Based on a True Story: Using Theory to Analyze Disney’s Film “Safety”

As higher education professionals, we are constantly trying to apply theory to practice. However, it can be challenging to make those connections especially when first learning this information in graduate school and/or as new professionals. While case studies are an excellent way for student affairs professionals to practice their understanding of theory, it can sometimes be challenging to see theory impact a student’s academic journey.

Films are an excellent way for student affairs faculty to bring media into the classroom. Hunt (2001) supports the use of media in the classroom. “Because of the drama involved, students often become engaged in a film’s storyline both intellectually and emotionally and are therefore better able to identify the links between the story details and related course concepts” (Hunt, 2001, p. 632). Additionally, Cummins (2004) explored a similar approach when discussing ways to apply film to understanding leadership. “Modern media, however, can offer the perfect opportunity to combine concepts in an integrated, natural flow that closely mirrors everyday happenings” (Cummins, 2004, p. 144). Therefore, using film may appeal to more learning styles and allow for more classroom collaboration and discussion related to applying student affairs theory to practices.

Beyond the classroom, student affairs practitioners can apply theory to media to fine-tune their own theoretical applications. Analyzing films with a theoretical lens allows for ongoing professional development practice and creative thinking through application to popular culture mediums. Furthermore, by watching student development theory exemplified through character behaviors, student affairs professionals may feel more inclined to start conversations with colleagues about issues addressed in the film. Students may see aspects of their college journey represented in the film and be encouraged to see how they have combated challenges and how they have progressed throughout their higher education experience.

We initially chose Chickering’s (1969) theory because the theory is one of the most familiar theories in student affairs and in higher education in general. The theory describes different vectors or stages students move through throughout their entire academic journey to establish their purpose or goal in life. However, Chickering’s (1969) theory is not the only theory that can be recognized in the film. As McElrathbey has several intersecting identities and faces various challenges, multiple theories can be applied to the film Safety. We hope that by applying Chickering, this article acts as one example of how theory can be applied to popular culture and used as a case study, training tool, or professional development technique.

Overview of the Series

This article is the second of a two-part series on using 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 first article provides an in-depth summarization of the film and speaks to how the film can be viewed with a student affairs lens, offers a critique that speaks to gaps in higher education, and connects McElrathbey’s journey to the experiences of contemporary college students. This second article in the series provides a brief overview of the film and discusses the application of theory using Chickering’s theory of student development as an example.

Disney’s Safety was set at Clemson University where we work, so we took viewing the film as an opportunity to see how Disney portrayed a student’s experience on our campus. Although the creators and writers of Safety may not be student affairs professionals, student development is a strong theme of the film. The film provides an opportunity to explore student development theory in a way that can be examined, dissected, discussed, and deeply understood by graduate students, faculty, and practitioners in the field. We hope this series provides opportunities for practitioners to reflect on their practice, create discussion of contemporary college student issues, and find ways to incorporate film and media into their daily practice.

Film Overview

Disney’s film Safety is based on the true story of former Clemson student-athlete Ray “Ray Ray” McElrathbey. The movie focused on McElrathbey and his younger brother Fahmarr who is living with their mother, who struggles with drug addiction. After moving into his residence hall and beginning practices as a Clemson Football player, McElrathbey learns his mother has been sent to a long-term rehabilitation program and his brother will be sent to foster care. McElrathbey jeopardizes his NCAA eligibility by secretly bringing Fahmarr to live on campus.

However, the secret does not last long as McElrathbey’s roommate, friends, and coaches learn about Fahmarr living on campus. This news spreads and his coach, community church members, and professors try to help McElrathbey support Fahmarr. Once the story becomes public, both Clemson’s Compliance Office and the NCAA learn of the story and inform McElrathbey that he could lose his spot on Clemson’s Football Team and as a result of NCAA violations. Ultimately, McElrathbey appeals to the NCAA to testify about why he should not have to choose between his brother and his college education. Finally, the NCAA allows McElrathbey to remain on the team and receive his benefits while serving as his brother’s legal guardian.

Applying Chickering to Safety: Identity Development

Throughout Safety, student development theory can be applied to McElrathbey’s academic and athletic journey. Chickering’s (1969) student development theory explores how college students develop as they learn to manage and move through seven vectors (Patton et al., 2016). The seven vectors include:

  • Developing Competence – This vector includes “intellectual competence, physical competence, and interpersonal competence” (Patton, 2016, p. 297).
  • Managing Emotions – “In this vector, students develop the ability to recognize and accept emotions as well as appropriately express and control them” (Patton, 2016, p. 298).
  • Moving Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence – This vector takes place when students make decisions and think critically on their own yet begin to understand they are connected to others within their community (Patton, 2016, p. 298).
  • Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships – “The tasks within this vector include development on intercultural and interpersonal tolerance and appreciation of differences as well as capacity for healthy and lasting intimate relationships with partners and close friends “Patton, 2016, p. 298)
  • Establishing Identity – Identity includes an understanding and “comfort” with a sense of self (e.g. gender, sex, ethnicity, etc.) (Patton, 2016, p. 298).
  • Developing Purpose – This vector relates to the idea of students developing a sense of their long-term career aspirations (Patton, 2016, p. 299).
  • Developing Integrity – This vector includes “humanizing values, personal values, and developing congruence” (Patton, 2015, p.290).

