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Looking Toward a Bright Future Can Change the Present for Low-Income Students

A new study shows imagining future success can help with facing everyday challenges for low-income college students.

For many low-income students, college is their first time away from home. That lack of preceding experience can make everyday stressors on campus much more difficult, and can lead to a general feeling of exclusion from the rest of one's peers. Fortunately, a new study offers a relatively simple solution: Imagine a success-filled future.

According to researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Southern California, setting a positive mindset can help low-income students, especially women, hurdle chronic psychological barriers. The study builds on previous bodies of literature that analyze student experiences on university campuses, particularly for those students who experience marginalization in certain social contexts or interactions.

"We found that how we frame our mindset going into the interaction helps ease the anxiety and lead toward more confidence in non-verbal interactions," says lead author Mesmin Destin, an associate professor at Northwestern University.

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In two experiments, the first involving 93 female students and the second expanded to include 185 students (101 of whom were female), the researchers surveyed participants through a demographic questionnaire, asking them to write about a future or past identity. In the questionnaire, students indicated their family household incomes. The future identity condition prompted participants to imagine themselves a few years after college as middle- to upper-class professionals. With that scenario in mind, participants were instructed to describe how this finance or status influences "how you will be perceived by others."

Prompts for past identity conditions looked a bit different. Instead, researchers asked participants to contemplate their experiences applying and planning for college back at home. Students had to then describe the ways in which their family's financial situation shaped how others perceived them.

Afterward, students engaged in a mock student-faculty interaction task, where they pretended to approach a professor in a one-on-one meeting. Following the interaction, the students had seven minutes to complete as many assessment questions as they could. These two evaluative measures aimed to capture whether the students confidently tackled or withdrew from the tasks ahead.

Destin describes certain interactions as particularly high-stakes. "Interactions that give students a positive connection with a faculty member are one of the strongest predictors of students actually feeling connected to the university versus just doing well there," he says. The study draws upon the idea of action-readiness, a key part in how a person draws the connection between identities they hold in a particular context and how they act.

Researchers analyzed body language during the mock interviews, as well as the students' ability to progress from one question to the next in the test, despite the difficulty of the questions. For example: Did students have expansive postures, or did they fidget? And did students move steadily through the test answering questions as best they could, or did they plod along, spending too much time on individual questions?

"Non-verbal behaviors are really important," Destin says. "A faculty member will remember the general impression of somebody based on how comfortable they seemed or how fluid the interaction." This fluidity, a result of imagining success, can go a long way for students trying to establish connections with professors and their peers.

There are lots of factors to consider to most effectively help students of marginalized identities navigate the rugged college landscape. This includes individual faculty and institutions carving out more time and energy for all students to have positive opportunities, in order to even out the playing field.

"When we start to think about what to do with all of this work, it's important to think about cohesive comprehensive strategies," Destin says. "Put them together and look at all the factors that are affecting student experience. Try to influence as many as possible in a really concerted way."