Universities can lessen the impact of racial injustices on academic performance

Creating supportive communities to help students cope with racist incidents will provide far-reaching academic and health benefits, argue Charles Sanky and Annel Fernandez 

October 27, 2019
Black pharmacy student
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Protests, marches and debate regarding racial injustice and police brutality have swept across the US, especially on college campuses. Despite polarising conversations, these events collectively serve as constant reminders of racism and discrimination in our world.

Throughout 2014, grand juries acquitted police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. Five years later, officials are still investigating Garner’s death, and police officer Daniel Pantaleo was only recently fired over his involvement.

As premedical students at Columbia University during that time, we saw how our peers, especially students of colour, felt powerless, emotionally drained and alone. In response, we surveyed Columbia undergraduates to understand how these events affected their academic performance.

Our study compared students’ GPAs and perceived academic performance between the spring 2014 and fall 2014 semesters by racial identity. It also analysed differences in awareness and reactions to the deaths of Brown and Garner, as well as the effects on their sense of belonging and feeling of support from their social community and academic institutions.

Despite a small sample size of 63 undergraduates, our pilot study suggested that African-American and black students had significantly lower GPAs than white students in Fall 2014, and that their GPAs decreased substantially as compared with the previous semester and with their white counterparts. In essence, their academic performance worsened as racially charged societal events occurred.

Social psychology research supports these findings. One study examined the association between perceptions of racial discrimination, the racial climate in academic institutions and trauma-related symptoms, specifically within undergraduate populations.

Experiences of discrimination and subsequent psychological responses might build on someone’s past encounters with discrimination, representing cumulative life stressors.

These stressors may also impact academic performance. A landmark study by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson discussed the concept of “stereotype threat”, whereby an individual is affected by stereotypes relevant to their identity. Additional research conducted by Robert Sellers, Tabbye Chavous and Deanna Cooke supports the idea that racial centrality and racial ideology impact African American students’ GPAs.

Subjectively placing importance on the “uniqueness of being black” is associated with poor academic performance and sensitivity towards racism. This can in turn produce feelings of isolation that can negatively affect cognitive abilities and academic performance. More broadly, this has been shown to contribute to worse long-term health outcomes.

These consequences are of particular importance to us as medical students training to become physicians who advocate for our communities. As these stereotypes and instances of injustice disproportionately affect marginalised populations, they reinforce the inequity inherent in education, healthcare and wider society.

Our study also sought to determine factors that could mitigate these detrimental effects. The results suggested that a sense of belonging and support from social communities and academic institutions may insulate students’ well-being and academic performance from such stressors. Students concurred that feeling part of an institution and a community helped them realise that they were not alone, thus fostering a sense of belonging.

Universities are uniquely equipped to encourage this feeling in their students, protecting their wellness, resilience and potential.

Previous racially-charged events and subsequent activism have prompted universities, including Columbia, to begin examining what support or testing accommodations might help. A recent op-ed in the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, reflects the university’s long-standing difficulty in addressing these issues. Institutions react to events with emails and community meetings; however, sustainable efforts to preventively and proactively foster a sense of belonging are still not emphasised.

And although many schools have created student organisations around identity and have departments of multicultural affairs, initiatives often fall short of this ideal. It is therefore imperative for academic institutions to take on this important work, creating spaces for students to explore their identities together.

As people of colour and current medical students afforded the privilege of joining the next generation of physicians, we feel compelled to better understand how to support and advocate for the diverse communities we serve.

We are sharing our lessons learned, five years after our research study, because we continue to see the devastating impact of racial injustice on our patients and communities. But these public injustices are not new—they litter the course of history and continue to threaten our future.

That’s why we are committed to finding ways to protect our communities, and we challenge academic and health institutions to do the same.

Charles Sanky is a medical student at Mount Sinai and Annel Fernandez is a  medical student at Columbia University

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