DA op-ed: A purpose-driven student journey

Motivating students with a flexible life dream helps them keep sight of their goals

More children from low-income households are going to college than ever. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. While we celebrate higher college enrollment rates, we often ignore what happens to students from underserved backgrounds once they get there—a combination of pressures that can cause them to become discouraged, to abandon their dreams, and to drop out at significantly higher rates than their more affluent peers.
How can we address these problems before students leave college?

Sobering stories

When I became an administrator at Making Waves Academy, a charter school in Richmond, California, I encountered two sobering themes in the stories I heard about our graduates. The first was that some of our students who achieved high academic results in high school were not persisting through college at the rate we had expected. The second was that some of our students who were finishing college were coming back to us unsure of what they wanted in a career.

We had succeeded in sending our graduates to college, but we had not reached the deeper level of equipping them with the self-awareness they needed for knowing what they wanted to accomplish in life.

Life dreams

In response, our school partnered with FrugÁ© Psychological Associates to introduce its Preparing the Mind for Success and Competition (PMSC) program. This innovative motivational program helps underserved young people appreciate and take advantage of educational opportunities and resources.

We are using PMSC to help each of our students uncover their own life dream, which is rooted in their personal desires and core values. We believe that having a clearly articulated dream gives the student a purpose and a reason to persist despite any obstacle or adversity they may face.

By training our leaders, faculty and staff to use the PMSC program, we create a culture in which student dreams are nurtured through intentional interactions with adults throughout middle school, high school and college.

Discovering the dream

To use a life dream as a source of motivation, we focus on these elements:

  • Core values: What are the underlying motivations of the student? Do they want to succeed financially to help their family? Do they want to contribute to their communities? Learning about their core values helps us to understand what motivates them so we can continue our personalized learning approach.
  • Capacity for life: How wide is the gap between the student’s dream and their current reality? The wider the gap, the more we can inspire a student to move from where they are today to where they want to be tomorrow.
  • Flexibility: We tell each student what it will take to reach their goal, and we guide them in making decisions that align with their dream. If a student isn’t motivated or if they make decisions that are counterproductive to achieving their dream, perhaps their dream is not their own. Perhaps it is someone else’s dream.

Students often revisit their life dreams throughout their years at Making Waves Academy, allowing them to shift both goals and tactics. Students build the habit of outcome-based thinking, an approach that can help them navigate a variety of dilemmas in any season of life.

In an education system that prioritizes academic achievement over personal fulfillment, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many children from low-income backgrounds who make it to college end up dropping out. The PMSC program could help remedy this problem on a wider scale—in public, private and charter schools alike—by putting the life dream at the center of every student’s academic journey.

Jon Siapno is the director of college and career counseling at Making Waves Academy, a charter school located in Richmond, California.

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