It is important to note that Chickering’s theory is dynamic; therefore, the vectors do not need to be completed in order. Watching the movie using a theoretical lens, such as through Chickering’s (1969) vectors, viewers can see a student’s (aka. McElrathbey) development (Cummins, 2004). The following sections provide examples of Chickering’s (1969) vectors applied to scenes that capture McElrathbey’s student development.

Developing Competence

As a student-athlete, McElrathbey strives to find success as both a scholar and athlete. The film begins with him establishing competence in these areas. His experience is complicated by his familial commitments.

Developing Competence “involves both a person’s intellectual competence and physical competence to gain and acquire necessary skills for success within higher education” (Patton et al., 2016, p. 297). Specifically focusing on the protagonists’ experiences as a student and an athlete, one way this surfaces in the film is McElrathbey’s time management related to academics, football, and family. Patton et al. (2016) wrote “intellectual competence involves acquisition of knowledge and skills related to a particular subject matter” (p. 297). While “physical competence comes through athletic and recreational activities, attention to wellness, and involvement in artistic and manual activities” (Patton el al., 2016, p. 297-298). McElrathbey’s experience exemplifies both.

At the beginning of the film, McElrathbey strives to establish the competence to be the best student-athlete he can be. He tries to find the necessary skills to manage his time between football, classes and caring for his brother. Like other college students, McElrathbey struggles to feel competent and confident in all three of these areas. With McElrathbey’s commitment to schoolwork and to helping Fahmarr, he lacks the physical competence needed to be energized and mentally prepared for the demands of football.

At one point, McElrathbey’s girlfriend Kaycee becomes worried about his ability to manage everything. He responds, “I’m sorry. I was planning to come, but then I got pulled into something last minute that I couldn’t get out of… I’m sorry. I’m just running late. I’ll make it up to you. I promise” (Hudlin, 2020, 33:50). Throughout the film, the viewer watches McElrathbey struggle to develop the competence to balance priorities, including taking care of Fahmarr, the physical demands of collegiate football, and being a dedicated student in the classroom.


Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships

Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships speaks specifically to how “experiences with relationships contribute significantly to the development of a sense of self” (Patton et al., 2016, p. 298). For example, McElrathbey builds relationships with his brother Fahmarr and Kaycee.

Safety reminds student affairs professionals of the multiple roles college students must navigate during their developmental journeys. The most vital relationship in the film is between McElrathbey and Fahmarr. McElrathbey knows that he must develop a mature relationship with Fahmarr and become more of a parent than a brother in the film. This requires McElrathbey to make sacrifices that put his collegiate career in jeopardy.

Fahmarr looks to McElrathbey as a role model. Once McElrathbey learns his mother is in a rehabilitation program and Fahmarr is home alone, he decides he needs to step in to help his brother avoid foster care. Thus, McElrathbey must navigate his identity of being a student-athlete and being a system of support for his younger brother. However, McElrathbey is first under the impression that stepping in as a parent or guardian of Fahmarr is temporary. As Fahmarr is walking away with the social worker and getting ready to be sent to foster care, McElrathbey says, “I’ll take him. It’s just thirty days, right?” (Hudlin, 2020, 24:49). This choice is just the first example of McElrathbey’s conscious choice to develop a deeper relationship and take care of his brother. If it were not for this decision, McElrathbey might not have moved through this vector in a way that allowed him to continue to grow throughout the film.

After McElrathbey temporarily retakes custody of Fahmarr for a second time, he sets an expectation with Fahmarr regarding their relationship. McElrathbey brings him to the side of a road by a street sign and gives his brother to paths to choose from saying:

So right now, I’m all you got. And I’m risking everything for us to have a real life, but you will not disrespect me anymore. That’s it. North, you do what I say and when I say it. South, you go back to the system and wait on mom. Your choice. (Hudlin, 2020, 1:05:47)

Fahmarr chooses north. This interaction strengthens the relationship by clearly defining each person’s role.

