Improving Our Future With “Possible Selves”

By Jerry Beckerman and Tony Strauss

Every nine seconds a student drops out of school in America, a 2006 Ohio State University study found. This rapid dropout rate costs society tremendously.

Each dropout “cost[s] society up to $388,000, [and] a career criminal [costs] up to $1.5 million,” a 2003 Rand Corp.  study found. A year later, the University of California, Berkeley found that “if high school graduation rates were just 1 percent higher, there would be 100,000 fewer crimes in the United States annually, including 400 murders, and the savings would be $1.4 billion.”

Is there anything that we can do to reverse this trend?

One breakthrough in understanding how individuals identify success that may be crucial to upping graduation rates came in 1986, when University of Michigan researchers Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius released their “Possible Selves” study.

Possible Selves showed that an individual’s glimpse at a possible self that he or she wants can be a game changer.

“Possible selves are important… because they function as incentives for future behavior…,” the authors said. “An individual is free to create any variety of possible selves, yet the pool of possible selves derives from the categories made salient by the individual’s particular sociocultural and historical context and from the models, images, and symbols provided by the media and by the individual’s immediate social experiences.”

Nearly 20 years later, in 2003, a nonprofit was founded to increase students’ exposures to“Possible Selves,” to possible career options. In the context of students in high school, when they are exposed to a possible self that they want, attaining that self, that career, that goal is the “incentive” they need to change their “behavior.” As a result, the students become willing learners, see the relevance of school, work harder, gain new hope, and graduate high school. To completly attain their goals, many proceed to earn a technical certificate, or an AA, BA, or advanced college degree. 

A local nonprofit, Segue Career Mentors,  is bringing “possible selves” to students in Ventura County through local career mentor speakers and multiple exposures to live models of career options throughout the school year. In the last eight years, Segue has helped produce more than 35,000 student career exposures in local students’ classrooms.

Segue is the only program of its kind in the nation, according to research from Pepperdine University. While some schools have career day and job shadowing programs, or teachers who take their own initiative to invite in speakers, Segue is the only nonprofit providing a systematic way to embed this process into our schools.

The efficacy of career option exposure has academic validation. Harvard University’s recently published “Pathways to Prosperity” study explored why U.S. educational attainment has plummeted. The country was once in first place globally, but now finds itself in eighteenth place.

Of three recommendations from the Pathways study, one topped the Harvard researchers’ list: Greatly increase students’ exposure to quality career options.

Inviting career speakers into the classroom is not new. As Ventura Community Colleges Chancellor James Meznek wrote in a letter to Segue: “… career speakers to the classroom has been a wonderful means for motivating students as far back as I can remember – the challenge has always been in the logistics and the time it takes… Segue provides the often missing link to the workforce that students desperately need… implement [Segue] as quickly and broadly as possible.”

Education leaders know that Segue is a successful formula.

“I continue to receive positive feedback from administrators and others that have participated in this  inspiring and motivating program…We…know that inspired and motivated students achieve more academically, work harder…, drop out [less], attend school more regularly, and are less likely to join gangs or exhibit violent behavior,” Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Stan Mantooth said in a letter to Segue.

Segue is effective because it leverages available adult time so that a speaker need only commit to an hour and a half, onetime appearance in a local school classroom. Speakers self-schedule a time online that fits their calendars. Volunteers from all careers are invited to be a model for a possible self, and to share their wisdom and lessons learned from the road of life.

Examples of Segue’s measured outcomes based on university surveys demonstrate Segue’s efficacy. Eighty-six percent of participant students indicate that they now believe that more effort now equals more options in their future, a California Lutheran University survey found. Sixtynine percent are working harder in school; and among those thinking about dropping out, 94 percent report that, due to Segue, they are now more likely to stay in school and graduate. In an independent study, Harvard researchers have corroborated key Segue findings.

District Attorney Greg Totten, Superior Court Judge Colleen Toy White and many others have joined in a brief video to encourage community members to participate in Segue. The video can be viewed at:

Continue reading – September issue of CITATIONS Page 7

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