Helping Students and Schools Grow Together through Research and Mentorship

June 27, 2019

Key Findings 

  • Whether institutional values match the students they serve matters for student well-being, how well they do, and how they understand themselves
  • Reframing the context is necessary to support all students

The demographics of people graduating high school and enrolling in higher education are shifting rapidly across the United States.

This includes more students 25 years and older and those from minoritized racial and ethnic groups – including Black, non-white Hispanic, and Asian American and Pacific Islander backgrounds.

“It’s of critical importance for our society to think about who these students are,” says Dr. Rebecca Covarrubias, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz. “What do they teach us about how to improve our institutions? How do we support them for the next stage in their lives?”

“What do they teach us about how to improve our institutions? How do we support them for the next stage in their lives?”


Covarrubias’s research with her students in the Culture & Achievement Collaborative, or the “Collab” for short, informs practice and theory on how institutions of higher education can be reframed. To do this, Covarrubias uses an interdisciplinary set of tools from the behavioral sciences – ranging from social, cultural, and educational psychology – to shed light on previously unexamined norms and values.

For example, what do we associate with being a “good student”? Typically, we imagine someone who is individually motivated, self-expressive, and comfortable with competition.

However, such values are not neutral.

Covarrubias’s research shows that these norms and values advantage some students—such as those from middle-to-upper-class, continuing-generation White backgrounds—and create a mismatch with working-class, first-generation students of color.

She finds that working-class, first-generation students of color are more likely to be attending college for interdependent reasons, like supporting one’s family financially or being a role model for younger siblings. When these more collaborative beliefs conflict with institutional values, the mismatches have far-reaching consequences on performance and well-being.

Describing these mismatches also includes understanding how we can reverse these effects by leveraging the strengths of students as well as the expertise of diverse campus partners, including staff and program directors. These collaborations between researchers and campus practitioners are a centerpiece in Covarrubias’s research. Without this critical work, colleges and universities would be left with few guideposts on how they can shift centuries-old practices to better align with today’s students.

The process of creating new knowledge in the Collab is powerful, too: “Research for me and my students is transformative.” Covarrubias’s students leverage their own expertise and life-experiences in generating novel research. “You begin to see yourself as a scientist. To give them the tools to rigorously address inequity is the most rewarding, and essential, part of my job as faculty.”

Covarrubias is also the faculty director of the campus Student Success Equity Research Center, which engages in collaborative research with the UC Santa Cruz campus to generate actionable findings that promote equity and inclusion for all students. Her research was sparked in graduate school by a training fellowship from both the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation and continues to be supported by grants from UCSC.

Potential for Future Impact

  • Identify ways to narrow and close equity gaps in higher education
  • Improve pipeline to generate a more diverse workforce
  • Develop effective interventions to embed within institutional practice to reflect and affirm students’ identities

Rebecca Covarrubias is a recipient of the 2019 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.