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Latina Undergraduates in Engineering/Computer Science on the US–Mexico Border: Identity, Social Capital, and Persistence

In spite of the growing Latinx population in the United States, the number of Latinxs—particularly Latinas—pursuing careers in STEM fields is disproportionately low. While the number of Latinas in engineering and computer science majors has increased over the last two decades, these numbers have not necessarily translated into persistence to graduation and into the profession (Aguirre-Covarrubias, Arellano, & Espinoza, 2015; Forrest, Bennett, & Chen, 2018). According to the National Science Foundation (2017), Hispanic women comprised just 2% of the science and engineering workforce; similar numbers can be found for Hispanic women in the computing workforce (National Center for Women and Information Technology, 2019).

Research since the 1970s has highlighted the “double bind” that minor- itized women in STEM face (S. M. Malcolm, Hall, & Brown, 1976), which refers to the interlocking barriers tied to both racism and sexism that can negatively impact minoritized womens (in this case, Latinas’) entry into and persistence in engineering. More recent iterations of “double bind” theory have highlighted the different texture of challenges that minoritized women in STEM experience in contemporary times; as L. E. Malcolm and Malcolm (2011) argue:

Now it is less about rights versus wrongs and more about support versus neglect; less about the behavior of individuals and a culture that was accepting of bias as “the natural order of things” and more about the responsibilities and action (or inaction) of institutions.

(p. 163)

This double bind can be exacerbated by sociopolitical factors—such as access to immigrant visas—that create additional barriers to persistence for minoritized women.

In the face of the double bind, some of the social and institutional barriers faced by Latinas in engineering may be mitigated by attending a Hispanic-serving Institution (HSI) (Camacho & Lord, 2011). One reason for increased Latinx student success in engineering at HSIs can be attributed to the greater presence of Latinx mentors and role models at HSIs: “Mentors guide student success, provide a template for professionalization in the field, and can be influential in leading students to prestigious positions in industry or to pursue higher degrees.” (Camacho & Lord, 2011, p. 142)

This study examines Latina student success in engineering and computer science by focusing on the social resources that contribute to Latina identities and persistence in Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science at one HSI on the US-Mexico border. Persistence is defined both as completion of the major to graduation, and continuation to employment in the profession or pursuit of graduate studies in the field. One key element of persistence is resilience, defined as a “dynamic and multidimensional process through which individuals experience positive outcomes despite exposure to significant adversity” (Kuperminc, Wilkins, Roche, & Alvarez-Jimenez, 2009, p. 214). Using a case study approach to illuminate the experiences of four undergraduate Latinas—two in Mechanical Engineering and two in Computer Science—we demonstrate the significant role of social capital in contributing to Latinas’persistence in the major and into the field.

Theoretical Framework: Identity, Social Capital, and Academic Success

This study adopts a sociocultural perspective on identity, with a particular focus on identity as produced in and through social practices. From a sociocultural perspective, identity is tied to learning and participation in socially situated practices (Lave & Wenger, 1991). We draw in particular on Gee’s (1989) notion of identity as D/discourse, that is, “saying(writing)-doing- being-valuing-believing combinations” that signal “ways of being in the world” (p. 6). The fields of mechanical engineering and computer science each include their own predominant norms of speaking and practice; to become part of the field means learning the socially accepted ways of speaking, acting, and interacting as mechanical engineers or computer scientists. In this way, one becomes recognized as a particular “kind of person” within that particular social world (Gee, 1989).

In connection with a sociocultural understanding of identity, this study also draws on the sociological concept of social capital to examine the experiences of Latinas in Mechanical Engineering/Computer Science (ME/ CS) at one university. Social capital has been represented as the accumulation, distribution, and exchange of resources in and through social networks (Bourdieu, 1985; Coleman, 1988; Lin, 1999). Lin (1999) defines social capital as “resources embedded in a social structure which are accessed and/or mobilized in purposive actions” (p. 35). In this way, the notion of social resources, within the social capital framework proposed by Lin, lies at the intersection of structure and agency and “contain[s] three elements: the structural (embeddedness), opportunity (accessibility), and action-oriented (use) aspects” (p. 35). Along with other social capital theorists, Lin posits that greater access to and accumulation of social resources produces better social and economic outcomes for actors.

In the higher-education literature, researchers have shown a positive relationship between social capital, sense of belonging, and academic success among Latinx students (Maestas, Vaquera, & Munoz Zehr, 2007; Nunez, 2009). Sense of belonging, here, is understood as the positive interactions and attachments experienced by an individual (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and fostered within institutional contexts (Reay, David, & Ball, 2001). Within engineering education, scholars have analyzed social capital in a variety of ways. In one study of sophomore-level engineering students at two public, predominantly White institutions, students emphasized the importance of faculty, and access to faculty, in their academic success as engineering majors (Brown, Street, & Martin, 2014). In another study that focused on first-generation female Hispanic engineering majors at a large, diverse public university, researchers used a case study approach and found that school personnel served as a significant source of social capital that influenced students’ decisions to pursue engineering (Martin, Simmons, & Yu, 2013). Our study builds on these previous findings to examine the role of social capital and social resources in the identities and experiences of Latinas who persist through undergraduate ME/CS into graduate school or the profession.

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