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“I Learned How to Divide at 25”: A Counter-Narrative of How One Latina’s Agency and Resilience Led Her Toward an Engineering Pathway

Disciplinary role identities are dynamic, malleable, and are influenced by situations and interactions (i.e., sociohistorical struggles, environmental structures). Yet, students have the agency to adopt identities that they see as congruent with who they want to become. I used the lens of disciplinary role identity—which situates identity development through an interplay between disciplinary interest, beliefs about performing well and understanding content material and being recognized by others as a STEM type of person, and subsequently accepting and internalizing that recognition (Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Gee, 2001; Godwin, Potvin, Hazari, & Lock, 2016; Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, & Shanahan, 2010; Johnson, Brown, Car- lone, & Cuevas, 2011; Verdin, Godwin, & Ross, 2018; Verdin, Godwin, Kirn, Benson, & Potvin, 2019). Likewise, interest, recognition, and beliefs about one’s performance (i.e., disciplinary role identity development) are fostered through activities, social practice, and agentic capabilities (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998). Enacting agency involves a reflective practice, and it requires that students continually negotiate their identities- in-practice as they move toward seeing themselves as math, physics, and ultimately engineering type of people. Authoring a disciplinary role identity develops through a continuous process that takes a great deal of negotiation and agentic capabilities (Holland et al., 1998).

Becoming the type of person one envisions for herself (i.e., an engineer) is an agentic act requiring intentional choices, reflectivity on the outcome of these choices, and resistance against environmental constraints. Agentic acts position individuals as active participants of their lives and allow students to explore, maneuver, and impact their environment for the achievement of a goal or set of goals (Bandura, 2001). Likewise, agentic behaviors can be manifested as resilient acts that help students position themselves as active contributors to their career trajectories (Pruyn, 1999; Sapp, Kiyama, & Dache-Gerbino, 2015). Emphasizing the agentic capabilities students hold is a way of framing their experiences and pathways through an asset-based perspective.

Students display agency when constructing their identity and when resisting oppressive social and environmental structures. Constructing disciplinary role identities is a process that occurs within contextual constraints (Schwartz, Luyckx, & Vignoles, 2011); these contextual constraints can be conceptualized as three types of environmental factors, that is, environments that are imposed, selected, or constructed (Bandura, 2001). An imposed environment may include daily situations or circumstances that a student interacts with (e.g., cultural worlds, communities of practice, school settings, microaggressions, racism, etc.). Imposed environments are created through the messages circulating about who gets to participate in STEM fields or who is recognized as a legitimate member of a community of practice. However, students do have the ability to interpret and react to their imposed environment. Even within imposed environments, students can select their environment based on their reactions and resistance. Lastly, a constructed environment requires students to actively engage in and with their surroundings; through the process of engagement, students can acquire new knowledge, dispositions, and behaviors. Each form of environment requires different levels of agency, and a student can shape their environment through the enactment of their agency and resilience. The environments that students navigate have identity-shaping consequences because identities are dynamically constructed through experiences (Oyserman, Elmore, & Smith, 2012).

This study uses the lens of agency, environmental factors, and disciplinary role identities to understand how one student came to see herself as someone who can do engineering (i.e., identity development). Kitatoi1 is the oldest of six siblings, all born and raised in Southern California. Her parents immigrated from Mexico in the early 1980s, settling first in East Los Angeles and later making their way inland. Like many Mexican families in the Southwest, Kitatois parents did not speak English. Her family was of low socioeconomic status, and she would one day be the first in her family to attend (and drop out) of college. Kitatoi, while being born and raised in California, was predominately literate in the Spanish language she spoke at home. Now, in her late 30s and a mother of three, Kitatoi takes me through her journey from her remembered educational experiences, her six-year journey through community college, and how she came to see herself as someone who can do engineering.

Description of Study

1 used critical race methodology, which uses a counter-narrative approach as a “method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told” and as a “tool for exposing, analyzing, and challenging the majoritarian stories” (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002, p. 32). Counterstories bring patterns of racialized inequalities to the forefront by recounting experiences of racism both individually, by the participant, and shared experiences from scholarly work (Yosso, 2013). I used a counter-narrative and narrative approach to reveal how Kitatoi came to see herself as someone who can do engineering. A narrative approach allowed me to organize the experiences of Kitatoi in a temporally meaningful manner integrating her past, present, and future, and this narrative gives a “sense of continuity necessary for identity formation” (Rossiter, 1999, p. 62). Kitatoi’s narrative is framed around agentic (resistive) acts. Individuals who are oppressed in society are often portrayed as victims, and their agency or ability to resist oppressive structures is overlooked. Kitatoi’s narrative is also the story of experiences at the margins of society; thus, her experience is a counter-narrative challenging the discourse on the types of people who get to participate in engineering.

In this chapter, I share Kitatoi’s retold experiences that were significant to her academic trajectory that spanned from primary education to her transition into higher education. I start with her primary and secondary educational experiences, situating her narrative in the current educational literature because they provide a rich understanding of how and why Kitatoi felt disempowered as an adult in society and why her decision to enroll in a community college was an agentic act. Following, I retell Kitatoi’s narrative at community college, capturing experiences that both enabled and constrained her agency, and experiences that supported the development of her disciplinary role identities (i.e., mathematics, physics, and engineering).

1 end the chapter by acknowledging that the route to engineering is open for all students, especially those who are yet to see themselves as mathematics and physics capable learners.

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