May and June herald spring flowers and graduations—lots and lots of graduations! I have been a faculty member at Emory University for more than 30 years and, for me, graduation is an annual event. Each year I celebrate with my graduating seniors, sharing joys at their accomplishments and tears at seeing them leave. I understand that, although I attend graduation every year, for my students and their families, it is a singular life-defining event, it is a culmination of great hopes and heartaches along the way to a successful launching into the world.
This year, as I celebrated graduations, I was reminded of the very different pathways that each student takes, the different stories that each of them brings to this moment. This year, I attended the graduation ceremony of a close family friend, who I will call “Dave.” Dave has an amazing story. He faced great challenges in his early years, a mother who deserted him and a father who ended up in prison. His aunt by marriage took him in as a teenager. He was struggling academically, having difficulty with reading comprehension and vocabulary. Yet just 10 years later, Dave graduated college with flying colors. His is a story of perseverance and redemption, certainly a story of his own hard work, but also a story that would not have been told if not for all the people who loved him and validated his self-worth, and challenged him to discover his own inner strengths. How do we help our youth to develop these kinds of stories?
Certainly, families matter. I often talk about the research from The Family Narratives Lab in this blog that shows how important telling and sharing family stories of strength and resilience are for adolescents. But for so many of our young people, who face especially difficult circumstances and challenges, and are often one of the few in their family that even have the opportunity to go to college, where do they hear these kinds of stories? Where do they hear and internalize stories about the core value of education and of their own academic abilities?
Research by Moin Syed, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, has examined the often difficult transition to college, especially for underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students. His research shows that many of the stories new college students tell are not stories of resilience but stories of difficulty, especially around issues of discrimination and feelings of not belonging. These are not stories that build strength but stories that tear down. This can be thought of in terms of what Claude Steele labeled “stereotype threat”—when negative stereotypes are activated about the self, we actually perform worse because we are so stressed about the possibility of confirming the negative stereotype. Many of these stereotypes are implicit; we and others are unaware that the threat is even being made, but subtly, the message gets through that we do not belong.
And this is where an amazingly simple intervention can help. Self-affirmation. A study published in Science asked some at-risk students to engage in a brief writing task at the beginning of the fall semester—to simply write a brief paragraph about an important value, such as family or friendship, or being good at math. One paragraph. Once. At the beginning of the academic year. A sort of booster shot.
At the end of the year, these students, who participated in this booster shot, showed significantly higher academic performance overall than a control group of students who also wrote briefly but about something that was unimportant. This effect has now been replicated many times. It works for school kids, and for college students. This brief writing exercise is a powerful reminder about what is important to our sense of self, to the core of who we are, and it helps buffer us against threat to that sense of self. Self-affirmation exercises are not stories in the usual sense; they do not tell of specific experiences, or follow a plot line. But they are similar to the kind of self-reflection that we see in redemptive stories, the contemplation of what our experiences mean for our understanding of who we are, the kind of narrative meaning-making that we know is related to positive personal growth.
So, I return to the story of Dave, who just graduated college. When he came to live with his aunt, he began keeping a journal. He wrote about what he was feeling, about new experiences and especially about things he could not yet understand. By writing, he became a better reader and a better writer. And in his writing, he also affirmed who he was. Self-affirmation of core values helps shape a redemptive personal story, and Dave’s story emerged over many years to become a story of resilience and strength.
At Dave’s graduation, the speaker, an alumnus of the college who is now an academic dean, told his own story of struggle, one of many children of a teenage mother on welfare. His story was also a story of affirming core values, the love of family, the strength of a religious community, the value of learning. This speaker not only went on to get multiple graduate degrees, but all of his siblings and his mother also graduated college!
Graduation is a once in a lifetime event for the graduate, but is embedded within cycles of stories within stories within stories. Certainly, some of us grow up with more advantages than others, but all of us struggle, all of us feel threatened sometimes, and all of us must work to affirm who we are, what we believe, and what we want for ourselves and others. Whether you or your loved one is the first in your family to graduate, or come from a long line of graduates, graduation is a time to reflect on how cycles of affirmation build strength across generations, how one generation affirms the next generation to create a family and community history of resilience and accomplishment. So, this graduation season, celebrate this remarkable singular accomplishment through stories that affirm core values across the generations, values that build strength and resilience as our graduates make their way into the world.
Syed, M. (2012). College students’ storytelling of ethnicity-related events in the academic domain. Journal of Adolescent Research, 27(2), 203-230.
Steele, C. M. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: And other clues to how stereotypes affect us (issues of our time). WW Norton & Company.
Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. science, 313(5791), 1307-1310.