Transformative Education: Reaching Those Who Believe They’re Unreachable


Ninety-four percent of students from the top socioeconomic quartile obtain a bachelor’s degree, while only 27 percent of adults from low-income backgrounds obtain that level of education. In addition, young adults who have experienced the foster care system have a college graduation rate of less than 10 percent. Disheartening statistics like these are the reason that Charlie Johnson, director of the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars program at IUPUI (Nina Scholars), has dedicated over a decade of his career to changing them.

Nina Scholars works with first-generation college students, adult students with dependents, those with physical disabilities, and those who have experienced foster care. The program awarded its first scholarships to five students in 2001 with funding from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

Nina Scholars has since grown to serve 33 students per year, with an average graduation rate of 77 percent, greatly differing from the rate of their peers. Two sister programs, Bowen Scholars and Fostering Success, have also emerged in an effort to serve even more students. So, how do scholarship programs begin to make up for the setbacks presented to students of its targeted demographics? According to Johnson, it’s all about “possibility.”

Though the scholarships do include financial assistance, all three programs revolve around a “transformative education” model. Johnson explains that this model teaches the scholars of “the possibility that everyone can learn, grow, develop, and contribute.” Rather than coming from the traditional one-style-fits-all way of teaching that is common, the three scholarships provide individual support for its students with consideration of the struggles they have dealt with and continue to face on a daily basis.

How can individuals from low-income backgrounds overcome and rise above the circumstances they’ve been given?

Charlie Johnson

Inspired by his own experiences as a first-generation college student, Johnson has been developing the education model since the start of Nina Scholars, seeking answers to questions such as, “How can individuals from low income backgrounds overcome and rise above the circumstances they’ve been given?”

Through years of research, Johnson has determined that the answer is ultimately, “Traditional support isn’t enough.” He explains, “We need to coach, guide, and teach students to develop the habits of mind and behavioral choices that promote self-acceptance, internal motivation, confidence, persistence, and resiliency.”

Scholars are taught, through cultural events, mentoring sessions, courses, and more, how to pursue growth and learning, to be flexible when facing difficulties, and to build a life with purpose. This technique has yielded definitively positive results, with a retention rate of 77 percent. Often times, the response to transformative education from students has been, “Why doesn’t everyone get to learn this?”

That sentiment formed the basis for Charlie Johnson and his colleagues’ recent ambitions, which triggered the expansion of the curriculum to include the two new programs, Bowen Scholars and Fostering Success. They continue to push the boundaries of possibility, seeking ways to bring transformative education to more underserved populations.