In addition to his relationship with his brother, McElrathbey develops a mature relationship with his girlfriend, Kaycee. Kaycee and McElrathbey build a connection from the beginning of the film when Kaycee opens the bookstore for McElrathbey to pick up his school supplies after hours. McElrathbey quickly finds friendship and trust with Kaycee as she is in one of his classes.

After becoming close friends, McElrathbey asks Kaycee on a date. Like other college students, this could be McElrathbey’s first adult romantic relationship. McElrathbey, at one point, struggles to find time to spend with Kaycee because he is trying to hide Fahmarr on campus. However, McElrathbey eventually chooses to be honest with Kaycee. He explains to her the challenges he and his brother face.

For example, McElrathbey initially lied to Kaycee about his family and said his mother was a traveling nurse. However, once Kaycee finds Fahmarr’s undergarments in the residence hall laundry room, McElrathbey admits his “mother isn’t a nurse; she’s a drug addict” (Hudlin, 2020, 1:01:24). Once Kaycee processes the information, she agrees to help McElrathbey and remains his girlfriend. This moment in the film is an excellent example of college students’ vulnerable decisions to maintain mature relationships.

Developing Purpose and Integrity

Developing Purpose includes “developing clear vocational goals, making meaningful commitments to specific interests, and activities establishing strong interpersonal commitments” (Patton et al., 2016, p. 299). Developing Integrity is “humanizing values, personalizing values, and developing congruence” (Patton et al., 2016, p. 299). Out of all the vectors that McElrathbey moves through, this is one of the most significant as he discovers what is most important to him. While McElrathbey may initially think his purpose is to be a student or a football player, he realizes his goal is much larger. His purpose in life is to support his brother.

Additionally, McElrathbey needed to understand his values to request an appeal and hearing with the NCAA to fight for the support he needed to help Fahmarr. At the end of the film, McElrathbey speaks about how engaging in the NCAA Eligibility Appeal process required him to choose between football and his family. McElrathbey demonstrates development in this vector when he says, “There’s no going back for me. I’m Fay’s brother, his father, and whatever else he’ll ever need me to be, but these men are my brothers too” (Hudlin, 2020, 1:49:27). For any college student, especially a student-athlete, this would be a tough decision. However, by the end of the film, the audience sees how McElrathbey’s purpose and integrity have developed. He describes that he is willing to give up his education and athletic career because of his ultimate goal and purpose of being a parental figure to Fahmarr. This decision required integrity and self-reflection and is ultimately the reason the NCAA grants McElrathbey’s appeal and offers extended support to help him and Fahmarr.

 Utilizing Safety in the Classroom

Analyzing Safety with a student affairs lens is just one way to connect student development theory to popular culture. The assignment guide below lists different ways student affairs faculty, students, and professionals can utilize the film in training and classwork. Using these creative ideas can help future student affairs professionals better understand the ways Chickering’s work can be applied. As student development theory is one of the fundamental teachings of the field, using it in a creative format helps student affairs professionals recognize development in students like McElrathbey and others. As student affairs faculty members empower the next generation of higher education professionals, we have created the assignment below to brainstorm different ways the film can be utilized both inside and outside the classroom.

Out of Class Viewing Assignment

Faculty often assign textbook readings to understand or expand on topics to be discussed in class. Rather than posting a reading assignment, consider having students view the film individually outside of class. If you have hesitation about the subscription required to watch the movie, a month’s Disney+ subscription costs less than a textbook at $7.99 per month. Students can watch the movie together or do a Disney+ group watch viewing of the film. When viewing the film outside of class, assign a discussion board or create a viewing guide or discussion questions for students to consider, so they actively engage with the film. While watching the movie, ask students to take notes for an in-class group discussion or a short reflection assignment.

In Class Viewing Assignment

Students could also benefit from watching the film in class. Instead of preparing a lecture for that day, consider showing the film. Safety is 2 hours and 3 minutes, so this may need to be a multi-day lesson plan depending on class length. Faculty can encourage students to think about the representation of different theories while viewing the film or assign groups of students to a specific student affairs theory. Additionally, if wanting to focus on Chickering specifically, other groups can be assigned different vectors to find examples of the vector throughout the film. Finally, an in-class viewing could serve as a case study. After viewing the film, students can present their ideas to the rest of the class and describe what they would do as student affairs professionals to help a student like McElrathbey.

Asynchronous Vector Scene Selections

Rather than making students watch the entire film, instructors could select specific scenes demonstrating Chickering’s vectors. Students can then write or speak about their key takeaways from the scene(s) and how they saw the different vectors depicted. We have selected the following scenes as examples of the vectors. However, professors could also approach this activity with a flipped classroom model and ask the students to look for examples of scenes in the film where they see the vectors illustrated and why.

