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Combating isolation improves outcomes

Faculty-staff duo put research into practice to enrich the college experience for low-income students

“College can be an isolating experience for many students, and it’s really affirming for them to be in a space with people who have similar experiences.”

Kourtney Cockrell
Kourtney Cockrell

As the director of Student Enrichment Services (SES) at Northwestern, Kourtney Cockrell interfaces with students every day. Her office assists low-income and first-generation students, offering academic and social support and connecting them with resources and opportunities on campus, helping build a sense of community and belonging through programs and workshops.

Martina Pineiros, a Northwestern junior, credits Cockrell with helping her acclimate to life on campus and find a community among other students.

“I never had to explore my identity as a first-generation student before, and being able to do that with people who were going through very similar things was great,” Pineiros says.

Establishing community among students is not just a lofty ideal. Rigorous academic research has shown that community not only combats generalized feelings of isolation, but also demonstrably helps students perform better in college and beyond.

That research is largely the work of Northwestern human development and social policy professor Mesmin Destin. As a social psychologist, Destin works to understand what motivates students, particularly students of color, low-income students, and those who are the first in their families to attend college.

Cockrell’s boots-on-the-ground work with students is a perfect complement to Destin’s research, and the two have become allies on a mission to uplift and empower all students. 

Research foundations

Cockrell grew up in Evanston, and has been working with local elementary, high school and college students both locally and across the country for almost 20 years. Destin, a Northwestern graduate and a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP), also has strong ties to the university community and the Chicagoland area, both of which serve as the backdrop for much of his work. His research mostly consists of tightly controlled and painstaking experiments, where one aspect of a classroom, lecture or workshop is manipulated and the impact is carefully measured.

Mesmin Destin
Mesmin Destin

At any given time, Destin has research projects underway in middle and high schools in Evanston and the North and West sides of Chicago. With learning sciences professor Shirin Vossoughi, Destin now co-leads the new SESP Leadership Institute. Foundational to all these projects is a single finding from Destin’s earlier research: Helping students develop an identity and sense of purpose boosts academic achievement, career motivation and resilience, even in the face of tremendous challenge and adversity.

“If students have a sense of where they’re going and why school is a part of it, there’s more meaning in difficult school tasks,” Destin says. “When something gets tough, they don’t think, ‘I’m not sure why I’m doing this. This isn’t for me.’ They think, ‘Oh, yeah, this has meaning behind it.’”

As simple a difference as hearing, “Doing well in high school helps you get into college, which helps you get a better job,” instead of hearing, “You go to high school because it’s the law,” can encourage students to take the long view, giving meaning to their daily work and improving their performance.

“Particularly for students from low-income backgrounds, working in school is often predicated on the premise that this is a pathway toward opportunity,” Destin says. “In our experiments, we’ve found that for these students, believing you can climb up that economic ladder is associated with more motivation and better grades.”

Research in action

One program in which Cockrell has put Destin’s research into practice is Northwestern’s Compass Peer Mentor Program, which pairs first-year mentees with upper-level mentors; all participants are first-generation and/or low-income college students. Overseen by SES Assistant Director Sharitza Rivera, mentor-mentee pairs meet biweekly, and the entire cohort meets once a week on Friday evenings.

“Mesmin’s work on language and messaging has always been a fundamental part of Compass,” Cockrell says. “By simply normalizing the experience of being first-generation or low-income — by introducing those messages and sharing those stories with your peers — you can reduce socioeconomic disparities in achievement among students here on campus.”

Martina Pineiros
Martina Pineiros

In fact, those differences in achievement — the tendency for first-generation and low-income students to underperform in school — shrink by a whopping 63 percent, according to Destin’s research with Nicole Stephens, associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.

Compass mentors receive training on how to share their own unique backgrounds, and how those backgrounds have impacted their time at Northwestern. Cockrell also brings in faculty from across campus to share their experiences as low-income or first-generation college students.

Martina Pineiros is now in Compass for the third consecutive year — one year as a mentee and two as a mentor — and she says it has had lasting impacts.

“Compass allowed me to look at things not from a point of deficit, but a point of assets,” Pineiros says. “Being low-income and first-generation doesn’t make me less than.”

From practice to policy

The Compass program has a growing wait list, and Pineiros is just one of several former mentees who have returned as mentors. Meanwhile, Destin says he and Cockrell are “in constant conversation,” working together to refine and improve Compass.

“He’s the leader on the research and academic side, and I’m running the implementation piece on the ground with students,” Cockrell says.

Destin is also currently studying the impact of Compass, and results thus far are very promising.

“We’re finding that being in the Compass program increases your awareness about some of the challenges you might face as a low-income student at Northwestern,” Destin says. “And also, being in the program increases your belief that you can handle these challenges.”

Compass Meeting

Pictured at the top of the page is Student Enrichment Services Assistant Director Sharitza Rivera (second from left) with students

Mesmin Destin is an associate professor of human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) and an associate professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He is also a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

Kourtney Cockrell is the director of Student Enrichment Services (SES), an office dedicated to building an inclusive Northwestern community by engaging students with programming and dialogue focused on the low-income and first-generation experience.

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