Unrecognized Strengths

The power of being you

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I’m not smart enough…I don’t have the experiences they’re looking for…I’m not qualified.

That’s what I told my mentor when he encouraged me to apply for psychology PhD programs. I was a Latinx first-generation college student from a working-class immigrant family. I thought there was absolutely no way I could get in.

Troubled that I held these beliefs, my mentor explained that it is precisely because of my diverse identity and lived experiences that I would benefit the scientific community.

Now, I’m a doctoral candidate studying the psychological factors that influence students throughout their education. I’ve learned that students from historically marginalized groups commonly encounter these types of limiting beliefs about who they are from society. The difference is that I had someone to support me to think in a different way. 

My mentor’s words shifted the way that I thought about my background and identity. I started asking myself new questions: What unique strengths have I developed from my life experiences, and how does this make me an asset to society? How can I use these strengths to help me succeed?

In my research, I encourage students from historically marginalized backgrounds to reflect on the unique knowledge, skills, and perspectives that they have gained throughout their life, including those that result from their experiences with adversity. Students who engage in this reflection come to recognize that they are assets to their schools and society. This shift also makes them more likely to persist in the face of academic difficulty.

For example, one middle school student in my study wrote: “My parents have always been hard workers. My dad has two jobs and my mom has one. I have learned to be resourceful of my surroundings because they usually don’t have time to help me. I think that because of this, I will become inventive, like an inventor or scientist.”

In noting what they’ve gained from their backgrounds and identities, students see the value in their life experiences and how these can be an asset, not a liability. Forging a positive link between their identity and education can increase a sense of self-worth and lead to greater motivation in challenging environments—just as my conversation with my mentor did for me.

Try answering the following questions for yourself and encouraging the young people in your life to do the same: What about you has been overlooked or undervalued? What strengths have you gained from your unique life experiences? How can you use these abilities to help you achieve your goals—and help the world?   

With resilience and gratitude,

Ivan

Ivan A. Hernandez is a PhD candidate in social psychology at Northwestern University.

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