  • Developing competence (5:03 – 16:13): In these scenes, McElrathbey is learning how to manage to be a student-athlete, and the different skill sets his athletic and academic identities require. He struggles to learn how to manage his time, build relationships with teammates and classmates, and answer his brother’s calls.
  • Managing Emotions (53:13 – 57:30): These scenes showcase McElrathbey’s emotions as he learns that his mother has decided to extend her rehabilitation program. His dedication to Fahmarr became more to manage on top of McElrathbey’s schoolwork and athletic career. In these scenes, McElrathbey shifts from angry to sad to mentally and physically exhausted when trying to decide his next steps for his younger brother.
  • Moving Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence (1:06:43 – 1:15:00): Here, we see what McElrathbey’s life is like once he moves off-campus with his brother and they begin a new autonomous life without having to sneak around the campus residence halls. McElrathbey steps into fatherhood quickly by finding support for Fahmarr’s schooling and schedule while also managing his own college student responsibilities. Several members of the community begin to reach out and support McElrathbey.
  • Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships (1:01:26 – 1:02:53 and 1:40:09 – 1:43:29): In these scenes, we see McElrathbey begin to use self-disclosure with Kaycee about Fahmarr and have a mature discussion with his mother about relinquishing her parental rights. In both selections, McElrathbey is vulnerable and has open and honest communication that allows the relationships to grow and develop. Although these conversations are hard, they are necessary to cultivate mature relationships.
  • Establishing Identity: (1:26:46 – 1:34:01) Although establishing identity is conveyed at multiple points in the film, this selection has a wide array of areas where the vector can be applied. In the movie, McElrathbey is seen as a brother, a parent, a student, and an athlete. It may also be a good idea to ask students to list other examples beyond this scene where McElrathbey’s identity is developing.
  • Developing Purpose and Integrity (1:49:27 – 1:54:59): This scene demonstrates when McElrathbey has fully understood his roles in life and what guides his values. He had determined his purpose of being both a student-athlete and supporting his brother. His testimony demonstrates his integrity to stand up for his values and why he should pursue his purpose. The end of the film speaks to the life that McElrathbey provided for Fahmarr by stepping in as his sole caretaker, so his mother was able to focus on her recovery as a result. This decision speaks to McElrathbey’s commitment to upholding his values of family, academics, and athletics.


We encourage you to consider how you might incorporate different films and student affairs theories into your own professional growth, training, and development. Chickering’s (1969) student development theory provides one example of using popular culture as a catalyst for discussing student affairs in everyday life. Beyond Chickering’s theory, viewers might also use Kohlberg’s (1976) theory of moral development, Perry’s (1968) stages of intellectual development, Yosso’s (2005) cultural wealth model, Crenshaw’s (1989) concept of intersectionality, and others to analyze this film. We recommend watching the movie and noting what vectors you see. Additionally, consider your favorite higher education films and look for moments where student affairs theories can be applied to them. Disney’s Safety is not only an inspiring sports film but an innovative way to see how student affairs professionals can play critical roles in helping students like McElrathbey grow and develop throughout their academic journey.

Film Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with the analyses of Chickering to McElrathbey’s development? Why or why not?
  2. What other development theories could you practice applying to the characters in Safety?
  3. What other films can you see Chickering’s Theory of Student Development Theory applied in characters and why? What vectors can you see at specific points in different films?
  4. What other theories do you feel apply to this film? How so?

Theory-Based Discussion Questions

  1. What other alternative sources do you know of that you might use to explore applying student affairs theories (i.e., podcasts, TV shows, TedTalks)?
  2. McElrathbey is a cisgender, Black/African American, male student-athlete. What theories can you use beyond Chickering’s to analyze McElrathbey’s identity that focus on the intersectionality of his various identities?
  3. Beyond viewing a film, what other settings can graduate students or new professionals make connections between student development theories and popular culture (i.e. workshops, lunch and learns, lesson plan, student training activities)?


Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity. Jossey-Bass.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139-167.

Cummins, R. L. (2007). Can modern media inform leadership education and development? Advances in Developing Human Resources, 9(2), 143–145.

Hudlin, R. (Director). (2020). Safety [Film]. Disney.

Hunt, C. S. (2001). Must see TV: The timelessness of television as a teaching tool. Journal of Management Education, 25(6), 631-647.

Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-development approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory research and social issues (pp. 31-53). Harper & Row.

Patton, L. D., Renn, K. A., Guido, F. M., & Quaye, S. J. (2016). Student development in college:

Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed). John Wiley & Sons.

Perry, W. G. (1968). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years : A scheme. Jossey-Bass.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

Author Bios

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.

Shauna Hines-Farmer (she/her) is an Assistant Director for the Cooperative Education Program at Clemson University. She completed her M.Ed. at Clemson University in 2021, and B.A.s in Exercise and Sport Science and in Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018.