Black university students encounter several obstacles, such as low levels of institutional support, stereotypes about their capabilities, and microaggressions, during their academic years. Past studies have used encouragement interventions (e.g., motivating someone to overcome an obstacle) to improve Black students’ academic and mental health outcomes. However, the encouragement Black students received in past studies typically used standardized messages for all participants1 and did not specifically address how they could persist through their academic concerns based on their unique cultural context. I conducted a Black Encouragement Intervention in which Black university students read and wrote encouragement letters from/to other Black students with the same race-and-gender identities.
Do Encouragement Interventions Improve Black University Students Academic & Mental Health Outcomes?
- After engaging with the intervention, Black university students reported increased levels of self-esteem and academic self-efficacy, as well as decreased levels of racialized stress.
- The encouragement intervention led to a larger reduction of psychological distress and depression among participants with lower levels of positive views about Black individuals.
- The encouragement intervention resulted in an increase in satisfaction with one’s gender identity for men but not women.
- In sum, this study demonstrates some preliminary evidence for the potential for culturally targeted intervention to Black students’ mental health and academic progress.
Black university students face several challenges while pursuing their degrees, such as low social and institutional support.2 Consequently, these students report feeling unwelcomed, stereotyped, and micro-aggressed. This process may lead to various issues, including psychological distress, internalized racism, and decreased academic achievement.3,4 This adverse environment may also impact how Black students view their racial identity. Though past studies have examined the extent to which general interventions increase Black college students’ well-being and academic achievement,5 these interventions do not capture unique cultural contexts (e.g., incorporating their race and gender identities) that could better benefit Black students’ academic and mental health outcomes. Additionally, these interventions have not taken an intersectional approach, and as a result, disregard differences within Black communities that result in disparate experiences and outcomes for Black women and men.6
Black Encouragement Intervention
The multifaceted Black Encouragement Intervention is a culturally informed approach that enables each group to encourage and receive encouragement from others with the same intersecting identity (e.g., Black women).7First, Black university students write about the challenges they face in school due to their specific identities. Second, students provide advice to other Black students on how to overcome similar challenges in the form of race-and-gender specific encouragement letters. Third, they list their most important values and explain how these are consistent with the message in their encouragement letter. Fourth, students audio record themselves emphatically reading their letter as though they were reading it to another Black student to further internalize their encouragement message.
After engaging with the intervention, Black university students reported increased levels of self-esteem and academic self-efficacy, as well as decreased levels of racialized stress. The encouragement intervention resulted in an increase in satisfaction with gender identity for men but not women. In sum, the intervention may help improve Black students’ mental health outcomes, academic success, and racial identity because it places their lived experience at the center of this process. This intervention may be a promising way to address Black students’ well-being in a holistic fashion.
- Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., ... & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 804-824. doi:10.1037/a0033906.
- Keels, M. (2013). Getting them enrolled is only half the battle: College success as a function of race or ethnicity, gender, and class. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 83, 310–322. doi:10.1111/ajop .12033.
- Prelow, H. M., Mosher, C. E., & Bowman, M. A. (2006). Perceived racial discrimination, social support, and psychological adjustment among African American college students. Journal of Black Psychology, 32, 442–454. doi:10.1177/0095798406292677.
- Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447–1451. doi:10.1126/science.1198364.
- The relations among general and race-related stressors and psychoeducational adjustment in Black students attending predominantly white institutions. Journal of Black Studies, 34, 599–618. doi:10.1177/ 0021934703259168.
- Collins, P. H. (2004). Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism. New York, NY: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780203309506
Zounlome, N. O. O., Wong, Y. J., (Accepted for Publication). Utilizing radical healing and educational interventions to promote Black Students’ holistic wellbeing. In J. L. Chin, Y. E. Garcia, & A. Blume (Ed.), The Psychology of Inequity, Volume 3: Strategies and Solutions. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.
Meet the Researcher
Nelson O. O. Zounlome, M.S.Ed. is a first-generation college student, child of immigrants, and native of South Bend, IN. He is also a former McNair Scholar, Ford Foundation Fellow, Herman B. Wells Graduate Fellow, Counseling Psychologist, and Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky. Nelson earned bachelor's degrees in Psychology & Sociology and a master's degree in Educational Psychology from IU. He studies academic persistence and mental wellness to promote holistic healing among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Nelson is also the founder of Liberate The Block Collective, LLC; an organization dedicated to helping BIPOC Communities liberate themselves and achieve their wildest dreams.
You can learn more about Nelson’s work at https://www.nelsonzounlome.com/ and find information about his book, Letters to My Sisters & Brothers: Practical Advice to Successfully Navigate Academia as a Student of Color at https://www.letterstomysistersandbrothers.com/.