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Reading (Hearing) Testimonios of Latinas in STEM

Empowering Latina STEM Majors at a Public R1 Doctoral Hispanic-Serving Institution in Texas: Strategies for Success


Student environment within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines has a profound impact on females’ professional and academic experiences. Those experiences differ greatly for females in comparison to their male peers because of gender representation differences. For Latinas, these experiential differences are influenced by ethnic representation as well. However, despite Latinas being both female and Students of Color—both of which are historically underrepresented groups in STEM (Rainey, Dancy, Mickelson, Stearns, & Moller, 2018)—trends have been improving. These advances become evident when the enrollment trends for Latinas going into higher education are considered. Nationally, from 2000 to 2015, college enrollment for Hispanics increased from 22% to 37%, while Latinas saw an even greater enrollment rate increase—from 25% to 41% (McFarland et al., 2017). These statistics place Hispanic students behind only White and Asian students in undergraduate enrollment at four-year institutions.

Although Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in higher education within the past 20 years, with a 125% population increase from 2000 to 2015 (Fleming & McPhail, 2019), low representation within STEM programs continues. Of all STEM bachelors degrees conferred in 2014— 2015, only 10% went to Hispanic graduates, while 66% were conferred to White graduates (McFarland et al., 2017). At the master’s level, the amount of STEM degrees conferred to Hispanic students was only 8%, while White graduates received 65% (McFarland et al., 2017). If only Latinas are considered in STEM, these ratios decrease even further. For all STEM degrees earned in 2011—2012, Latinas were decidedly inadequately represented. In fact, this uneven representation in STEM between males and females is evident across ethnicity, race, and citizenship. Consequently, the need for greater representation of Hispanic students, especially Latina students, pursuing degrees in and working within the STEM fields is higher than ever before (Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011).

Thus, researchers in the study detailed in this chapter sought to explore and understand the success stories of Latina students who persist in STEM fields at a public Research 1 (Rl) Doctoral university, also designated as a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), in Texas. The research objective of the proposed study was to identify specific factors, including culture, background, and family support, that both contribute to resilience and create barriers that compromise resilience in Latina STEM majors. This knowledge will help inform evidence-based interventions, strategies, and policies to enhance the success of Latinas—and perhaps other underrepresented minority college students—in STEM. Latina higher-education stories of success are critically needed in the research literature. Therefore, it is important to gain insights from Latina STEM majors to improve strategies to recruit, retain, and graduate these students. To do so, this study was guided by the following three research questions:

  • 1. How does resilience in Latina students—in relation to culture, background, and family support—play a role in their persisting toward the completion of a college STEM degree?
  • 2. How does social climate influence Latina students in the STEM fields?
  • 3. What types of successful strategies do Latinas develop in their pursuit of a college STEM degree?

Conceptual Framework

This study was guided by resilience theories. Stewart, Reid, and Mangham (1997) implied that resilience can be considered an intricate, dynamic, and biopsychosocial/spiritual process that depends on life context. This overarching concept applies to individuals, families, and communities (Van Breda, 2001). Resilience is also influenced by diversity, which includes ethnicity race, gender, and more. At the individual level, the cultural identity component can influence resilience, especially within oppressed groups (Van Breda, 2001). When individuals face difficult adversity, resilience is usually viewed as a protective, beneficial asset that, though often dormant, emerges from within an individual in times of struggle.

Resilience involves internal and external factors that support the ability to manage and conquer the most demanding obstacles. Internal factors include attitudes, while external factors include community well-being (Greene, Galambos, & Lee, 2004). In addition, the following characteristics are often discussed when examining the development of resilience: faith, spirituality, and the belief in something greater than oneself. Caring relationships (Ainsworth, 1989) and strength in support communities (Steele & Steele, 1994) are additional areas that research has demonstrated contribute to resilience (Greene et al., 2004). Multiple factors, such as parental communication and one’s attitude toward mathematics (or other STEM-related disciplines), can also work together to nurture a sense of resilience within Latinas (Boutin- Martinez, Mireles-Rios, Nylund-Gibson, & Simon, 2019). Such specific factors, which manifest at the high-school level, can influence Latinas’ persistence into the postsecondary level, specifically in STEM. Understanding the various factors that can play a role in resilience building is essential in understanding how Latinas persist in STEM.

These aspects of resilience theories, when applied to Latinas in the STEM fields, present contextual realities within Latina culture that apply to this specific group—as Latinas, as women, as hard science students, and for many, as immigrants or first-generation college students. Moreover, these aspects indicate that the culture of Latinas directly affects their resilience. Their cultural identity as Latinas can help them form resilience in the face of hardships and eventually find success by overcoming those hardships (Van Breda, 2001). The resulting sense of cultural pride provides a base of strength that further provides resilience (Morgan Consoli, Delucio, Noriega, & Llamas, 2015).

Context can come from the many types of exchanges that Latinas may experience. Interactions with others, dealing with stress, feeling a sense of community, feeling a sense of support, and understanding how they realize their potential are all factors that influence their resilience from this standpoint (Greene et al., 2004). Furthermore, involvement of a transactional dynamic process can be applied to Latinas in the STEM fields because the exchanges between the person and environment in the STEM fields are different for Latinas. Van Breda (2001) explained this as the person-environment fit, which takes into account the various systems an individual exists within and how they meet the demands of those various environments in order to succeed. Thus, it is also important to consider how contextual factors outside of individual characteristics function in how Latinas develop resilience (Morgan Consoli et al., 2015).

Finally, Greene et al. (2004) described resilience as “a multisystemic phenomenon that can occur across the life span” (p. 78). Latinas within the STEM field reveal experiences across the life spectrum with individuals, families, and communities that encourage unique paths of development. Latinas develop in this area by sharing their past and present experiences, including relation experiences with family, peers, and mentors (Rodriguez, Doran, Sissel, & Estes, 2019).

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