When Nature Versus Nurture Doesn’t Answer The Question, Elan Hope Asks New Ones

Dec 9, 2019

Elan Hope grew up in one of the wealthiest majority-African American counties in the United States: Prince George’s County, Maryland. She went to talented and gifted schools and attended a STEM-focused magnet high school.

She was on track to be an engineer — but during her freshman year at Smith College, she realized she wanted to do something different. Hope changed her major to psychology, in part because she was intrigued by why some kids do well and others do not. She wondered why some of her classmates from high school were graduating on time from Ivy League schools, while others were struggling to hold down a minimum wage job, even though they all came from the same rigorous STEM-focused high school. That question drove her research and later her career in psychology and education.

Today Hope is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at North Carolina State University. She joins host Frank Stasio to talk about her research on black youth and activism, academic achievement and racial identity.

Interview Highlights

Hope on why she chose Smith College to pursue engineering:

All the other schools we visited — they would march out their engineering students with pride, and it'd be all white men. So I'm sitting as a black girl from Prince George's County, who's never been in majority white school, [has] always had black boys and girls in pmy classes — [and] students of other races and ethnicities. White students were not the majority ever in my education. To sit and see no one of color and no women — and that's the best you could offer on your visiting day? I thought: Well, this might not be the place for me.

As a black woman in America, the research is really personal. It is my life. - Elan Hope

On the biases in standardized testing in our education system:

Our country was built in such a way to prioritize and privilege particular groups and to marginalize and oppress other groups for the benefit of the majority group. And so if you think about our school system, it was built the same way … We're repurposing, constantly repurposing tests, just trying to chip away and fix things that are implicitly and explicitly designed for certain groups — and particularly white people — to excel. Black people weren't considered people at the advent of a lot of these things. But to continue to just mold what exists — well, how much progress can we actually make in that way?

On how black students are affected by the stereotypes inflicted on them in the classroom:

For students, you have a choice of — you either internalize it and go with it, and so maybe you have mediocre grades and you just kind of go along. Or you embrace a class clown label. Or you push back against it, which is a lot of cognitive work. So in addition to the actual work of school, you're also doing this work to maintain your self-esteem, to maintain your academic goals and rigor, despite messages you might be getting.

On the importance of students feeling a sense of belonging at their schools:

So when kids belong in schools, they tend to do better. They want to be there. And they tend to have better achievement outcomes. And we've conceptualized belonging as not just how individuals feel with their peers and teachers, but also how belonging is embedded in instructional practices and at the institution level. So who's in your curriculum? How do students feel they belong by what's being taught? And also how do students feel they belong in the policies? Time and time again, we turn on the news and there are stories of black students who are thrown out of school because they have braids or dreadlocks or particular cultural phenomenon, like their hair that grows out of their head, right? Those are institutional policies that signal to students they don't belong in school.