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Dene Roseburr-Olotu, University of Central Oklahoma

Dene Roseburr-Olotu.jpgWhat is the Sunken Place? In Get Out, a critically acclaimed 2017 psychological thriller, the Sunken Place is a paralytic state of consciousness achieved through hypnosis (McKittrick, Blum, Hamm, & Peele, 2017). According to Jordan Peele, the writer and director of the film, “[The Sunken Place] means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us” (Peele, 2017). Although the basis of the Sunken Place is socially constructed to revolve around racial disparities, the reality of the concept applies to students in higher education as well—particularly those who identify as first generation, low-income, or minority.

In higher education, the Sunken Place means that students find themselves trapped in a relative state of existence where their voice is silenced and they experience a perpetual sense of helplessness. Specifically, an academic advisor may see the concept of the Sunken Place manifest with their students who are unable to pursue a major of interest due to parental influence. For many first generation, low-income, and minority students, financial shortcomings, familial obligations, and the realities of imposter syndrome often constitute the basis of their Sunken Place, creating a barrier on their path to achievement.

One way in which an academic advisor can empower students who find themselves in the Sunken Place is by employing the six stages of the Public Achievement model. This model was created by Dr. Harry Boyte in 1990 with the purpose of developing students into change agents (Harry Boyte, n.d.). Although the core concepts of the Public Achievement model are not new—it is built on the principles of coaching—at the very foundation of this model is the idea of creating an atmosphere for student ownership and student empowerment. Public Achievement provides a framework in which students are encouraged to create processes to become problem-solvers (Hildreth, 2000). By incorporating the ideals of the Public Achievement model into one’s personal philosophy, an advisor can help a student as they work to overcome their personal Sunken Place.

Exploration and Discovery

The first stage of the Public Achievement model is arguably the most important. During the Exploration and Discovery stage, advisors assist students in identifying and establishing their self-interest (The six stages of Public Achievement, n.d.). The advisor’s primary function throughout this stage is to help the student establish their goal and identify their motivation. Ultimately, the advisor encourages the student to answer two questions concisely: 1) What do you want? and 2) Why are you here?

Additionally, the advisor helps the student identify and recognize the skills and knowledge that they already possess that can help them achieve their goal. By facilitating a student’s self-evaluation, an advisor guides the overall process, ensuring that the student develops a positive sense of self-worth early within the overall process.

In practice, it is important for the student to not only verbalize their self-interest, but to keep record of it as well. The student’s ability to successfully surmount their personal Sunken Place is predicated on the ability of the student to revisit and remember their answer to the “What do you want?” question posed during this stage.

Issue Development

The second stage of the Public Achievement model is characterized by gathering specific information regarding the self-interest(s) identified during the Exploration and Discovery stage (The six stages of Public Achievement, n.d.). In particular, advisors should help students uncover potential obstacles or issues that may prevent them from achieving their goal. The Issue Development stage, as with all stages of the Public Achievement model, requires the student to assess the reality of their situation. The advisor’s role is simply to create an environment in which the student feels empowered to thoroughly examine challenges they may face. An advisor should ask questions like, “How can you get to your goal?” and “What may stop you from achieving it?”

As with the Exploration stage, it is important that the student write down and keep record of the issues they identify. Advisors should encourage students to make an inclusive and thorough list of obstacles that include not only outward challenges, but inward challenges as well. Advisors should encourage their students to perform truthful self-evaluations of any personal characteristics that may hinder the student from achieving their goal.

Problem Research

In the Problem Research stage, the student must explore the facts behind each issue identified (The six stages of Public Achievement, n.d.). The advisor must help the student deep-dive into each issue, urging them to discern which issues are true and actual or simply perceived.

Advisors should ask questions such as “Why does this particular issue exist?” and “When might this issue arise to hinder you from achieving your goal?” An advisor can help the student overcome or mitigate feelings of anxiety by pushing the student further in their assessment of the issue by asking questions such as “Who might be able to help you address this issue?” or “What resources do you have available that can help?”

During this stage, the advisor must help the student understand the background of the issue and identify ways to overcome that issue when it arises. By encouraging the student to recognize resources available to overcome an obstacle instead of simply zeroing in on that particular issue, advisors can ignite a student’s sense of autonomy. The student’s ability to recognize the power they possess and their self-sufficiency is a key aspect of the Public Achievement model and the cornerstone of creating a change agent.

Project Development (Designing an Action Plan)

The Project Development phase is where the student constructs a viable plan for addressing any issues or challenges identified during the Issue Development stage (The six stages of Public Achievement, n.d.). More specifically, the student moves beyond brainstorming and begins planning realistic solutions to their issues.

The advisor plays a critical role by ensuring that the student constructs an authentic and viable action plan (Hildreth, 1998). The advisor can assist the student in establishing timelines and breaking down complex solutions into smaller, more manageable steps. In practice, it is important that the advisor insist that the student write down their detailed action plan in tandem with their identified self-interest. This can help reinforce the student’s ownership of the process while being mindful of the steps they need to take to achieve their overall goal.

Implement Action Plan

In the Implement Action Plan stage, the student simply works their plan (The six stages of Public Achievement, n.d.). Advisors should encourage the student to establish accountability measures by asking, “How will you make sure you work your plan?” Additionally, an advisor may let the student know that they should feel empowered to adjust their plan as needed should an unexpected issue arise. 

Reflection and Celebration

The last step, Reflection and Celebration, requires the student to evaluate the success of their action plan (The six stages of Public Achievement, n.d.). Advisors should urge the student to answer the following questions, “What went well?” and “What will you do differently next time?” Most importantly, advisors should encourage the student to identify and celebrate at least three positive outcomes.


The Sunken Place for many students is very real and often robs them of their sense of agency, leaving them paralyzed and seemingly helpless (Moses, 2017). However, by utilizing the Public Achievement model, advisors can positively influence these marginalized students by empowering them to ultimately advocate for themselves and as Dr. Boyte (2018) states, help students “transform victimhood into agency.” (pp. 1–2)

Dene Roseburr-Olotu
Assistant Director
Diversity Retention
University of Central Oklahoma


Boyte, H. (2018). Awakening democracy through public work: Pedagogies of empowerment. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Harry Boyte. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://archive.hhh.umn.edu/people/hboyte/

Hildreth, R. W. (1998). Building worlds, transforming lives, making history: A guide to Public Achievement [Program Guide]. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Democracy and Citizenship, University of Minnesota.

Hildreth, R. W. (2000). Theorizing citizenship and evaluating public achievement. PS: Political Science and Politics, 33, 627–633.

McKittrick, S. (Producer), Blum, J. (Producer), Hamm Jr., E. (Producer), & Peele, J. (Director/Producer). (2017). Get out [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

Moses, J. (2017, March 9). ‘Get out’: What Black America knows about the sunken place [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/get-out-what-black-america-knows-about-the-sunken_us_58c199f8e4b0c3276fb7824a

Peele, J. [@JordanPeele]. (2017, March 16). The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/JordanPeele/status/842589407521595393

The six stages of public achievement. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://inside.augsburg.edu/publicachievement/teachers/six-stages-intro/

Cite this article using APA style as: Roseburr-Olutu, D. (2019, June). The sunken place: Using the public achievement model to empower marginalized students. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2019 June 42:2


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