A brief social-belonging intervention in college improves adult outcomes for black Americans

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Science Advances  29 Apr 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 18, eaay3689
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay3689
  • Fig. 1 Conceptual model.

    (A) For students from socially disadvantaged groups, awareness of negative stereotypes and a history and current reality of group-based disadvantage can give rise to worries about belonging. This belonging uncertainty may fester in the face of common everyday adversities in college and ultimately undermine important outcomes in college. (B) The social-belonging intervention offers students a nonthreatening lens through which to view daily adversities. It can thereby sustain engagement with school and improve the college experience, especially for students from disadvantaged groups who disproportionately bear the burden of belonging uncertainty. The present study examines whether the better trajectory fostered by the intervention can improve students’ outcomes after college (C) and whether gains in life outcomes are statistically mediated by postintervention grades and/or college mentorship.

  • Fig. 2 Graphs of primary results.

    Primary outcomes 7 to 11 years after intervention by race and condition for composites and the individual scales that comprise them (see Table 1). Error bars represent ±1 SE. The y axis represents the full range of each scale or, for variables without a fixed scale, a range that captures nearly all of the variation in responses. †P < 0.10, *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, and ***P < 0.001.

  • Fig. 3 College mentorship outcome and mediation models.

    (A) Self-reported college mentorship by race and condition. Error bars represent ±1 SE. (B) For black participants, college mentorship mediated intervention effects on composite career satisfaction and success and on general psychological well-being. Mediation was observed (α = 0.05) if the bootstrapped 95% CI of the indirect effect did not include zero, which occurred in both cases. *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, and ***P < 0.001. ns, not significant.

  • Table 1 Primary outcomes and college mentorship mediator.

    See Measures section of Materials and Methods for greater detail on the individual measures, including citations for established scales.

    CompositeIndividual measuresNo. of itemsSample item
    Career satisfaction and success
    (individual measures standardized
    and averaged; α = 0.77)
    Job satisfaction (α = 0.89)8“I enjoy going to work.” 1 = strongly disagree;
    6 = strongly agree
    Workplace belonging uncertainty
    (r = 0.52)
    2“When something bad happens, I feel that maybe I
    don’t belong at my workplace.” 1 = strongly
    disagree; 6 = strongly agree
    Self-rated percentile success to date1“Using a percentile rank, assess your current level of
    success compared with other [school] alumni from your
    class.” 0% to 100%
    Self-rated percentile potential to
    succeed in the future
    1“Using a percentile rank, assess your potential,
    compared with other [school] alumni from your
    class, to succeed in the future.” 0% to 100%
    General psychological well-being
    (individual measures standardized
    and averaged; α = 0.77)
    Subjective happiness (α = 0.89)4“In general, I consider myself...” 1 = not a happy
    person; 7 = a very happy person
    Life satisfaction (α = 0.80)5“In most ways my life is close to my ideal.”
    1 = strongly disagree; 7 = strongly agree
    Perception of life stress as
    overwhelming (α = 0.85)
    4“In the last month, how often have you felt that you
    were unable to control the important things in your
    life?” 1 = never; 5 = very often
    Physical health (individual measures
    standardized and averaged;
    α = 0.71)
    Self-reported general health (α = 0.80)5“My health is excellent.” 1 = definitely false;
    5 = definitely true
    Sick days (reverse coded)1“In the past 3 months, how many days of work or
    school did you miss due to illness?” open response:
    Doctor visits (reverse coded)1“In the past 3 months, how many times did you go
    to the doctor?” open response: numeric
    Community involvement and
    (summed to yield 0 to 16 scale)
    Number of areas very involved in (up
    to eight)
    2“Since [you received your undergraduate degree],
    to what extent have you participated in [eight
    different types of activities, e.g., sports/games,
    cultural/identity organizations, religious,
    professional]?”count of activities involved in “a lot”
    Number of areas in which a leadership
    position was held (up to eight)
    “Have you held a leadership position in any of these
    activities?” count of activities indicated “yes”
    College mentorship (individual
    measures standardized and
    averaged; α = 0.61)
    Had a general mentor during college1“While you were an undergraduate, was there
    anyone associated with [school], other than fellow
    undergraduates, to whom you could turn for
    support, advice, or encouragement when you faced
    a problem or difficulty in or out of school?” yes/no
    Had an academic mentor during
    1“While you were an undergraduate, did anyone
    associated with [school], other than fellow
    undergraduates, take a special interest in you and
    your academic development?

    Whether academic mentorship
    continued after college
    1After having identified an academic mentor they
    had in college, participants were asked: “When did
    you receive mentorship from [this college]?”
    selected “mentorship continued after graduation”
    or did not
    Importance of “most meaningful”
    college mentorship
    1“How important to you was the [most meaningful
    mentorship you received during college]?” 1 = not
    very important; 5 = extremely important
  • Table 2 Mentorship stories.

