Academic Struggles and Strategies: How Minority Students Persist

Insufficient progress has been made on advancing the representation of minorities in engineering professions. Our research seeks to identify characteristics and experiences that distinguish successful URM students in order to understand the complex relationships that affect a student’s choices and progress to degree. The research questions are: 1) What factors contribute to the success of URM students in engineering at large, predominantly white (PW) universities? and 2) What factors contribute to differential success among URM populations? URM engineering students are interviewed using a protocol designed to capture individual stories of lived experiences as students of color. This protocol was inspired by Gandara (1995), Seymour and Hewitt (1997), and Margolis & Fisher (2002). The quasi-longitudinal design involves new and repeat interviews of URM engineering students across sophomore, junior, and senior years. We have currently completed 168 interviews of 140 students and are immersed in coding the interview transcripts.

Initial analyses have allowed us to make observations regarding emerging themes in the data, some common among subsets of the URM groups and some group-specific. Many of the African American (AFAM), Native American (NAM), and Hispanic American (HAM) students talk about a need to persist in engineering despite unhappiness with the degree. For most students, changing majors was perceived as weakness and quitting, and many students felt pressure to be a role model for their family and their community. Students also described the need to find a balance between the different demands on their time, be it social, work, or academic.

NAM students expressed conflict between presentation and representation. For many, their cultural identity is scholarship driven and these students mostly reported a white identity. Even those students who expressed interest in participating in cultural organizations felt excluded because they weren’t “Indian enough” because they did not participate in tribal activities. Several NAM students expressed that their most significant barrier to success was the impact of growing up in a small rural town. HAM students also described identity tests – those who did not speak Spanish reported feeling unwelcome at certain cultural events. AFAM students reported feeling that they needed to prove themselves, not as African Americans, but rather within the context of a PW engineering classroom. These same students also described the cultural and social isolation experienced in these PW classrooms. However, many AFAM students rely on their relationships with family, friends, and peers, as well as their own perseverance, to help them succeed.

Asian American (ASAM) students were included in our sample because their experiences are distinctively different from that of the white majority. While ASAM students define family as being important, some feel their family is supportive while others describe the obstacles posed by family obligation. The pressure of the “model minority” was described by several participants in regards to their treatment within the academic environment. Of particular interest, ASAM students tend to shy away from extracurricular activities and are even discouraged by their families to participate. This creates a heightened isolation and exclusion from activities in the College.

Available from: Research Gate

Shehab, R. L., T. J. Murphy, J. Davidson, C. Foor, T. Reed-Rhoads, D. A. Trytten and S. E. Walden (2007). Academic Struggles and Strategies: How Minority Students Persist. Proceedings of 2007 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, HI.

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