“Success is Different to Different People”: A Qualitative Study of how African American Engineering Students Define Success

There have been many calls to build the Nation’s STEM workforce by attracting and educating more students in academic STEM programs.1-4 Much of the emphasis has been placed on building more diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields by focusing attention and resources towards building equitable representation of STEM graduates among under-represented groups.2, 3, 5 One potential pitfall to establishing more diversity in STEM fields may be a lack of understanding of the differences among our under- represented and under-served groups. In particular, it may be important to understand whether or not there are differences in how under-represented minority (URM) engineering students define personal success as compared to majority engineering students. Understanding these potential differences may enable university administrators and faculty to educate and support these students in relevant ways that enhance their ability to succeed.

This analysis was drawn from a larger study that employed interdisciplinary, mixed-methods to identify factors contributing to the successful retention and graduation of under-represented and under-served minority engineering students at a predominately white research institution. URM engineering students participated in face-to-face interviews designed to engage them in reflection and discussion of their lived experiences as engineering students. From this larger data set, a demographically diverse set of 20 African American engineering students were sampled to address the research questions: How does self-defined success relate to academic performance of successful African American engineering students? What demographic factors contribute to how success is defined?

Responses were thematically categorized, numerically analyzed, and viewed through the lenses of social-cognitive and goal theories to more easily interpret the influence of differentiating factors in students’ definitions of personal success. The majority of engineering students’ definitions centered on graduating college, overall happiness, career, family, or money, and most definitions contained multiple themes. Though there was no apparent relationship between academic performance and the definitions of success, relationships related to gender, parental education, community size, and engineering discipline appeared to emerge.

Available from: ASEE Archive

Hughes, Q. S., R. L. Shehab and S. E. Walden (2011). “Success is Different to Different People”: A Qualitative Study of how African American Engineering Students Define Success. Proceedings of ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, B.C., American Society for Engineering Education.

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