What They Say Matters: Parental Impact on Pre-College Academic Identity of Successful African American Engineering Students

Prevailing disidentification literature confirms that African American students academically disidentify via a weakened connection between academic achievement and global self-esteem.1-5 Research on achievement provides insight as to the people and factors that may influence the academic achievement of African American adolescent youth. Findings implicate the role of parents as well as parent-related variables such as socio-economic status, education level, support, involvement, and restrictive control. Contemporary literature examining academic disidentification and achievement across academic disciplines has failed to address engineering disciplines or understand the experiences of successful students and how the people in their lives may have impacted their academic identities.

In this study, a mixed methodology was used to study 19 African American participants who had reached either of two defined levels of success: (1) having successfully begun to pursue a degree in an engineering discipline, or (2) having successfully graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in an engineering discipline at a major south-central predominantly white university. Each participant was surveyed to evaluate their academic identity and interviewed to understand their pre-college lived experiences in regards to the prominent people in their lives and the messages related to academics (academic messages) they received from these people. The qualitative analysis of this rich data set allowed interpretation of the participants’ experiences to determine how they were influenced to avoid disidentification and to become successful African American engineering students.

Preliminary surveys resulted in strong self-reported academic achievement and self-esteem via the Rosenberg self-esteem scale indicating that our participants were academically identified.6 Findings from the qualitative analysis suggested that parents and teachers were the most commonly cited prominent people and academic messengers in the lives of successful African American engineering students. Both were found to have sent a substantial number of academic messages and were identified by participants as having the largest impact on their academic and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) identities. Parents were generally more important to participants than were teachers. Participants mentioned messages pertaining to academics from parents more than twice as often as they did teachers. Parents were also referenced by more than half of the participants for having the biggest impact on their own academic identities.

Though parents were categorized as a single unit, mothers and fathers often had separate roles in regards to the participants’ academic identities. In two-parent households, students were closer to their mothers than their fathers. Mothers most often handled the proactive day-to-day academic business (monitoring, encouragement, support); fathers more often provided supplemental support. In single parent households, mothers most often played a dual role of both primary provider and academic manager. The consistent prominence of mothers in both single and two-parent households demonstrated their impact as the most influential people on the academic identities of our participants. These results will inform recommendations for engineering recruiters and academic support personnel.

Available from: ASEE Archive

Hughes, Q. and R. L. Shehab (2010). What They Say Matters: Parental Impact on Pre-College Academic Identity of Successful African American Engineering Students. 2010 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition.

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