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The Difference that Makes a Difference

USC Marshall Scholar receives Lord Foundation Award to study difference-education interventions

August 14, 2018

Sarah Townsend, assistant professor of management and organization at USC Marshall School of Business, has been granted a $100,000 Lord Foundation Award to support her work on the role of cultural norms in inequality and intergroup relations.

The project, “Difference-Education: An Intervention to Reduce Inequality and Improve Intergroup Understanding,” is an extension of Townsend’s ongoing research on methods to improve first generation college students’ academic performance and experiences on campus.

Townsend is among the first to suggest that individuals’ sociocultural backgrounds are both a source of, and a solution to, inequality. She and her collaborators have developed difference-education interventions that teach students about the contextual sources of their differences.

“Our intervention work is unique because it focuses on differences,” Townsend said. “Other studies like this tend to avoid highlighting differences, perhaps in part due to fear of making implicit bias or stereotypes salient. However, we want to help people understand how their different experiences before college translate into different experiences in college.

“We believe this can increase academic empowerment and comfort levels among students from underrepresented groups and intergroup understanding among all college students,” she said.

Using equipment funded by the grant, Townsend will measure how the interventions effect both individuals’ psychological and physiological responses during cross-group interactions. She will also use the increased support to expand her research team.

“Sarah’s work is central to current discussions of diversity and inclusion,” said Nandini Rajagopalan, Vice Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs and Joseph A. DeBell Chair in Business Administration. “Her innovative approach to academic success for first generation students has the potential to improve the way all people understand one another. We are very excited for Sarah, and eager to see her results.”