Erika Lynne Forslund
Film and media portray higher education in a variety of ways. From unrealistic college residence halls to sensationalized individual student stories, audiences can quickly become captivated by the embellishment of higher education in film. As authors, we selected the 2019 Disney movie Safety as an opportunity to examine theory to practice through the lens of popular culture as it relates to contemporary college students. The movie was filmed on Clemson University’s campus in Fall 2019 and premiered on Disney+ in December 2020.
We originally chose this film for a graduate school podcast assignment and took viewing the film as an opportunity to see how Disney portrayed our institution. The film addresses common challenges contemporary college students may experience new student transition, family achievement guilt, roommate relationships, student-athlete academic balance, and more.
Hollywood productions often neglect to show the support student affairs professionals provide to college students. We examined college student experiences in the film and identified ways to use Safety to discuss higher education issues and explore creative pathways to utilize media in student affairs practice.
Overview of the Series
This article is the first in a two-part series on the utilization of film and media to discuss contemporary college students. This series was created to provide different perspectives on film analyses and usage within higher education, utilizing the Disney film Safety as a foundation for the series. The goal of this first article is to summarize the film, speak to how the film can be viewed with a student affairs lens, offer a critique that speaks to gaps in higher education, and connect McElrathbey’s journey to the experiences of contemporary college students. The second article in the series will discuss the application of theory to the film through Chickering’s theory of student development. In addition, we dive further into using the film for case study and training purposes. We hope this series provides opportunities for practitioners to reflect on their practice, create discussion of contemporary college student issues in practice, and find ways to incorporate film and media into classroom instruction, professional development practice, and departmental training.
Disney’s film Safety is based on the true story of former Clemson student-athlete Ray “Ray Ray” McElrathbey and his unique journey at Clemson University. The movie focused on the relationship between McElrathbey and his little brother Fahmarr, who is several years younger and living with their mother, who struggles with addiction. After moving into his residence hall and beginning practices as a Clemson football player, McElrathbey receives multiple calls from Fahmarr asking him to come home. After some time at Clemson University, McElrathbey returns home for a weekend to find his mother has been sent to an inpatient rehabilitation facility to receive the medical attention and support she needs, and Fahmarr will be sent to foster care unless a new legal guardian steps in to care for him.
Therefore, McElrathbey chooses to secretly care for him and brings him to live on campus which could jeopardize his scholarship and NCAA eligibility. However, he does tell his roommate as it would be impossible to hide his brother. McElrathbey, with assistance from his roommate, goes to extremes to avoid others finding out about his familial obligation and responsibilities. For example, McElrathbey makes his younger brother hide and sneak around to avoid any friends, coaches, and University professionals including his RA.
As the movie continues, McElrathbey’s teammates and coaches learn of Fahmarr living on campus and McElrathbey must decide if he will send Fahmarr to foster care. The two brothers take a bus and return home to visit their mother to determine a more permanent plan of care for Fahmarr. Upon their arrival, she informs them that she has decided to go to an extended rehabilitation program to get more of the treatment she needs. At this point in the film, McElrathbey is extremely conflicted as he does not want to send his brother back to foster care, but also does not want to lose his spot on Clemson’s football team. At the time, McElrathbey sends Fahmarr back to foster care.
When he returns to school, McElrathbey tries to return to his “normal” student-athlete routine. However, the viewer can tell McElrathbey feels he has abandoned his younger brother. When trying to manage his feelings about his mother, his brother, and the constant stress of being a student-athlete, McElrathbey finally decides to tell his girlfriend Kaycee about the challenges he is facing. Kaycee is shocked to learn McElrathbey has been trying to manage being a student, an athlete, and a parental figure to his brother. Kaycee then convinces McElrathbey to talk to his coach and see if there is a way to still take care of his brother and be on Clemson’s football team. McElrathbey has an impromptu meeting with Coach Simmons, who decides to help him get Fahmarr out of the foster care system temporarily. Afterwards, McElrathbey and his brother find an off-campus apartment.
Kaycee decides to write a story in the Clemson school newspaper, “The Tiger”, about McElrathbey’s athletic success and the challenges he faces taking care of his brother. The story quickly spreads around the Clemson community, and others who do not know McElrathbey begin to reach out and help the brothers. For example, members of the local church decide to help with an apartment project, Coach Simmons’ wife provides Fahmarr with rides to school, and the film depicts a scene where the Simmons family hosts the brothers for a meal.
The climax of the films occurs after the article about McElrathbey and Fahmarr spreads rapidly and becomes an NCAA eligibility issue in terms of violating the benefits student-athletes can receive. Such violations could include receiving financial assistance outside of scholarships or accepting favors from coaches and the community. The NCAA and the Clemson football coaching staff explain to McElrathbey that if he continues to take care of his brother and receive help from others, McElrathbey could lose his athletic scholarship and spot on the football team. The NCAA alerts McElrathbey that he must appeal his case to the NCAA through an eligibility hearing.
