Enacting Agency: Journey Through Community College

Kitatoi’s navigation through primary and secondary schooling was treacherous. Despite having received inadequate academic preparation, she enrolled at a community college, a resistive act toward staking a claim of who she was choosing to be in society but stopped out after a semester. Now a mother of three, Kitatoi was determined to act on her environment to achieve her goals of “knowing how the world works” and helping her kids with their schoolwork. Ten years after stopping out, Kitatoi re-enrolled at her local community college as a part-time student. “I felt like that was a big moment for me . . . deciding to go back to school . . . [and| I wanted to tackle the one thing that I was most intimidated by ... I started with math.”

No doubt Kitatoi struggled throughout her academic trajectory, but it should also become evident that she developed a resilient attitude and disposition. Her agentic capability and perception of herself as someone who can succeed was a hard-won standpoint. Her agentic capabilities were rooted in her desire to change her life around—“I want to know how things work . . . know how to write a decent essay. I wanted to be able to know basic math”—and support her children if they one day struggled with school- work. Kitatoi’s rediscovered agency was once again met with constraining forces, mostly as a result of who gets to participate in the curriculum.

At the beginning, I felt really embarrassed because I was the oldest one. I was one of the oldest ones there, and I’m learning how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. ... I started at basic algebra, basic arithmetic, I learned how to divide at 25. ... It felt embarrassing . . . even humiliating. But somehow, my mind was just changed like, “I’m going to do this. It’s nobody else’s life. It’s my life.” I don’t want my kids to come to me and ask for help with long division and I’m not going to be able to help them.

Her action of exercising her agency to take control of events that affect her life led her to tackle her biggest fear. “I decided to start with math because that was my biggest fear in high school. ... I don’t want to repeat the, ‘Oh, I’m scared of it’ mindset.” Restarting her community college journey was an empowering time for Kitatoi; however, it did not come without its challenges. “The first semester that I went, I took a math class, and 1 really struggled with it. ... 1 didn’t know how to adjust to doing school and having the kids at the same time.” Kitatoi was learning to re-navigate a system that had failed her and left her disenfranchised for ten years. It was evident that there was a whirlwind of environmental influences acting against Kitatoi’s agency (i.e., the social stigma of being an older student in college, feelings of embarrassment due to her current circumstance, and a common struggle of navigating the college environment that affects a large portion of fust-generation college students).

With the mindset of tackling one of her biggest fears, Kitatoi would enroll in the lowest-level mathematics course available at her community' college. In her first year back in college, she would take Pre-Algebra and Elementary Algebra the following semester:

At first, I wasn’t really understanding my classes because ... I would do all the homework, I would practice the problems, I would stay up late, I would wake up early' just to practice more, and 1 really felt like I was understanding the professor when he taught, but when I took a test, I would get а С. I would get really frustrated with myself like, “I’m really trying my best here,” and the best that 1 could do according to these tests is average.

While agentically acting on her mathematics course, “I was really studying my ass off. . . I’m not studying at an average level”; Kitatoi was again left feeling disempowered, this time by' the course content. Her perception of herself as a capable student and a learner was contested. Kitatoi’s identity as a competent learner was beginning to take form; during her first semester in college, she was beginning to view mathematics as only for certain types of people.

I started thinking maybe the saying is true. It’s not for everybody. It’s only' certain ty'pe of people that understand this concept. ... I actually passed that semester of pre-algebra with a C, and I just felt really disappointed . . . because I thought I don’t have any more to give. 1 don’t have any more energy to give . . . out of my best effort, all I get is a C . . . I’m not studying at an average level. I’m studying my ass off here, and I’m barely doing average. I started to give up because I felt like, “No, I guess math is just not for me.” I passed with a C ... I was practicing; I was getting help. I was doing all that, and I still wasn’t . . .

I wasn’t getting the As on the exams, because if you get As that means you’re really understanding everything.

Kitatoi chose to tackle one of her biggest fears, mathematics, not because in that stage of her life she had a desire to pursue a career in engineering or mathematics but as a result of enacting her agency' toward resisting her disenfranchised subject position and taking control of her life’s course. While mathematics was “one of [her| biggest fears,” Kitatoi made a conscious decision not to allow mathematics course requirements to constrain her academic progression. Based on Kitatoi’s prior experience in high school, it seems her desire to get As on exams was a desire to shed the perception of herself as a struggling student or someone who didn’t learn anything in high school. Kitatoi’s participation in mathematics, in large part, was to reshape how she saw herself, i.e., as a capable learner; unfortunately, her grades were not reflecting who she wanted to be. Nevertheless, Kitatoi demonstrated resilience in progressing through, despite not receiving the performance markers she was expecting.

And so, I just thought, “Okay, well this is how it’s going to be. It’s disappointing, but I guess this is just the type of student than I am”. ... I felt like a failure. Even though I was back in school doing a good thing . . . I still felt like, “Man, my best isn’t good enough.”

