Voices in Education

The Power of Pivotal Moments
How do minority students who are first in their family to attend college manage to make their way to higher education despite what seem like overwhelming odds? Most Americans believe that low-income minority students who excel in school do so because they are smarter, more motivated, and willing to work harder. Stories abound in mainstream media outlets about minority working-class students who are able to “beat the odds” to become highly successful students.

For example, on August 4th, 2011, Fox News Latino featured an article about a high-achieving Latino student named Jose Limon. One of four siblings in a low-income immigrant family, he overcame poverty and gangs to win a $100,000 scholarship and gain admission to Yale University. To explain his rise in the education system, the article highlighted his “individual drive and determination” to succeed in school. It also alluded to his innate abilities and “God-given intelligence.” Upholding the ever so prevalent American achievement ideology, Jose did well in school primarily due to his own individual effort.

There is no doubt Jose’s story is amazing. As a sociologist, however, I suspected that there was another part to his story—equally as important—that was missing. For instance, how did Jose figure out how to apply to scholarships and navigate the college application process? Did anyone advise or mentor him? Will he fare as well as his upper-middle-class schoolmates at an elite university like Yale? A closer examination of Jose’s success story reveals that it is incomplete.

To find the rest of the story, I began a series of research studies that attempted to explain exactly how working-class minority students like Jose successfully progress through the educational system and gain access to higher education. By examining the educational trajectories of these students, I concluded that educational success is hardly an individual affair, but rather the result of both formal and informal academic interventions that I call Pivotal Moments.

Educational Pivotal Moments are transformative events that occur when a college-educated, school-based adult makes a concerted effort to support and mentor a disadvantaged student in either an informal or official role. Pivotal Moments are characterized by a deep and trusting relationship with an educator who provides guidance, information, advice, and emotional support. These interventions become significant and life-changing because through them, students gain hands-on knowledge about navigating the educational system, and begin to develop the skills and behaviors that launch them on the path of academic success.

The Pivotal Moment framework initially emerged from my previous work, which examined the educational experiences of minority female doctoral students from working-class backgrounds attending highly selective universities. I wanted to learn how, despite the odds, they reached the top of the educational ladder. As they shared the details of their academic pathways to graduate school, a distinct pattern emerged. Each had experienced at least one educational intervention that set them on the path to higher education. Interview after interview, I kept hearing about one or several educators that they had connected with in a significant way. This connection had resulted in a turnaround that altered their educational trajectory. These academic interventions transformed the students’ social and psychological orientations toward academic achievement and helped to augment the accumulation of college knowledge and relationship-building skills that facilitated their school success.

Adults in schools and other student-serving organizations need to be determined to, in their daily interactions with students, create interventions that will ultimately enhance the educational attainment levels of students from underrepresented backgrounds. The three main components of educational Pivotal Moments include (1) establishing trust, (2) providing mentoring and advocacy, and (3) transmitting academic knowledge and skills. Educators can build trust with students by showing respect, being honest and trustworthy, demonstrating care, and sharing personal experiences to lower rigid educator–student boundaries. They can mentor and advocate for students by being role models for behaviors associated with effective participation in educational institutions, providing emotional and moral support, encouraging students’ interests to ensure their academic progress, passing on information about navigating the school system, helping them utilize academic resources, and aiding them in making informed educational decisions. While they face challenging realities in their schools, exemplary Pivotal Moment educators still manage to assist low-income minority students to become successful academically and to prepare, apply, and get accepted into college.

Pivotal Moment practices can be one of the many tools we use to curve the current educational trends of low-income and ethnic minority students. Schools can build institutional capacity to train their staff to become Pivotal Moment educators through professional development efforts. The Pivotal Moment framework can also be useful to students in teacher preparation and credential programs, as well as those in counseling programs that train and license future school counselors. In addition to schools, academic outreach programs and nonprofit organizations can also play important roles in fostering early pivotal moments to place students on a path to college completion, graduate studies, and subsequent social mobility.

About the Author: Roberta Espinoza is an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of Pivotal Moments: How Educators Can Put All Students on the Path to College (Harvard Education Press, 2011).