    Illustrative examples of participants’ open-ended descriptions of their most meaningful mentor relationships during college.

    Control condition
    Black woman (from main text)I wouldn’t say I received any mentorship at [school] - not for lack of interested professors, but I didn’t really seek it.
    Black manAs a student who spend most of my life living abroad, having a freshman counselor who understood the challenges
    associated with adjusting to life both from a social aspect and an academic aspect in the US was key. He helped to
    me to see and adjust to new ways of thinking about problems, skills that I will need moving forward.
    Black manI don’t think I necessarily had a mentor-mentee relationship with anyone at [school]. I definitely looked up to and
    sought out advice from older brothers in my fraternity, but it wasn’t until having graduated from [school] that I
    realized the importance of meaningful mentorship relationships.
    White womanI had a very deep relationship with my senior thesis adviser. One summer, while I was doing an internship in Greece in
    a field related to my studies, my mentor came to visit me all the way from the United States. Given his old age, I
    think this was a true sign of how much he cared. He always took interest in how am I balancing academia and
    athletics and took an effort to get to know me personally.
    White manMy senior year I had been struggling with some personal issues. The Dean of my college took a personal interest in my
    predicament and was very supportive. He provided academic advice and post-graduate employment assistance.
    White manA lot of professors, one in particular, influenced the way I thought. They made me smarter and they helped me write
    well. I loved the material, though, not the professors, and I left [school] without mentors.
    Social-belonging treatment condition
    Black man (from main text)The first semester of my freshman year was very difficult for me. I was struggling academically, didn’t feel like I fit in,
    and was unhappy with my major. I really did not feel like I belonged at [school]. At the halfway point in that
    semester I was totally miserable. Around that time, I began to spend more time speaking with my freshman
    counselor. We really bonded, and she helped me to realize that I did belong at [school]. Thanks to her, I was able to
    connect better with my peers and perform better academically. We’ve kept in touch ever since.
    Black manI had several professors with whom I had either taken multiple classes and/or worked on independent projects. Those
    professors offered me advice on academic and professional development at and after [school] and continue to be in
    touch with me. I met with the on various occasions during my senior year to talk about my life and my interests.
    Since graduating from [school], I returned one year later to meet with those professors individually to help decide
    potential next steps for myself. I was uncertain whether I wanted to pursue [career], [career], [career], or [career] as a
    career. My professor mentors not only spoke with me in person when I visited [location of school] but also put me in
    connect with other people.
    Black womanOne of my most powerful mentors was professor in [my major] department. For some reason, he took a particular
    interest in me and we met often informally for lunch to talk about kinds of things -- current events, my career and of
    course my research. We stayed in touch (though I should e-mail him more) and he ended up writing me a rec for
    grad school several years after I graduated.
    Black womanOne of the most meaningful mentorships came from my Math professor. I started in basic mathematics, but was
    interested in [other related discipline]. However, on the first math mid-term, I almost failed the test. I went to speak
    to the professor and, when he learned I wanted to be an engineer, he said “well, basic calculus is the foundation of
    all engineering, so you’d better shape up”, or something like that. It actually really discouraged me at first. But, then I
    spoke with my mom and realized that I just needed to get back to basics. I started going to math tutor sessions…
    and also bought a basic geometry/trig book to help me remember the basics. In fact, the next two mid-terms, I
    scored the 3rd or 4th highest in the class and ended up acing calculus. Along the way, the professor saw my
    improvement and started mentoring me. He and I would talk after class, not just about the class, but more about
    life, in general, and my interest in engineering, specifically. He helped me tremendously and we stayed in touch,
    even as I left his class in the Spring. He nominated me for a scholarship and in general kept in touch with me
    throughout the next year, until he retired.
    White manMy professor, [name], has stayed in touch with me since I graduated and has helped me connect to various health
    policy experts….However, I wouldn’t say that I had one specific mentor who worked with me throughout all four
    years, but rather a series of professors who helped connect me to new resources….I had good relationships with
    several professors who offered several different pieces of advice that has helped me in my career.
    White womanI had a very good relationship with my college dean. He was easy-going and always available to chat if needed.
    Additionally, he remained objective when listening to questions/concerns. He made me feel important in the
    [school] community and also supported.

Supplementary Materials

  • Supplementary Materials

    A brief social-belonging intervention in college improves adult outcomes for black Americans

    Shannon T. Brady, Geoffrey L. Cohen, Shoshana N. Jarvis, Gregory M. Walton

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    • Supplementary Methods
    • Results
    • Fig. S1
    • Tables S1 to S9
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