Exploring the experiences of female first-generation college students
Wilson, Rachel Elizabeth
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The purpose of this study was to explore the persistence of historically underrepresented students in their science-related career aspirations. I focused on how female first-generation students—students whose parents did not go to college—made meaning of their experiences as science majors at a research university. In using cultural production theory as a framework, I sought to understand the influence of cultural understandings of gender, race, and class on the experiences of upwardly mobile females by focusing on participants’ narratives of their experiences in in-depth interviews. Drawing on Ricoeur’s (1984) philosophical hermeneutic ideas of how symbolic resources are preunderstandings used in narrative configuration, I analyzed eleven participants’ interviews to identify the cultural understandings they used in narrating and thus explaining their experiences. Participants described school as a competition and used two common cultural understandings of persistence in explaining their experiences: school as a meritocracy and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps. Each of the participants had academic goals of a science-related career and in addition, social mobility. Some participants felt positioned as academic non-competitors and used cultural understandings of gender, race, or class to explain these events. These students may have found their gender, race, and/or class salient because of explicit past positioning events where cultural understandings of these factors were used to evaluate them. A possible explanation for why some students did not find these factors salient is the presence of a gender-neutral and class-less discourse at the university that masked the influence of these factors in participants’ interactions. Helping students to develop awareness or sensitivity to the use of cultural understandings of gender, race, and/or class is important so that they can begin to reflect on the influence of these factors on interactions as foundations for explanations of difference so as to disrupt the perpetuation of stereotypes and work towards positive learning environments for all students.