Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name

Communication Studies

Department or School/College

Department of Communication Studies

Committee Chair

Alan Sillars

Commitee Members

Frances O'Reilly, Greg Larson


counter-discourse strategies, credible others, identity support, identity tensions, identity work, nontraditional students


University of Montana


The purpose of this qualitative study is to explore the effects of identity supportive messages on nontraditional students in terms of facilitating identification with the student role. Identity support involves the extent to which an individual believes that others understand, accept, and/or provide instrumental support for valued social identities. Considering the life-changing (identity altering) adjustment of resuming school in the middle of adulthood and assuming the new “student” role—especially in connection with other roles and responsibilities—the relationship between nontraditional students and identity support is particularly salient. Twenty-four in-depth interviews helped identify encouraging and discouraging messages students received from a variety of sources. The results indicated that identity support served as an essential resource during the identity work process because it promoted or restored a sense of competence. Consequently, identity encouraging messages (particularly from “credible others”) helped motivate older adults to resume their educations, to persist through challenges and doubts, and to develop identity-preserving counter-discourses to cope with discouragement. Interestingly, counter-discourses were a type of identity work strategy utilized to counter negative identity messages and were co-constructed through a combination of personal agency and encouraging messages from supportive networks. From a practical standpoint, the results indicated that universities also play a role. They convey messages of support indirectly through the resources they provide to assist older learners. However, educational institutions can work to improve full recognition of nontraditional students on campus as valued members of the student body.



© Copyright 2011 Jessica Kate McFadden