Embracing Their Identity as Women and Latinas
According to participants, being a STEM college student, especially in disciplines where females and Latinas are underrepresented, is not easy. Participants realized that being the only female in classrooms, or being one of just a few females, was challenging in terms of how White male peers perceived them. In addition, participants’ heritage as it relates to their culture, values, and ethnicity helped them operate in demanding college environments. All the aforementioned factors contributed to developing participants’ leadership attitudes and reinforcing how other people in and out of college perceive them. Two categories frame this theme: Fighting to be heard and Feeling proud of who they are.
Fighting to be heard. Participants were underrepresented in STEM disciplines both in terms of their gender and ethnicity. They found it difficult to interact with their male peers. Such interactions were often conflictive and disrespectful, sometimes through implicit actions and often with explicit behaviors. For the most part, participants found inner strength as women in dealing with academic and gender-related issues. Karina stated, “I am president and vice president [of student organizations’ names] to show [male peers] that we are equal if not better at some things.” Furthermore, participants’ leadership was found in classrooms, where they have to be able to face some negative male mindsets. Sina insisted:
They [male classmates] come into this thinking that they are going to walk all over us, and, luckily, the females that we have in our classes we push back, and we take leadership positions in our classes. I mean, I’m a secretary for [name of organization); M. is the president. All of our female students are involved in our classes, we stand as a team and make sure we do not get pushed around.
Sinas statement shows how women can be leaders in engineering classrooms. This suggests that Sinas (Latina) peers do not let themselves be intimidated by their male colleagues in classrooms. More importantly, they actively voice their opinions and take key leadership roles to feel more represented in engineering. Similar to Sina, Karina observed, “A lot of women in our college . . . are stepping up because they all feel like they have a lot to prove in this male-dominated world.” Both Sina and Karina notice the need to become more visible in classes, be more vocal, and challenge their classmates to perform better. In addition, Alyssa’s participation in an honors program helped her learn about internships, scholarships, and even job opportunities. Such opportunities are perceived by Alyssa as an advantage to stand out as a student. Moreover, Alyssa pointed out her interest in being involved in student life in college:
I really like to be involved on campus, so I am a college ambassador, which is being a campus tour guide, honors program. I’m in student volunteer connection, you pretty much do volunteer work and service events throughout the year. I do a lot of holidays, A. Days every summer, which is a transitional camp for incoming students, I recently joined the N. Society of leadership and . . . and then also, I recently joined a Hispanic Engineers organization.
Alyssa also participated in an (ethnic and field-related) conference, at which female engineering students talked about gender-related difficulties in male- dominated fields. Overall, participants found different strategies to cope with negative male classmates’ interactions. They believe firmly in their self- efficacy and resiliency to be Latinas in STEM.
Feeling proud of who they are. Throughout the interviews, participants reflected on their peculiarity as women and Latinas. They highlighted the importance of bringing back aspects, such as being aware of their previous experiences in education, their cultural legacy, and their inner strength as women. For Isela, joining a cultural organization allowed her to know more about her Hispanic heritage and other cultural-related topics. Like Isela, Brianna’s perspective on Hispanic heritage on campus was influenced by her participation as the director of a cultural association. Brianna noted, “It’s a lot more than just Hispanic. We do like different cultures, so I really enjoy that because I love seeing different parts of the world and how people are so different, but yet so much the same.” This suggests that despite differences, cultures are rooted in similarities in spite of nuanced experiences; the latter is what remains distinctive in nature. Both Isela and Brianna, with their participation and leadership in this type of cultural organization, feel more culturally aware and able to better understand others who are different from them.
Being a minority in STEM disciplines, specifically in engineering, comes with the challenge for women to find a place where they can also lead, propose, and innovate. According to Sina, “Having that idea of you (women) should be in the shadow, it doesn’t work. In engineering [it] is very difficult to get through if you aren’t willing to develop the skills that you need to be a leader.” According to Sina, both males and females have the same ability to become leaders. In this same subject, Arianne noticed, “They (male peers) would think that you don’t know stuff... I felt it sometimes ... I can be as smart as you are, and you will be surprised.” Arianna seems to struggle to understand her male peers’ behavior in classrooms; however, she firmly believes in her inner strengths and motivation. In turn, Karina is trying to reach other Latinas and trigger their inspiration to consider a career in STEM. She argued;
I am trying to set a platform that I want to be a role model, I want to show other Latinas, also make sure anytime we have like an outreach to go to high schools... I want to make sure I make eye contact with the women because we need more of them to come out.
Karina’s interest in demonstrating to other women, and especially Latinas, that a career in STEM is reachable goes beyond helping other students; she is also committed to the new generations by trying to reach them. Overall, to try to persuade participants’ male peers who often doubt about Latinas’ intellectual capacity', participants found ways to stand out, voice their opinion, and especially, fight to be recognized and feel encouraged to accomplish their STEM degree.