Teachers’ Mentoring Role, or Lack Thereof, in Latinas’ Erasure of a STEM Identity

Minosca Alcántara

Latinas are acutely underrepresented in science and engineering fields. In 1988, I was one of only two females who graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering from the Universidad Nacional Pedro Henriquez Urena in the Dominican Republic. In 1989, again, and to my surprise, I was the only female student in the master’s degree program in construction management at George Washington University. Throughout the years working in construction management in the United States, I have consistently been a rarity, one of a handful of women in my field, and more striking, the only Latina in most of my professional settings.

In 2004,1 accepted a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign as an Assistant Director of the Women in Engineering Program. I was shocked to see that 16 years after my graduation, females were still underrepresented in engineering schools. Females in Illinois represented approximately 15% of the engineering student body, and Latinas specifically represented roughly 0.45% of the overall student population (University of Illinois, 2018). When conversing with the few Latina students in the school, it was interesting to see how much we had in common. Our journey to selecting an engineering career could be attributed to two factors: identity and mentoring. Their narratives related to having been great students, particularly excelling in math and science, having science/math teachers or counselors that encouraged them to pursue engineering or who recommended them to join engineering programs in their school. For middleclass Latina students, there was always a relative who had been an engineer and encouraged them to consider those careers.This had been my experience growing up in the Dominican Republic. My father, although a chemical engineer, left the field and became a developer, building residential homes and apartments. My mother received a doctorate degree in pharmacy. Many of my uncles, aunts, and cousins were also scientists or engineers. Thus, I grew up observing my mom mix medicines in her chemical laboratory and watching my dad head to construction sites.

In other ways, our journeys differed. Urban, low-income Latinas spoke about struggles with high school teachers that held low expectations of them, and of confronting ethnic prejudice and racism. Furthermore, they spoke about a low level of academic preparedness that not only disadvantaged them in college, but also almost derailed their college plans due to low ACT and SAT test scores. Many complained that their schools had not prepared them properly for college, much less an engineering career at the University of Illinois. Their level of frustration with their academic struggles, compounded by other factors (i.e., feelings of isolation) would build over time, leading many to transfer out of engineering and, in the most unfortunate scenarios, would lead some to drop out of college.

My interest in trying to understand why Latinas are not pursuing science and engineering careers stemmed from these informal conversations with Illinois students, as well as the hours I invested in creating programs that would reverse this trend. I conducted a study to examine the role schools, teachers, and parents play in erasing Latinas’ math and science identities. In this process, I learned that for low-income Latinas, teachers had the most consequential role in their development or erasure of math and science identities. In this narrative study, I focus on the narrative of one of the participants of the larger study, Graciela (a pseudonym), whose interest in math and science was erased.The use of narratives helps me elucidate not only the role teachers and schools played in erasing Latinas’ interest in science and engineering careers, but also how Graciela, a low-income first-generation Latina, conformed, contested, and used her agency to navigate limited educational opportunities to excel academically, despite her math hurdles.

Theoretical Perspectives and Literature Review

I use Holland et al.’s (1998) Sociocultural Theories of Identity as a framework, seeking to understand the institutional and academic practices that impact Latinas’ opportunities to self-author themselves as scientists and engineers. Holland et al.’s theory of identity posits that the development of identity takes place within a participatory framework and not in an individual’s mind. Within this context, the development of positive math and science self-authoring is situated and involves a process of identity formation, where students not only acquire knowledge and skills, but become a specific type of learner within the figured world of school. Learning becomes a process of becoming; a historical product, intimate and public, produced and reproduced through school practices and the interactions between the person and school actors (Holland et al., 1998).

According to Holland et al. (1998), identity refers to the dense interconnectivity between the self and social practice. Thus, identities develop and evolve as individuals improvise responses to social and cultural openings and impositions while working and reworking the social landscape. These “Practice Identities” are constructs best described by several contexts of activities: figured worlds are socially identifiable worlds that provide the frames of meaning that individuals use to interpret human action (i.e., schools). When individuals engage in these worlds, they place themselves as social actors in social arenas in relation to others. Positionality, linked to power, status, and rank, refers to individuals’ entitlement to social and material resources, and to the higher deference, respect, and legitimacy accorded to the positionalities privileged by society—gender, race, caste, etc. (i.e., Valedictorian student, Varsity Football Captain). Space of authoring refers to authorship—how individuals embody identifiable social discourses and practices, arrange them to make them their own, and craft a personal response or identity. Human agency is part of this process. Making worlds is a byproduct of individuals’ authorship. As individuals author themselves, they might develop new figured worlds, in turn, developing a habitus, which comes to embody the cultural media and the means of expression that are their legacy (Holland et al., 1998).

Of special interest for this narrative study is the figured world of school, as for low-income Latinas, the process of erasure of math and science identities mostly takes place within schools.These figured worlds are cultural models populated by a set of agents (students, teachers, and parents) engaged in a limited range of acts (learn, teach, support, and mentor) motivated by a specific set of forces (successful life/enroll in college, career advancement, children are happy/successful lives). Identities become one of the most important outcomes of participating in these figured worlds and learning how to navigate and become successful in them.This process of identity formation relies on the belief that the culturally interpreted figured world has “validity, truth, correctness or rightness” (Holland et al., 1998, p. 120). Figurative identities about these worlds are developed to legitimize their validity (i.e.,“If you study hard and excel in school,you will go to a great college and have a successful life”).

In the traditional figured world of school, academically successful students are those able to achieve mastery of their academic subjects. Mastery helps them develop a strong sense of confidence (self-efficacy) in their academic capabilities, eventually developing a “good student” identity. Self-efficacy is important because students’ beliefs about themselves drive their academic achievement (Bandura, 1986, 1997). In school, for instance, a student’s belief about his/her academic capabilities drives the classes they sign up for. Furthermore, students with a strong sense of self-efficacy are more likely to embrace difficult tasks, put forth a high degree of effort to achieve their goals, and recover faster from setbacks (Bandura, 1986,1997; Pajares, 2005). According to Bandura (1986), self-efficacy beliefs are developed from four sources: Mastery experience is the most influential source of self-efficacy. Success typically increases self-efficacy and failure decreases it. However, for a student who has mastered the concepts explained in consecutive math classes, failing a test would not impact their self-efficacy, but almost failing every math class diminishes your confidence in the subject. Vicarious experience is the relational positioning or social comparisons students make with others.

Social messages, such as encouragement and discouragement, increase or decrease self-efficacy beliefs. Physiological states could also increase students’ self-efficacies. A positive mood can increase students’ self-efficacy, while anxiety can undermine it. Self-efficacy is paramount to students’ self-authoring of identity, as students are more likely to take classes they believe they will do well in and enjoy.

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