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Pivotal Moments Open the Doors to Opportunity

An Interview with Dr. Roberta Espinoza

By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center

What does it take to create a path for all students to colleges and universities, especially low-income and minority students? While AVID acknowledges the importance of a student’s individual determination, Dr. Roberta Espinoza emphasizes the significance of mentoring, advocacy, and the timely intervention by key adults. In her new book, Pivotal Moments (Harvard Education Press), based on several years of research, Espinoza examines the importance of teachers, counselors, and administrators being “in the right place at the right time” to support students with advice and inspiration on their journeys into and through postsecondary education.

In her book, as well as in her blogs and articles, Espinoza emphasizes that when a low-income or minority student achieves great success by gaining acceptance to a prestigious college or university, the media take note of the student’s individual determination in “beating the odds,” and fail to emphasize the responsibility that the school system plays in that success. Of course, schools are composed of caring adults—in AVID’s case, a Site Team of teachers, administrators, counselors, tutors, and parents—who play a critical role in mentoring and advocacy. They can be more effective, she says, by being aware of those “pivotal moments,” and taking advantage of them.

Espinoza explains that educational pivotal moments are “transformative events that occur when a college-educated adult at a school makes a concerted effort to support and mentor a disadvantaged student in either an informal or official role.” In her work, she focuses on the adults in the institution and says they must intentionally provide pivotal moments for low-income and minority students, to add to their social and academic capital. This is especially true for those who, like Espinoza, are among the first in their families to attend college.

Dr. Espinoza is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Fullerton. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. In the past, she has studied the challenges faced by minority female students pursuing post-graduate degrees. One of her mentors is Dr. Hugh Mehan, who researched AVID and captured his findings in his book, Constructing School Success.

Recently, I spoke with Dr. Espinoza to learn more about how educators can effectively facilitate pivotal moments in the lives of their students, at all grade levels. The following is an edited and condensed version of that interview.


You describe three components of educational pivotal moments: 1) Establishing trust; 2) Providing mentoring and advocacy; 3) Transmitting academic knowledge and skills. Please discuss how these interrelate. Which is the most difficult to implement and why?

RE: First and foremost, trust has to be established. I think that anyone who reaches out to a student, who wants to connect with a student, has to nurture that trust, and so that’s a very critical component. The second and third parts are also important. Providing mentorship and advocacy means reaching out to students as well, providing emotional and moral support, always having their best interests at mind or at hand. What absolutely needs to take place to have the intervention qualify as a pivotal moment is the transmitting of academic knowledge and skills. Students will not learn how to approach school efficiently and effectively and learn how to navigate certain educational processes if educators aren’t transmitting their knowledge to students in significant ways.

I would argue that these are all interrelated in some capacity. But transmitting academic knowledge and skills is the part of this that is sometimes missed by educators. Some educators are great at establishing trust; they’re great at providing advice, emotional and moral support and mentoring. But if they’re not transmitting to students critical academic knowledge about how to make decisions about school, how to navigate school bureaucracies, how to nurture relationships with other educators and other institutional agents, it really can’t qualify as a pivotal moment. Transmission of knowledge is the most important part in changing someone’s educational trajectory because now they’re learning from this college-educated adult how to effectively approach school, how to excel academically, how to navigate school processes.

When we think about low-income or minority students, they don’t come from college-educated homes where parents who have gone to college are passing on knowledge to them about how to pick classes or how to plan for college. So these college-educated individuals for low-income and minority students become very critical because they have the capacity to pass on the knowledge that these students don’t have at home.


You describe pivotal moments as “transformative events that occur when a college-educated, school-based adult makes a concerted effort to support and mentor a disadvantaged student in either an informal or official role.” Can you describe how, when, and where you saw these moments occur during your research?

RE: When I first started this research, I was interviewing women of color in highly selective graduate school programs. As I was interviewing them about their entire educational career and educational trajectory, what started to emerge from the data is that they reflected back on different levels of their education. I started to identify these moments where they would talk about a relationship - a very significant relationship - that they had with some type of educator at some point in their educational career.

One of the women who I interviewed early on, for example, had participated in a club that gave her access to two teachers. They really reached out to her and helped her apply to a highly selective private school. It was an instance where an educator really connected with a student and went above and beyond to intervene and advocate for them. She was a working-class Latina from an immigrant household, and this was the first time someone had shown her how to set high aspirations for herself and very concretely walked her though this process so she could reach an educational goal.

What’s really important about pivotal moments is that these moments can happen anywhere at any time. We need to acknowledge and really take advantage of those moments with students. Even the smallest things, the small interactions that we have with them, inside or outside the classroom, can really make a significant difference on what they see as their possibilities.


You’re a first-generation college student yourself, raised by a single-parent father, who had a third-grade education. It would be easy to say you “beat the odds,” but you had your own “pivotal moments,” as well as support from your father. Could you please describe your path to success?

RE: People ask me how I made my way through the educational system and was able to get to college, and then get to graduate school and attend very prestigious educational institutions. They so much want to believe that I did it on my own, but the reality is that I had academic interventions that were initiated by caring educators who reached out to me as I was making my way through the educational system. They started very early on in elementary school.

As I document in the beginning of my book, there were a variety of educators who really reached out to me and made a huge difference in my ability to succeed in school and feel like school was a place where I could be that good student. In eighth grade, my English teacher ran a program that would take students to local colleges and universities. She invited me to participate in the program. Not only was I thrilled that she reached out to me, but it was the first time really that I was introduced to what a college campus looks like. I was able to envision myself in college and had access to all the educators who were running the program. That was very significant - I think this was the first time I thought I could go to college. All of a sudden, I was experiencing it, I was talking about it, and I had educators who could share their experiences with me about them going to college and what I needed to do to be able to reach that goal in the future.