To fight for his right to take care of his brother, McElrathbey takes on complete legal guardianship of Fahmarr. Towards the end of the movie, McElrathbey meets with his mother and asks her to relinquish her parental rights. This is truly a hard decision for his mother, as she knows that once the paperwork is signed, she will no longer legally be Fahmarr’s mother. McElrathbey explains this is the only way to create stability for Fahmarr since there is no knowing how long she will be in treatment. She agrees to sign away her rights.
At the conclusion of the film, McElrathbey attends a NCAA eligibility hearing and reads his statement where he explains that he wants to take care of his brother with or without football. He also explains to everyone present that he has taken on full guardianship of his brother. Finally, the NCAA eligibility committee votes in favor of McElrathbey allowing him to receive benefits to support himself and his brother, obtain his education, and stay on the football team. The film is a story of brotherhood, familial hardship, higher education, college athletics, and contemporary college student issues.
Critique of the Film
Although this movie provides opportunities to learn about student affairs issues and practice applying theory, we offer a critique of the film’s portrayal of the student experience. Bryman (2004) defined Disneyfication as “to translate or transform an object into something superficial and even simplistic…applying a distinctive template to stories and legends” associated with “trivialization and sanitization” (p.12). Disney movies frequently depict characters overcoming and being successful no matter what they face. Disneyfication applies to Safety because the film portrays a student overcoming all obstacles successfully. Additionally, throughout his journey, McElrathbey was surrounded and supported by the Clemson community. At Clemson, one may hear the concept of and experience the “Clemson Family” as it is a theme of the institution. However, scholars have found that particularly first generation and other underrepresented students do not always feel a sense of belonging in higher education (Hurtado & Alvarado, 2015; O’Keefe, 2013; Strayhorn, 2008, 2018). Therefore, the embellishment of the Clemson Family, in the film could be seen as another form of the Disneyfication of Clemson University. We as professionals can clearly express to our students, particularly underrepresented students, that we are available to help, and truly mean it, if they need anything.
Furthermore, sense of belonging issues are overlooked in Safety regarding students of color at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). Students of Color may not feel as welcome at PWIs for various reasons, such as buildings bearing names of slave owners or higher education’s history of racism and oppression and institutions still working to own up to the histories of ancestral lands and those who built the institutions (Thomas, 2020). The movie does not go into Clemson’s history, but institutional history should be considered in fostering a sense of belonging for students at any institution. Practitioners should critically analyze how students on our campuses feel and work to remove barriers as a means of providing open and welcoming spaces that foster success for all.
Finally, the movie does not thoroughly explore the impact of students’ home lives and resulting impacts on college success. Many administrators, practitioners, and faculty assume students have a stable place to go during breaks. However, this is not always true, and some students combat homelessness and food insecurity even while in school (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018). It is imperative that student affairs professionals build rapport and trust with students to fully know and understand their individual backgrounds. As professionals, this film is a reminder to build strong relationships and positive regard with students to ensure they have the support they need on and off campus.
Viewing the Film with a Student Affairs Lens
Safety highlights aspects of college student development and transition. This movie is an ideal resource for teaching, programming, or other transition and development activities. As student affairs professionals, our role is to support students like McElrathbey. Since the film lacks a major student affairs character, it is a great tool for discussing what a higher education professional could have done to help McElrathbey navigate challenges faced. Both student affairs and academic affairs staff can be instrumental sources of support for students. The work we do to support students on campus goes well beyond the classroom.
Students in Transition
Students coming to college are in new settings facing challenges and responsibilities they have not previously encountered. We see this in Safety as McElrathbey works to adjust to his new setting, schedule, and academic responsibilities at Clemson University. At the beginning of the movie, McElrathbey asks his coach to leave practice early to get his textbooks before the book-store closes. When the coach says no, McElrathbey runs to the bookstore and begs a student worker closing to let him get his textbooks. Here McElrathbey navigates new responsibilities while also trying to be a successful student.
What might a student affairs professional, coach, or other university employee have done to assist McElrathbey? Without assistance to McElrathbey (and other students), there is extra stress on students to figure things out on their own. A student experiencing this kind of situation is under pressure to meet both academic and involvement obligations. Parham (1993) wrote that student-athletes in transition are:
(a) learning to balance academic and athletic pursuits; (b) adapting to a certain degree of isolation from social and more “mainstream” activities; (c) managing success or lack thereof; (d) attending to their own physical health in a more deliberate way so as to minimize injury and subsequent rehabilitation; (e) satisfying multiple relationships, including those having to do with coaches, parents, friends, and community; and (f) terminating an athletic career and finding other activities in which participating will bring about a very similar, if not a more heightened level of satisfaction. (p. 412)
In Disney’s production of Safety, for McElrathbey to achieve holistic success, he had to cultivate a balance between athletic and academic commitments, manage relationships, balance athletic and social lives, and navigate familial responsibilities. Again, student or academic affairs professionals could have assisted him with these challenges.
