Two major themes emerged from our analysis of the data. First, we found that most Latinas in STEM described their identities as compartmentalized. Second, Latinas leveraged these compartmentalized identities to establish same-identity mentoring relationships with others in STEM who nurtured their identity development and supported their persistence. We describe each theme further in the following sections.
Constructing a Compartmentalized Identity
Latinas often compartmentalized aspects of their identities and utilized different involvement opportunities to nurture specific facets of their identities. For example, some participants focused on becoming involved in student organizations that nurtured their racial/ethnic identity, while others became involved in co-curricular experiences that nurtured their science, gender, religious, or sexual identities—highlighting the complex identities of Latinas pursuing STEM degrees.
Erica, a biology and health sciences major, shared the need to have “a broad range of friends [. . .] in every aspect of [her] life.” Erica described becoming very involved with several STEM-focused student organizations and learning communities upon first arriving at her institution but feeling like “there was something missing” as she progressed to the end of her second year in college. Because she grew up in a predominantly White and rural town, she wanted to explore her racial/ethnic heritage during her college years. She did so through her involvement in a Latina sorority and participating in her institutions Latinx Cultural Center. By developing these separate friend groups to meet her academic and cultural needs, Erica implicitly speaks to the lack of diversity found within STEM fields. Because there were few places within her institution where she could simultaneously attend to her racial/ethnic and STEM identities, site was forced to compartmentalize these aspects of her identity.
How students compartmentalized their identities influenced the college activities they engaged in. Josie described how she decided not to become involved with the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) after attending a meeting. She explained:
|T]here was nothing wrong with |SHPE|. I think I just thought I didn’t really need that community and I was going to use the [engineering student organization] to sort of be my professional development and then I was going to connect with my Hispanic or Spanish part through my minor so I just didn’t want another obligation that was going to be repetitive I guess.
Because Josie utilized her Spanish minor as a way to connect with and nurture her cultural identity, she did not “need” SHPE as a community. In fact, Josie described each of her co-curriculars as intentionally and separately attending to various aspects of her identity: engineer and race/ethnicity.
Unlike Josie and Erica, Awilda described spaces within STEM where she attended to multiple aspects of her identity. For example, Awilda became involved with LSAMP to have “another support group [. . .] because [she was] out here alone practically.” Awilda recalled Tonisha, her advisor, say “you’re Latina, Black, first-generation student, you’re out of state, I’m going to introduce you to the LSAMP program.” This further highlights that when there are places for Latinas to connect with multiple aspects of their identities within STEM, these opportunities were beneficial for students.
Identity and Persistence
Because Latinas in this study learned to compartmentalize aspects of their identities, they were able to utilize these compartmentalized identities to develop same-identity mentoring relationships that nurtured their identity development and supported their persistence. As such, these women developed close relationships with mentors in STEM who shared their background as either a woman, a first-generation college attendee, or a member of a racial/ ethnic minoritized group.
Awilda began working in Dr. Everette’s research lab as a first-year student. She was drawn to Dr. Everette because of their shared research interests and backgrounds as the first in their families to pursue postsecondary education. Having someone who understood what she was going through without having to explain it was invaluable to Awilda. She shared, it “gives me comfort because I can talk to them about things that my friends will not understand, and they see my struggle in school, especially with confidence.”
Because feelings of self-doubt are prevalent amongst first-generation college students, her mentor, having shared similar experiences, actively validated Awilda’s contributions to his research lab. She reflected on how the compliments she received from her mentor “[meant] a lot” and showed “he really does care,” especially when her achievements were shared with other professors. In this way, her mentor served as both a critical source of external validation of her STEM competencies and as an advocate that communicated her accomplishments with others who could potentially reinforce her STEM talents and abilities.
Similar to Awilda, Juanas mentor, Mary, was also the first in her family to go to college. In describing Mary’s background, she explained, “She is from Cali, I think she grew up in the ’hood. So, yeah, she gets it." Mary was a constant source of support for Juana, who described Mary as her “rock”. In explaining their relationship, Juana shared that Mary was “one of those people I can just call for everything. [. . .| [I]f I am having a bad day, she will be there for me.” As Juana reflected, Mary “gets her” and was able to support her academically and personally. Here we see how Juana and Mary’s shared background provided a mutual understanding of the psychosocial support that first-generation college students need to persist in higher education—a holistic approach that goes beyond academics.
Other students found mentorship through their university-sponsored co-op. Josie’s mentor, Carol, whom she described as having a “very similar background” as her, had attended the same university, had the same major, shared the same co-op experience, and identified as a woman. It was this shared experience that made it easy for Josie to seek advice from Carol about her future in engineering. For example, Josie turned to Carol to navigate a difficult situation with her co-op supervisor.
So, I sort of talk to her because she has had him as a boss, and I was like, how can I make him feel more comfortable letting me do this? How can I improve these particular things? And so, she sort of helped me separate between things that I can improve, things that were stylistic differences between us as teachers, and ways to make him feel more comfortable with me teaching the material and know that I was very confident and 1 was going to do as good of a job as I could.
In a field historically dominated by men, Josie struggled to get her supervisor to trust her in performing specific tasks. Because of their shared gender identity, Josie was able to turn to Carol for help in order to navigate the sexism that is often pervasive within engineering. Carol, who had experienced a similar situation with her supervisor, was able to give her advice on this situation and other engineering-related concerns. Josie was grateful to be able to turn to her mentor for advice on how to assert herself as knowledgeable and capable.