First in the World Program: Stephens-Hamedani-Destin Study Summary

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First in the World Program:

Stephens-Hamedani-Destin Study Summary

Study title

Closing the social-class achievement gap: A difference-education intervention improves first-generation students’ academic performance and all students’ college transition.

Study authors

Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & Destin, M.

Study link

Intervention topic area

Influencing the Development of Non-Cognitive Factors

Intervention summary

The difference-education intervention consisted of older students from diverse social-class backgrounds sharing their stories with incoming students, who were also from diverse social-class backgrounds. The stories focused on students’ transition to college, both the difficulties and the successes, while referencing how their specific backgrounds (e.g., not having parents who attended college) mattered. The goal of the intervention is to educate students on how and why their different backgrounds matter in college, with the hope that doing this will improve their transition to college by empowering students with the understanding that their differences are normal and also enabling them to overcome obstacles they may face. The intervention was originally aimed at first-generation college students, however, because it addresses how backgrounds matter for all different kinds of students, it may have the potential to be beneficial to other groups underrepresented in college contexts.

Core elements of the intervention

  1. Show how all students can experience college differently – The success of this type of program hinges on framing it as relevant to all students, rather than as a “diversity initiative” targeting disadvantaged students who need extra help. The study authors recommend that both the senior students who share their stories and the incoming students who participate in the program are first- and continuing-generation, and that all senior students reference how their background helped and/or hindered them. First, it will ensure that first-generation students do not feel singled out or stigmatized as students in need of extra help. Second, it will help students learn about each other’s different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Representing difference as a normal part of the college experience — and life, more generally — is a crucial lesson in today’s increasingly diverse world.

  2. Don’t be afraid of the negative (but offset it with the positive) — Incoming students need to hear how it really is, not an idealized version of what other students have gone through. First-generation students confront a lot of adversity during the college transition. They need to learn about the obstacles they are likely to face, but also need to understand that each obstacle is surmountable when they use the right strategies and rely on their resilience.

  3. Deliver a powerful (but subtle) message — Class is a touchy subject in America. We recommend giving students a subtle nudge to show them how it matters in the stories, rather than telling them directly that class is something that they need to watch out for. Encourage them to think about and apply what they learn to their own lives and let them come to their own conclusions. Give students the chance to process the information and make it their own – for example, by writing an essay or making a video about what they learned to share with next year’s incoming students.

Costs of the intervention

This will vary widely from situation to situation (for example, how readily available are senior students that want to spend their time helping to develop a program based on their own stories?).

Considerations for implementation

There is some preliminary evidence that suggests that timing of the intervention is important to it’s efficacy, in that it’s better to do the intervention within the first 1-2 months of students’ freshman year of college. Students are most likely to benefit when they are still in the process of making sense of who they are in the college context and also before they encounter too many obstacles.

Findings of the study

We found that first-generation students had higher year-end grade-point averages and took more advantage of college resources that could help them succeed—like seeking mentorship and extra help from professors—than their peers who participated in a control intervention that did not reference the importance of student backgrounds. Additionally, we found that all students who participated in the difference-education program—both first- and continuing-generation—gained a deeper understanding of how students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives mattered in college than their peers who participated in the control. All students also experienced a smoother college transition—they were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their home and school.1

Relevant resources

Some resources are available at
Also see an op-ed the authors wrote on the subject:

1 Of the findings listed, the What Works Clearinghouse’s single study review only reported the grade point average finding and confirmed the finding’s statistical significance.

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