennifer Schuster, Junior Administrative Analyst in the SFUSD Office of School Health Programs


After attending the SFUSD presentation on College and Career Readiness, I was reminded of Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine Article “Who Gets to Graduate” . [i]   This article demonstrates the power of self-doubt to derail even the most academically prepared student’s college and career dreams. My work supporting the Wellness Initiative in SFUSD allows me to witness the impact of promoting student health and well-being in a safe, supportive environment. Students who receive therapy, participate in support groups, and establish caring relationships with staff see improvements in their school attendance and grades. I hope to use this research to further expand the Wellness Program’s low-cost, high-impact interventions for supporting students.


While the article describes how many students periodically doubt whether they belong or have the ability to succeed, I found it very interesting that these negative feelings have particularly debilitating consequences for ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged students. In other words, members of groups that felt themselves to be under some special threat or scrutiny were especially susceptible to being sidelined by self-doubt. The researchers found that even brief, low-cost interventions could have an enormous impact. At-risk students who received these interventions were better equipped to let go of their doubts, overcome initial failures, and develop feelings of belonging and confidence that translated into academic success.


Here are a few excerpts from the article about the piloted UT online pre-orientation for freshmen:


               A “belonging” treatment group read messages from current students explaining that they felt alone and excluded when they arrived on campus, but then realized that everyone felt that way and eventually began to feel at home.

               A “mind-set” treatment group read an article about the malleability of the brain and how practice makes it grow new connections, and then read messages from current students stating that when they arrived at U.T., they worried about not being smart enough, but then learned that when they studied they grew smarter.

               A combination treatment group received a hybrid of the belonging and mind-set presentations.

               And finally, a control group read fairly banal reflections from current students stating that they were surprised by Austin’s culture and weather when they first arrived, but eventually they got used to them.


Students in each group were asked, after clicking through a series of a dozen or so web pages, to write their own reflections on what they’d read in order to help future students. The whole intervention took between 25 and 45 minutes for students to complete, and more than 90 percent of the incoming class completed it.


The disadvantaged students who had experienced the belonging and mind-set messages did significantly better: 86 percent of them had completed 12 credits or more by Christmas. They had cut the gap between themselves and the advantaged students in half.


Yeager believes that the interventions are not in fact changing students’ minds — they are simply keeping them from over interpreting discouraging events that might happen in the future.


Every college freshman — rich or poor, white or minority, first-generation or legacy — experiences academic setbacks and awkward moments when they feel they don’t belong. But white students and wealthy students and students with college-graduate parents tend not to take those moments too seriously or too personally. Sure, they still feel bad when they fail a test or get in a fight with a roommate or are turned down for a date. But in general, they don’t interpret those setbacks as a sign that they don’t belong in college or that they’re not going to succeed there.


It is only students facing the particular fears and anxieties and experiences of exclusion that come with being a minority — whether by race or by class — who are susceptible to this problem. Those students often misinterpret temporary setbacks as a permanent indication that they can’t succeed or don’t belong at U.T. For those students, the intervention can work as a kind of inoculation. And when, six months or two years later, the germs of self-doubt try to infect them, the lingering effect of the intervention allows them to shrug off those doubts exactly the way the advantaged students do.


*Jennifer Schuster pulls out passages from the article that she found impactful and provides her take on the content.

[i] Tough, P. (2014). “Who Gets to Graduate?” The New York Times.

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