Achievement guilt is another issue students navigate and is represented in the film. Family achievement guilt includes “feelings of discomfort with one’s college success, particularly in the context of family members” (Covarrubias et al., 2015, p. 2031). Covarrubias et al. (2015) found that in college students an association exists between increased family achievement and increased depressive symptoms. This experience can impact student mental health.
In Safety, McElrathbey struggles with achievement guilt and worries he has abandoned his brother by going to college. When Fahmarr describes an instance where he hid money in his room and his mother found and stole the money from him, McElrathbey says he did not know that was happening. To which Fahmarr responds “and you wouldn’t, because you left me” (Hudlin, 2020, 46:11). The sense that McElrathbey left his family behind to create a different future for himself was difficult for him to work through and mirrors what other students experience. Higher education professionals working with students expressing achievement guilt should actively listen to student stories, explain the concept of achievement guilt, help students name their feelings, and offer university services that provide mental health and other support as needed.
Like other college students, McElrathbey develops a social circle and finds a sense of community while transitioning to college. One of McElrathbey’s first friends in the film is his roommate Daniel, who quickly learns of McElrathbey’s family circumstances and even helps take care of Fahmarr. Like other contemporary college students, McElrathbey is skeptical of his roommate at first, but finds they have more in common than he initially believed.
The support and friendship McElrathbey developed with Daniel are prominent in the film. For example, when McElrathbey finds himself having to run on the football field as punishment for hiding taking care of Fahmarr from his coaches, Daniel explains what this relationship means to him. Daniel says, “I helped Ray hide the kid coach. He runs, I should be running” (Hudlin, 2020, 59:35). This scene is a turning point where McElrathbey and Daniel realize they are not just roommates; they are friends, brothers, and support systems for each other.
Student-Athlete Academic Commitments
The unique circumstances of student-athletes are other important aspects of the film. Parham (1993) wrote that student-athletes’ academic responsibilities during their sport’s season create challenges inside and outside the classroom. Student-athletes try to balance their multiple commitments as “one’s participation in both domains really does test the mental and physical stamina of even the most well balanced and committed student-athlete” (Parham, 1993, p. 413).
As a first-year student, McElrathbey registered for 18 credit hours in his first semester, a large course load for any student. At a study hall, McElrathbey’s Academic Advisor, Mr. Kurt, comments he is worried that McElrathbey may be trying to balance too many commitments. Mr. Kurt asks McElrathbey if he feels that this course load could be too much given his dedication to football. McElrathbey replies, “They’re free classes, why not take advantage?” (Hudlin, 2020, 34:35). McElrathbey felt that he needed to be a successful athlete as well as make the most of his scholarship and education.
Practitioner Examples: Academic Advising and Cooperative Education
In higher education, functional areas can look different as we strive to support student success. We (the authors) have provided practitioner examples of how professionals can support students facing challenges like those faced by McElrathbey.
As an Academic Advisor and Coach (Erika) in Clemson University’s Academic Success Center, members of our advising team focus on supporting students and empowering them to become confident and independent learners. Additionally, we support students in one-on-one academic advising and coaching appointments. Our academic coaching appointments focus on asking students open-ended questions about their goals, academic skills, study strategies, and organizational skills. While I do not work with student-athletes, I do work with students like McElrathbey, who may find themselves trying to navigate multiple priorities at once. As an Academic Coach, I wonder what it would be like if McElrathbey had sought out support from either athletics or other departments on campus to discuss his overall approach to academic success. When students have multiple priorities, I try to discuss what may be most urgent. Or, if they are trying to build a schedule and routine, I may inquire about their negotiable and non-negotiable commitments. The challenge McElrathbey faced, unlike other students, is that it seemed nothing for him felt non-negotiable. His goal was to support his brother, no matter the academic or athletic implications.
Students have responsibilities such as regularly taking care of their families, which requires extra effort to manage, as seen with McElrathbey. In my role (Shauna) as an advisor for the Clemson University Cooperative Education (Co-op) Program, I speak with students about possible academic-engaged learning opportunities available through the Program. Students in the Program complete multiple rotational experiences under a mentor from a company teaching partner within their field of study. When discussing companies and co-op assignments of interest, students sometimes express obligations that require them to stay near their family as they have caretaker responsibilities for parents, siblings, or other family members. I work with these students to meet their interests in professional assignments while considering their outside commitments by discussing which co-op assignments meet their professional interests. Taking the extra time needed to get to know my students helps me learn about them as individuals and ensure I am providing tailored support on their higher education journey.