Although her strategies indicated that she was doing everything to succeed—attending classes, constantly practicing problems, and getting help—there was still a barrier to overcome. When asked about her interactions with her mathematics instructors, Kitatoi stated, “My pre-algebra professor . . . wanted us to learn, would have good explanations and plenty of examples.” Learning mathematics and the way students position themselves in relation to mathematics is a trajectory of participation, constructed by both the students and the instructors (Boaler & Greeno, 2000). Kitatoi was in an environment where her willingness to learn was congruent with the instructor’s desire for his students to learn. Therefore, although she was not performing at the level she had hoped for, she continued on to the next mathematics course. Boaler and Greeno (2000) posit that the types of mathematical tasks, teaching techniques, and learning approaches used enable or constrain students’ beliefs of seeing themselves as math type of people. Students’ perceptions of themselves as mathematical learners develop in and through social practice; however, certain environments can have a constraining factor on seeing oneself as a capable mathematics learner, which is where Kitatoi found herself in her second semester in community college:

My elementary algebra professor was total shit. She yelled; you could tell that she didn’t want to be there teaching. She was always grumpy and if you asked questions, she kinda would yell at you . . . she made people feel dumb, we complained about her all the time, and some people reported her to the Dean. Nothing happened, though, that we know of.

When I inquired if this imposed learning environment impacted her, Kitatoi stated that she felt “embarrassed . . . not motivated, hopeless, ’cause I was putting in the work and not getting any positive feedback.” Understanding the interaction with Kitatoi’s elementary algebra instructor made it clear why she resigned herself to be the type of student who barely gets an average grade in mathematics. She finished her first year in community college in a state of disillusionment by the performance marks she was receiving, lack of positive reinforcement and recognition by her instructor, and belief that “ this is just the type of student than I am”—thus reinforcing once again the identity' of a struggling student. Nevertheless, Kitatoi continued to take mathematic courses, persevering despite an imposed negative learning environment. Her agency to control the events that affect her life, despite environmental constraints, propelled her to enroll in the mathematics course that followed Elementary Algebra. Kitatoi s agency toward resistive acts helped her pushed past the academic push-out and subtractive culture experienced by many Mexican American students (Valencia, 2004; Valenzuela, 1999). Studies have found that a large portion of students who enter community colleges make little progress toward degree completion, specifically noting that completion remains correlated with socioeconomic status (Goldrick-Rab, 2010; Summers, 2003); Kitatois agency and intense desire to persevere would prove to be sufficient enough to break down barriers.

After that year ... I took an intermediate algebra class, and for some reason when I took that class, it’s like ... I honestly feel like a switch was turned on. ... I would take an exam, and I got an A. That was my very first A ever. Even in high school, that was my very first A. . . . That was the very first time that I actually felt proud of myself, and 1 saw that all the studying and the work that I’ve been putting into the previous math classes, I started seeing it pay off.

Kitatoi's fleeting effort in her first year left her development as a competent mathematics type of person contested; this was evident in her account, “my best isn’t good enough,” upon receiving Cs even though she “studied [her| ass off.” However, by resisting negative beliefs about her capabilities and persevering through, Kitatoi was able to obtain an A in her Intermediate Algebra exam. Thus, her ability to perform her competence in mathematics at the level she was striving for was the turning point, i.e., shifting her self-concept of a struggling mathematics learner to a proud mathematical learner.

In that class [Intermediate Algebra], I was to the point where I could turn to the student that was next to me or behind me, and I could explain to them what was happening. If they needed help, I was able to help them.

Kitatoi’s agency, coupled with her perseverance to learn mathematics, afforded her the ability to perform her competence and eventually come to see herself as a mathematics type of person. While her first year was not reflective of the type of mathematics student she wanted to be, Kitatoi’s resilient attitude enabled her to reshape who she was with who she wanted to be: “I had a ‘I’m not gonna fail again’ attitude . . . I’m gonna get good at it no matter what.” Following her experience obtaining “my very first A” and her ability to explain to others what was going on in the class, Kitatoi would go on to take the entire sequence of mathematics courses.

I moved on to college algebra ... I took trigonometry. That’s when I started working as a math tutor. . . . After trig, I went into calculus, and that’s a series of three classes, and I took all of those. I struggled with them also like at the beginning, but... I had already learned how to manage my time . . . pretty much how to be a good student so that I can learn.

Kitatoi managed to leave behind the self-concept of a student who struggled and took on the identity' of a thriving mathematics learner. Her agency' to act against a system that failed her allowed her to reshape her student identity, and she subsequently started to see herself as someone who can do mathematics. Kitatoi eventually constructed an environment where she felt recognized as a competent mathematics learner; she became a tutor for mathematics classes ranging from Pre-Algebra to Calculus III. Kitatoi became involved in tutoring based on her resilient effort to reconstruct her educational trajectory and external recognition.

I practically lived at the tutoring center, that was my hangout spot and I always went to get help with my homework. . . . One day' the guy that ran the tutoring center came up to me ... he came up to me and was like “hey you should consider tutoring”. ... I was so insecure, shy and in my box that it took that . . . [tutoring center director], to literally make, demand me, in a good way, to do it. I feel like he believed in me when I didn’t and I’m very grateful to him.

