Teaming Up to Combat Isolation

Teaming Up to Combat Isolation

Mesmin and KourtneyMesmin Destin (l), Kourtney Cockrel

Kourtney Cockrell (MS17) and SESP Professor Mesmin Destin have become allies on a mission to uplift and empower all students. 

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

“College can be an isolating experience for many students,” said Cockrell, who previously directed the Project EXCITE program through the Center for Talent Development. “It’s really affirming for them to be in a space with people who have similar experiences.”

Destin, a social psychologist and associate professor of human development and social policy, explores what motivates students, particularly students of color, low-income students, and those who are the first in their families to attend college.

His research suggests that 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,” said Destin, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. “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.’”

Destin’s research also serves as the foundation for the SES’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. The 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 said. “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.”

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.

The Compass program has a growing wait list and 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 said.

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 said. “And also, being in the program increases your belief that you can handle these challenges.”

By Clare Shea Milliken
Last Modified: 3/5/18