Finally, due to the impact of COVID-19, we also now see a desire for students to take classes virtually. As mentioned earlier, Safety takes place in the early 2000s, a time when asynchronous classes were a concept of the future. However, now students normally log on to Zoom classes. What would be the benefits and challenges of McElrathbey potentially completing classes online in terms of supporting Fahmarr and navigating his responsibilities? Regardless, the desire to support his brother, transition, and succeed are constant themes in the film and for college students today. Still, the individualized challenge and support that student affairs professionals provide helps students like McElrathbey succeed.
Safety provides a peek into the life of a college student-athlete. We valued the opportunity to analyze Safety to assess student needs and consider how the experiences portrayed in the movie relate to real-life work as higher education professionals. Furthermore, we encourage you to watch the film and see if and how your analysis aligns with ours. More topics than we discussed may provide inspiration in your higher education practice. The discussion questions below serve as a viewing guide for analyzing the movie and determining how you can use the themes discussed in the film and this article in your work. Finally, as previously mentioned, inspiration for analyzing this movie came from a course assignment to create a podcast. If you would like to review our podcast, here is a link to the podcast: Based on a True Story: Analyzing Disney’s Safety Movie & Contemporary College Students.
Reflection Questions & Viewing Guide
- What was your transition to college like?
- Did you face similar or different challenges than those McElrathbey faced?
- What challenges did your peers face?
- How can you support yourself and your peers in obtaining support during transition?
- What impact does this movie have on higher education or contemporary college students?
- What are some common themes or experiences that you have seen in films that portray higher education issues?
- As an emerging practitioner, how would you support in a similar situation to McElrathbey in your functional area?
- If you found out about a student in a situation like McElrathbey, what would you do as a Student Affairs professional? How could different function areas help?
- What resources exist on your campus to support a student in crisis?
- How can you use the discussion presented in your role? What implications can you pull?
- What would happen if more faculty knew about McElrathbey’s situation earlier on in the film?
- If a student was struggling in a course, would you speak with the student individually to see what is causing the situation?
- How could you use this movie, or other film and media, in the classroom to provide case study examples?
- As a student-athlete, what education or information was provided to you about NCAA eligibility and inequitable benefits?
- If McElrathbey was on your team or played your sport, what would you do if you found he was hiding his brother?
- In your opinion, what are some ethical issues or challenges that student-athletes face?
- Where do you prioritize your energy as a student athlete – in athletics or academics? What does your institution, coaches, or team want you to prioritize?
Film In Higher Education:
- How might you see this film fitting in the context of training or development in your office or unit?
- What other films or media help surface the issues identified here?
- What are the benefits and challenges of using popular culture to frame student affairs work?
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Covarrubias, R., Romero, A., & Trivelli, M. (2015). Family achievement guilt and mental well-being of college students. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(7), 2031-2037.
Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., & Cady, C. (2018). Still hungry and homeless in college. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. http://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Wisconsin-HOPE-Lab-Still-Hungry-and-Homeless.pdf
Hudlin, R. (Director). (2020). Safety [Film]. Disney.
Hurtado, S. & Alvarado, A. R. (2015). Discrimination and bias, underrepresentation, and sense of belonging on campus. Higher Education Research Institute. https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/83064/DiscriminationBiasCampus.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
O’Keefe, P. (2013). A sense of belonging: Improving student retention. College Student Journal,
Parham, W. D. (1993). The Intercollegiate Athlete: A 1990s Profile. The Counseling Psychologist, 21(3), 411–429.
Strayhorn, T. L. (2008). Sentido de pertenencia: A hierarchical analysis predicting sense of belonging among Latino college students. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 7(4), 301-320.
Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.
Thomas, R. (2020). Call My Name, Clemson: Documenting the Black experience in an American university community. University of Iowa Press.
Shauna Hines-Farmer is an Assistant Director for the Cooperative Education Program at Clemson University. She received her M.Ed. from Clemson University in 2021, and BA in Exercise and Sport Science and BA in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018.
Erika Lynne Forslund (she/her/hers) M.Ed: Is an Academic Advising and Coaching Specialist in Clemson University’s Academic Success Center. Erika also received her M.Ed. from Clemson University in May 2021, and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in May 2019. Erika enjoys working with Exploratory Students, First-Generation Students, and Student-Athletes. Erika is originally from Apex, NC, and sees Baxter Magolda’s Self-Authorship (2004), Chickering’s Student Development Theory, (1969-1993) and Sanford’s Challenge and Support Model (1962) all as applied theories in her advising philosophy.