As for my dad, he was always very supportive of education, even though he only had a third-grade education. He created an environment at home that was very supportive of doing well in school and expected us to do well in school. I always grew up with my father telling me, “Get your education because that’s something they can never take away from you.” He would always reflect on his experiences as a manual laborer; he was a janitor, he was a gardener. He would always tell us that these jobs weren’t very stable, and he got treated very poorly, and it was because he didn’t have his education. We grew up with that narrative at home and with my dad always supporting everything that we did in terms of education.


In studies on AVID and other efforts, researchers like Dr. Hugh Mehan have described the significance of both formal and informal academic support or “scaffolding” or “buffering.” How do these play out in Pivotal Moments?

RE: These academic interventions, or pivotal moment interventions, are very important in both formal and informal relationships that educators build with their students. The formal is a part of their normal duties as an educator and the informal meaning things they do outside those boundaries with students. I really do think that these connections that educators develop with students buffer students from some of the hardships that they face coming from low-income families.

Many students are coming from low-income neighborhoods that put a lot of impediments in their way or create a situation where they’re faced with a lot of challenges. When I was growing up, we lived in a neighborhood that was very gang-infested when we first moved in, and there were a lot of drug dealers. Not to make it seem very stereotypical, but we lived in a rough neighborhood that was reflective of some of the challenges that students face coming from a low-income background. A pivotal moment creates certain buffers that allow students to become more resilient to those things. It really does buffer them and give them a place to feel safe and give them a person to go to, that they know cares. I think those are very significant for an educator being able to create a very successful pivotal moment intervention.


You mention AVID in your book as a schoolwide program aimed at transmitting college knowledge across a campus. How does the AVID philosophy and practice fit with your own?

RE: There are a lot of parallels between AVID and my concept of pivotal moments. One of the things that I think aligns well is that AVID starts early, so that allows for pivotal moments or academic interventions early. Through AVID’s curriculum, it is possible for all educators to transmit college knowledge, which is a critical part of my pivotal moment theory.

I think it is a benefit that AVID has this really explicit curriculum and that you hold students to very high expectations. This gives them the opportunity to build a certain skill-set, including note-taking or time management for example, that’s very similar to what a pivotal moment educator does with a student when they intervene on their behalf and make a significant connection.


As you’ve worked with schools, have you observed your pivotal moment framework creating institutional change?

RE: Even though this pivotal moment framework is something that applies to individual educators, I think that when it becomes absorbed institutionally, that’s when we see the biggest impact. One of the things I’m seeing with the schools I’m working with is that when all teachers, administrators, everyone, are introduced to this framework on an institutional level, it starts to create a more positive college-going culture institutionally. When schools have a lot of educators who are making efforts to become pivotal moment educators, it really is changing their college-going culture at that particular institution. So that’s just another long-term benefit that I think I would really like to highlight in my work


AVID schools and districts employ over 10,000 college tutors. How can they figure into providing those vital “pivotal moments”?

 I think AVID tutors have great potential to be pivotal moment educators in their own capacity. I do think any educator and anyone who is college-educated, even if it is in-process for these tutors, has the capacity to transmit the knowledge and skills that they currently have, but sometimes that really does need to be made explicit to them, as well.

College students do have a great potential, especially because, while they’re still learning things and in-process, they’ve probably navigated school processes that students they’re working with in high school are still learning how to navigate. They have a great potential to transmit how to do things well, how to even navigate certain processes like applying to colleges or picking courses that will give them the curriculum so they can be competitive in college admissions. I would argue that they won’t think about this in the same capacity if it isn’t broken down for them and explained to them that this is what it means to be a pivotal moment educator and these are components of it.


In your book, you say that “trust is not enough.” Why is that the case?

RE: One of the things that I would really want to highlight in my work, in looking at the three components of the pivotal moment, is that trust sometimes isn’t enough. Educators could really benefit from acknowledging that transmitting academic knowledge and skills is really important.

In my research, I didn’t just study students who had had pivotal moment interventions. I also interviewed students who had not had the pivotal moment interventions. We interviewed many students and are starting to analyze that data now. Our interview included students who had dropped out or had been pushed out of high school. When I was interviewing them about their entire educational trajectory, what we found is that they did have trust that had been developed with certain educators, but unfortunately that third component wasn’t happening.

The educators were providing the emotional and moral support with their families or situations and challenges they might face in daily life and even, to a certain extent, advocating for them at school with other educators. But, where they really fell short was that they weren’t transmitting any kind of knowledge.

There’s a very well-known researcher, Ricardo Stanton-Salazar, who called this “fool’s gold.” He said these relationships, unfortunately, have great potential to be that pivotal moment that sets these students on very different academic paths, and probably, I would argue on the path to higher education. Unfortunately, they fall short. It is because there is this great potential to transmit this knowledge and skills in a very concrete and hands-on way and make that explicit to students, but that never really happens.

One of the things about my research I would like to highlight is that third component of transmitting knowledge and skills needs to happen. Educators who are highly successful pivotal moment educators, that’s the area where they do phenomenal work with their students. That’s the area where educators can make a huge difference for their students. If educators are going to be successful in prompting pivotal moments, they must transmit college knowledge. Trust alone isn’t enough.


This interview was originally published in AVID’s educational journal, Access. To read the rest of the Spring 2012 issue, click here.

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