Being externally recognized as a competent mathematics ty'pe of person gave Kitatoi the additive boost to move from a peripheral participant of mathematics to a more fully engaged participant of that community of practice. Now a mathematics tutor, Kitatoi moved past the identity of a struggling student to a competent mathematics type of person who subsequently' was receiving the external recognition necessary for identity development (Carlone & Johnson, 2007; Rodriguez, Doran, Sissel, & Estes, 2019). Kitatoi stated, “I was able to explain things . . . and the students would appreciate it. And I was having fun and my confidence was way up . . . it was like a community effort.” Kitatoi’s entry into the mathematics community' of practice allowed her to continue pursuing scientific courses. She would move on to take two chemistry courses and eventually made her way to the calculus- based phy'sics course series. Calculus-based physics courses are considered a gateway into engineering programs (Cass, Hazari, Sadler, & Sonnert, 2011; Tyson, Lee, Borman, & Hanson, 2007; Warne et al., 2019) and support students’ beliefs of seeing themselves as engineers (Godwin et al., 2016; Verdin, Godwin, Sonnert, 8c Sadler, 2018). To solidify her transition into an engineering bachelor’s degree granting program, Kitatoi needed to pass through this course series.

I thought, “You know what, I think mechanical engineering would be something that I’m interested in since I’m really curious about how things work and how things are made”. ... I knew I had to take a physics class . . . but I was intimidated by physics. ... I was just still doubting myself. . . I . . just left physics to the end because I honestly just thought I was going to fail at it, because only smart people did physics.

Studies have documented that preparation in mathematics is a strong predictor of success in physics (Hazari, Tai, & Sadler, 2007; Kost, Pollock, & Finkelstein, 2009), and while Kitatoi had established herself as a competent mathematics learner, her ability to begin engaging in physics courses was met with environmental constraints. Her statement, “only smart people did physics”, was in response to the pervasive gender imbalance in the physics courses, the constant environmental message of who can participate, the stereotype threat that continues to impinge on women’s performance, and implicit bias against women’s ability to excel in physics courses (Blackburn, 2017; Eddy & Brownell, 2016). Kitatoi further clarified her assumption of who the “smart” people were.

I worked at the tutoring center ... at that time. ... I would see the people that would go into the tutoring center for . . . physics and they were just really smart people . . . meaning they get straight As. . . really smart and mostly guys . . . these younger people that are taking these physics classes, you just need so much dedication, and you just need to study all the time and that’s pretty' much your life, and I can’t do that. Because again, I have three kids.

Compared to other science courses, e.g., biology or chemistry, the gender disparities between students who participate in calculus-based physics courses are significantly pronounced. Additionally, studies have found that women often feel a lack of belonging in these courses compared to men, in large part as a result of the gender imbalance and male-dominated culture (Banchefsky, Lewis, & Ito, 2019; Lewis, Stout, Pollock, Finkelstein, & Ito, 2016). In general, women are less likely to participate in the calculus-based physics series, and this persistent culture of exclusion among certain disciplines makes for the heightened invisibility of women. Kitatoi’s confidence in mathematics was only a starting point for her trajectory into engineering;

seeing herself as a physics type of person was equally important for her internal recognition as a capable engineering type of person.

Then I went into physics, and it was just like . . . out of everything that I have taken in college . . . [physics] was way more fascinating. ... I just got really fascinated with a lot of things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know pretty much how the world goes around, how things move, how things interact with each other, what things are made out of, how does the car engine work, how does gravity' work, stuff like that. . . . [WJhen you get to those classes, you see what’s really happening . . . I just started getting really fascinated with all those things. Then I decided I was going to try mechanical engineering because the most that 1 was interested in is how things worked. How are things made? What are they' made out of? How do they' work? If they break, how do they get fixed?

Kitatoi’s six-year journey through community college was permeated with up and down moments; through her resilient agentic capabilities, she persevered to degree completion, earning three associate’s degrees in multiple sciences, mathematics, and physics. While it is evident that Kitatoi’s trajectory into engineering was anything but linear, taking on the identity' of a mathematics and physics type of person was instrumental for her pathway' into engineering. Kitatoi’s ability' to break away from the academic self- concept of a struggling student to someone who was competent in mathematics was instrumental in enabling her agency to pursue other STEM courses. Prior studies have found that students’ exposure and affinity toward mathematics and physics are gateways into seeing oneself as the type of person who can do engineering (Cribbs, Cass, Hazari, Sadler, & Sonnert, 2016; Godwin et al., 2016; Verdin, Godwin, & Ross, 2018; Verdin, Godwin, Sonnert, et ah, 2018).

Kitatoi is now enrolled at a four-year university in the mechanical engineering program. I end this chapter with an acknowledgment that Kitatoi’s six-year journey through community college, although arduous at times, was an empowering experience where she managed to shed the academic self-concept of a struggling student and learned to see herself as part of the math and physics community of practice. Entry into these communities of practice was significant for Kitatoi’s belief of seeing herself as someone who can do engineering.

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