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First-Generation Latina Engineering Students’ Aspirational Counterstories


Mounting evidence supports the economic benefits of increasing and diversifying the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce as a national strategy to maintain the United States’ global competitiveness (U.S.; National Science Foundation, 2012). STEM jobs, most of which require a STEM undergraduate degree (Noonan, 2017), are among the fastest-growing careers (Carnevale, Porter, & Landis-Santos, 2015). A major concern is that the STEM workforce includes an overwhelmingly large proportion of White males, who form a shrinking demographic (Carnevale, Smith, & Melton, 2011). Thus, diversity in the STEM industry is not only desirable for the sake of inclusion but is also necessary to meet labor market demands. Minoritized1 populations, therefore, need engagement that facilitates their inclusion in this prominent segment of business and industry (Carnevale et al., 2011; Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011).

One such population is the Latinx demographic, which, despite being the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, remains underrepresented in STEM careers (Chang, Sharkness, Hurtado, & Newman, 2014). While Latinx people comprise 17% of the total population, they hold only 11% of general engineering jobs (Carnevale et ah, 2015). Women of all races, too, are underrepresented, as they hold only 24% of STEM jobs but constitute 47% of the overall working population (Beede et ah, 2011). This imbalance is even greater when looking specifically at engineering jobs, only 13% of which are held by women (Society of Women Engineers, 2018).

Another population minoritized in STEM is the first-generation demographic. First-generation students, those individuals whose parents did not complete college, comprise approximately one-third of the overall college population (Cataldi, Bennett, & Chen, 2018). First-generation students enroll in college at lower rates than students whose parents graduated from college (Mitchall & Jaeger, 2018), are more likely to work while enrolled in college, and attend lower-performing schools (Cataldi et ah, 2018).

Research has attributed minoritized student STEM departure to a multitude of factors. Individual reasons for departure, such as poor self-efficacy, self-concept, and attitude towards STEM, seem to be the primary focus (Else-Quest, Mineo, & Higgins, 2013). However, minoritized students often describe a hostile, unsupportive climate as their primary reason for departure (Gloria & Castellano, 2012; Samuelson & Litzler, 2016). Ong et al. (2011) defined the STEM climate as “the interpersonal relationships with other members of the local STEM communities and the cultural beliefs and practices within STEM that govern those relationships” (p. 192). To further explore the potential of an intervention to mitigate the climate that minoritized students describe as hostile and unsupportive, the present study focuses on first-generation Latina students (FGLS) in engineering disciplines. To address the need for diversity and to achieve a more balanced demographic representation, it is vital to implement systemic improvements to create a more supportive climate to better retain FGLS in STEM programs.

System improvements can be made through programs or services that promote belonging (Ong et al., 2011), such as academic advising, which serves as a central university support resource for students to guide them through the achievement of their academic and professional goals (O’Banion, 1994). Academic advising involves much more than simply providing advising services, especially if it is intended to promote success. Advisors should be responsive to students’ needs, and by incorporating students’ aspirations, assets, stories, and experiences into advising, they will be better positioned to support students. To capture some of these unique needs of FGLS in engineering, this study addressed the following research question: How do first-generation Latina students describe their goals and aspirations within the engineering climate?

This study took place within the College of Engineering (COE) at Southwestern University (SU), a large institution in the southwest that focuses on an access mission and measures its success by whom it includes and their outcomes (SU Charter, 2019). The COE is ranked in the top ten of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded nationally (Roy, 2018). Furthermore, the SU COE ranks thirteenth in terms of engineering degrees awarded to women and eighth in terms of engineering degrees awarded to Hispanics nationally (Roy, 2018). These rankings demonstrate that there is room for improvement. In response to these persistent negative outcomes nationally and within SU, this study considers how an academic advising intervention can support the aspirations of FGLS to complete a degree in engineering.

Relevant Literature

The following literature review begins with a discussion of academic advising, followed by a discussion of the STEM climate. These discussions consider issues related to the race, generational status, and gender of students. This literature review is supported by the theoretical framework and models of validation (Rendon. 1994), community' cultural wealth (CCW; Yosso,

2005), and deficit viewpoints (Valencia, 2010). Finally, validating advising practices are described.

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