Participants proudly shared the multiple experiences in which they were willing to support other students, who sometimes were younger peers, women, and Latinas. In this sense, most participants were fully involved in assuming leadership roles in on-campus student organizations. Other activities include accompanying and advising freshman students in col- lege/major-related topics through mentoring positions, reaching younger college students to communicate research opportunities, and participating in outreach activities to persuade young female students in high school to pursue STEM majors. The aforementioned activities proved participants’ involvement and commitment within the campus community, which open spaces for Latinas to exercise leadership. The following themes emerged: (1) Latinas’ strategies to overcome difficulties in college through Coining Out of the Shadows; and (2) Latinas’ discernment to skillfully assume attitudes related to leadership by means of Embracing Their Identity as Women and Latinas.
Coming Out of the Shadows
Participants’ presence in male-dominated classrooms comes with some difficulties. Mainly, these troubles have to do with Latinas’ interactions with their male peers, who undervalue the intellectual capacity in STEM. Such a struggle makes Latinas espouse alternative approaches. For example, in classrooms, Latinas participate more during lectures, develop alliances with other women or Latinas, guide in-class projects, and voice their opinions, especially if they perceive unfairness. Outside of the classroom, Latinas occupy important positions in student organizations, develop community- based projects, perform jobs in which they inspire and motivate other peers to do well in college, and contribute to generating a learning community on campus. As such, the categories framing this theme are as follows: Gaining visibility and Building a social network.
Gaining visibility. Through participants’ college pathways, they were aware of the importance of their involvement in programs and organizations. Such participation allowed them to interact and communicate with others, including faculty, staff, and students. The experiences of participants as it relates to assuming leadership positions in students’ organizations, campus events, and in-class activities, to mention a few, contributed to enhancing their visibility and self-reliance. Celina mentioned having diverse roles in such organizations:
I’m a part of the National Society of L and S. I am a Success Networking facilitator, so I mentor students, who are joining the society, set goals and work towards them throughout the semester. I was recently elected [name of organization! Junior chair, so 1 am part of the Society H Engineers and what I will be doing is going to high schools and encouraging students to pursue STEM degrees and helping their parents start applying for college, FAFSA and scholarships.
Similar to Celina’s experience participating in events motivating students to pursue STEM majors, Isela’s job on campus as a mentor is encouraging new students to continue with their majors. She stated, “I work with the computer science students, so I can help them specifically with my experiences that I went through my first year in computer science.” Both Celina and Isela recognize the need to integrate other students to STEM by showing their experience in their field. In turn, Isela showed her commitment to initiating other women in STEM. In this regard, she expressed:
I actually worked with her [a professor] over the summer, for girls coding camp which was really fun because I got to encourage some, like, little girls to try STEM and hopefully they like it in future, and they might come study STEM, like computer science. I really hope they do.
By experiencing the lack of women in STEM-related fields, Isela happily revealed her satisfaction in working with younger girls to inspire and to motivate them to pursue STEM degrees. Similarly, according to Sina, it is very important to interact with new students, especially freshman and sophomore engineering students. Because new students need role models, senior students can take that role to help newer students develop a sense of belonging in the college learning community. Sina used the words “inspiration” and “motivation” to help students move forward in difficult disciplines. Karina showed her leadership with her campus’ involvement. Karina said:
I’m very involved in various organizations on campus. I am the president for [name of organization] . . . it’s predominantly male, when I became president there were only two females and now we have seven, but it’s still predominantly male, and I’m also the vice president for [name of organization!, and I’m very involved with the engineering community and helping out others.
Karina expressed her interest in helping other students on campus, and she discovered that taking a leadership role in multiple organizations could be a way to highlight women’s presence. All the aforementioned participants put into practice a set of abilities they considered essential to influence others— either younger students or other females—in pursuing STEM disciplines.
Building a social network. To be leaders, participants needed to interact with other people; these people were often their peers with whom they developed a special connection. Having such a social network allows participants to operate in challenging classrooms, with difficult class subjects, and their particular ability to thrive. Sina defined her peer support system; she said, “Your friends come in your classes to create that support system here because engineering is really hard on its own and being able to manage it and not lose your mind is really difficult.” Sina’s perspective provided an insight into how valuable college peers are for Latinas pursuing STEM disciplines, to both make it easy and surpass challenges. The constant exchange among peers reveals a collective effort to succeed academically; through friendship with peers, Latinas find ways to thrive and excel in college. In the same sense, Karina noted how important her classmates were for her to foster a campus learning community, saying, “I like the small campus, 1 like knowing all my classmates, we’re pretty much together for all the years that we are here. It is a good community.” Karina’s statements made clear that small-sized campuses have the advantage of allowing students to build peer support networks that contribute to students’ sense of belonging and academic commitment.
Similarly, Emily verbalized her experience with her classmates with whom she has developed strong bonds due to personal and academic similarities. She noted, “We have been in like the same classes since freshman year, so grew together doing this, working toward the same goal is motivating, you’re not alone either, you don’t feel so alone in this, in gaining my degree.” In the aforementioned comment, Emily reflected on the importance of her classmates to succeed in college, especially because she relies a lot upon them for studying and doing homework. In turn, Sina commented, “In our class . . . we always help each other out on labs or homework. . . . We collaborate to find solutions together which engineering is all about.” Sina, Celina, and Emily mentioned that collaborative work helps them face challenges, find strategies, and encourage each other. These testimonies show the importance of communal help for Latinas in STEM fields.