Psychologist's research focuses on power of mentoring in education

Supportive relationships with relatives, community members, and educators can help to level the playing field for first-generation students, according to a new study by researchers from Dominican University of California and Johns Hopkins University.

Naturally occurring mentoring relationships between young people and adults already in their lives may be a more practical avenue for educational success than formal programs designed to support first-generation college goers, said Dr. Veronica Fruiht, assistant professor of psychology at Dominican University of California. Dr. Fruiht co-authored the study with Dr. Thomas Chan from Johns Hopkins University. The study appears in the American Journal of Community Psychology.

While earlier studies have demonstrated the benefits of formal mentoring programs for first-generation students, very little previous research has considered how first-generation students seek and gain support from informal, naturally occurring mentors.

The study explored the role involved adults play in first-generation college goers’ educational outcomes by examining data from 4,181 participants of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent and Adult Health. Data were used to test differences in support received first-generation, continuing-generation, and non-college goers.

“The first-generation students who had someone who took an active role in their lives performed more like continuing generation students,” said Fruiht, who joined Dominican’s Psychology Department in 2016. “Our findings suggest that these mentors can serve as compensatory resources to first-generation students, making academic and retention outcomes for involved first generation students look more like those of continuing generation students.”

The results showed that having a mentor was more beneficial to young people whose parents did not attend college than for those with at least one parent who is a college graduate. However, having a mentor did not completely amend the effect of being a first-generation college goer on educational attainment.

Of note, the researchers found that when paired with mentors, first-generation students gained a different type of mentoring than continuing-generation student.  The most notable difference in mentoring functions was the level of support for identity development – including role modeling and encouragement toward goals – between the three groups.

While mentoring provided most students with emotional support, the first-generation and non-college going students receive significantly less identity focused mentoring than the continuing-generation peers. This, Fruiht said, could contribute to the opportunity gap facing young people whose parents did not attend college.

 “Results suggest that identity support may be one critical form of mentoring that is lacking among the students who need it most to promote their success.”

The differences between first-generation and continuing-generation mentoring experiences could be driven by socioeconomic differences, as young people whose parents have more financial and social resources may have more opportunities to network with mentors who can provide identity support and who have attended college themselves.

The researchers note that the findings speak to the power of naturally occurring mentoring relationships to equalize the social and cultural capital young people garner from their communities and the weight of that capital in predicting long-term academic success.

Understanding the developmental and familial backgrounds of youth is imperative to provide tailed supports.

“The query is not whether mentoring is good for first-generation students, but what supports they need to enter and thrive in college.”

Fruiht’s interest in mentoring has personal roots. She attended a high school that was struggling to maintain academic standards in the face of a changing student body and educational climate. When it came time to apply to college, her high school counselor’s advice was to aim low. Colleges, Fruiht was told, would not be interested in students from her high school.

“I was lucky enough to have mentors outside of school who told me otherwise,” recalls Fruiht, who in 2014 became the first person in the U.S. to earn a PhD in Positive Developmental Psychology.

Her high school experience led to a lifelong interest in how developmental psychology and positive psychology can be used to improve the educational experience. “I saw how devastating a lack of support for student success can be,” says Fruiht. “The experience made me want to better understand how influential people in the lives of adolescents effect their choices about academics.”

After earning her BS in psychology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Fruiht earned both an MA and PhD in Positive Developmental Psychology from Claremont Graduate University.

For more information, please contact Dr. Fruiht at veronica.fruiht@Dominican.edu or Dr. Chan at thomas.chan@jhu.edu, @profchan.

April 24, 2018