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Student Well-Being Opinion

Experiences Are Assets: Teachers Can Help Marginalized Students Recognize Their Strengths

By Ivan A. Hernandez — December 08, 2021 2 min read
How do I help students from historically marginalized groups reflect on their background positively?
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How do I help students from historically marginalized groups reflect on their identities in a positive light?

Teachers can make a big difference by encouraging young people to think about their backgrounds in a new way. Here’s something I wrote recently about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

I’m not smart enough ... I don’t have the experiences they’re looking for … I’m not qualified.

That’s what I told my mentor when he encouraged me to apply for psychology Ph.D. programs. I was a Latinx first-generation college student from a working-class immigrant family. I thought there was absolutely no way I could get in.

Troubled that I held these beliefs, my mentor explained that it is precisely because of my diverse identity and lived experiences that I would benefit the scientific community.

Now, I’m a doctoral candidate studying the psychological factors that influence students throughout their education. I’ve learned that students from historically marginalized groups commonly encounter these types of limiting beliefs about who they are from society. The difference is that I had someone to support me to think in a different way.

My mentor’s words shifted the way that I thought about my background and identity. I started asking myself new questions: What unique strengths have I developed from my life experiences, and how does this make me an asset to society? How can I use these strengths to help me succeed?

In my research, I encourage students from historically marginalized backgrounds to reflect on the unique knowledge, skills, and perspectives that they have gained throughout their life, including those that result from their experiences with adversity. Students who engage in this reflection come to recognize that they are assets to their schools and society. This shift also makes them more likely to persist in the face of academic difficulty.

For example, one middle school student in my study wrote: “My parents have always been hard workers. My dad has two jobs and my mom has one. I have learned to be resourceful of my surroundings because they usually don’t have time to help me. I think that because of this, I will become inventive, like an inventor or scientist.”

In noting what they’ve gained from their backgrounds and identities, students see the value in their life experiences and how these can be an asset, not a liability. Forging a positive link between their identity and education can increase a sense of self-worth and lead to greater motivation in challenging environments—just as my conversation with my mentor did for me.

Try answering the following questions for yourself and encouraging the young people in your life to do the same: What about you has been overlooked or undervalued? What strengths have you gained from your unique life experiences? How can you use these abilities to help you achieve your goals—and help the world?

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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