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Graduate student helps middle-schoolers embrace sense of self

Kristen B. Morales

January 31, 2018

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Middle school can be both exhilarating and exhausting. For doctoral student Courtney Williams, this makes it the perfect time to be a part of it.

Studying counseling psychology in the University of Georgia College of Education's department of counseling and human development services, Williams has worked with dozens of students at Clarke Middle School—African-American girls brimming with strong emotions and opinions. Her dissertation project, P.O.I.S.E. (Providing Outreach and Inspiration Through Sisterhood and Education), created a space for African-American girls to discuss experiences related to identity development.

But it was also the perfect time for the students involved in P.O.I.S.E., as it gave them a chance to be a part of research, understand their value in Williams' education and even, for some, connect with P.O.I.S.E. and Williams at a deeper level.

Williams picked this age group because middle school, for her, was an influential time. She was curious to see how an organized group that gave girls a space to discuss topics such as beauty, body image, bullying and social pressures might affect their overall sense of self.

"Middle school for me was tough—just finding a fit and a sense of belonging," she said. "But having a connection with older black women was key."

The purpose of the study was to design a group intervention addressing body image and self-esteem. To do this, Williams created an after-school group, P.O.I.S.E., which included lesson plans designed to get girls discussing critical topics during two-hour sessions. P.O.I.S.E. featured facilitators who were trained in group dynamics and always had a high adult-to-student ratio. A "control" group of girls, organized by the school counselor, was for both Latina and African-American girls. This group met for an hour and had a lower adult-to-student ratio. Williams' study began and ended with questionnaires for participants, and she also took audio recordings to gauge girls' attitudes and opinions about the topics they covered.

A few participants gathered recently in the Bulldog Room at Clarke Middle to join about two dozen family members, friends and faculty mentors from the UGA College of Education to hear the summary of Williams' work over the past year.

The result? The girls' general attitudes toward their hair and skin color increased as they took part in the group exercises. But participants' rating of their sociocultural attitudes toward appearance declined. Although, Williams, noted, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"It means both groups felt less pressure to ascribe to cultural beauty norms," she said. From discussions in a focus group, Williams said she learned that participation in P.O.I.S.E. gave the girls the space and the tools to discuss these issues.

"Girls expressed confidence, but also shared the influence pop culture and social media has on their views of themselves," she said. "In P.O.I.S.E., girls didn't always think about these issues, but the experience gave them a way to discuss them."

Overall, Williams said, the P.O.I.S.E. girls had a strong support system through their family. Affirmations from mothers and older siblings such as "you are strong" and "you are beautiful" were common, and had a direct influence on their self-esteem. While beauty in the African-American community—especially when it comes to skin color and hair—can be hot-button topics, many of the girls embraced these elements and actually increased their satisfaction in these areas.

In some cases, Williams acknowledged that merely talking about negative issues associated with self-image sometimes introduced a new perspective to the girls. And time became another factor, Williams said; depending on the day or even the hour a girl's opinion of herself can change. "Body image is multi-faceted," she said. "Also, we need to understand that what we see on TV isn't always true."

Several P.O.I.S.E. members attending Williams' dissertation defense said the experience affected them positively—but it went deeper than that. By taking part in P.O.I.S.E., the girls recognized that they were part of a research study undertaken by a young African-American woman. By completing the surveys and taking part in the focus groups, they recognized that they were providing valuable research data to further Williams' education—and that inspired them.

"It was fun," said eighth-grader Silbiha Franklin, who took both the pre- and post-study questionnaire. Friend Miracle Robbins, a seventh-grader, said she enjoyed being a part of the project and also learning from it. "I learned I'm confident," she added.

Following Williams' presentation her father, Mitch Williams, noted that the study was also a turning point for Williams.

"I'm very excited about her growth and I think that she has arrived in terms of confidence and self-esteem," he said. "And it pleases me greatly to see that she has helped a community of girls."

Her advisor, professor Edward Delgado-Romero, also noted the positive influence she has had on the students at Clarke Middle School and beyond. "She has touched so many people and influenced so many people in her time here at UGA," he said.

Williams recently completed interviewing for counseling psychology pre-doctoral internships—a degree requirement that takes place as part of her doctoral training—she is also working on ways to continue the P.O.I.S.E. group. Hosting the discussions off-site could lead to a different dynamic compared to the school environment, she said. She is also working on funding opportunities to help with training facilitators and incentivizing participation.

Bottom line, she said, middle school girls are complicated. But while the study just scratched the surface of the realities faced by young African-American women, it laid the groundwork for gathering more information during this critical time of their lives.

"P.O.I.S.E. is so important to me and who I am," she said, eyes filled with tears, as she ended her dissertation defense presentation. "Words can't speak to how important you all are to me."