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The Science Identity Experiences of Undergraduate, Foreign-Born Immigrant Women in STEM at U.S. Institutions

Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Gender and Sexuality MultiRacial Women in Student Affairs
February 5, 2020 Kate K. Diamond Michael J. Stebleton

The following is an excerpt from “The Science Identity Experiences of Undergraduate, Foreign-Born Immigrant Women in STEM at U.S. Institutions” originally published in volume 12, issue 3 of the Journal of Women and Gender in Higher Education.

This qualitative study examines the experiences of undergraduate, foreign-born immigrant women pursuing STEM careers. Eighteen students from two different institutions were interviewed. Employing a science identity framework, we explored how internal and external recognition influenced women’s identities as future STEM professionals. Data were analyzed using constructivist grounded theory approaches. Results include three main categories: identifying positive sources of external recognition and support, encountering discriminatory classroom environments, and incorporating altruistic and familial goals. We synthesized our findings in an emerging grounded theory model of science identity development for foreign-born immigrant women in undergraduate STEM programs. This model leads to several implications for how student affairs professionals can support immigrant women in STEM. 

Immigrant populations continue to grow in the United States. In 2015, 14% of the U.S. population was foreign-born (i.e., individuals born outside of the United States); this figure is expected to rise to 18% by 2065, which would represent the highest level in U.S. history (Pew Research Center, 2015). Furthermore, immigrants represent one of the fastest growing student populations in U.S. higher education (Fry, 2015; Kim, 2014). According to Arbeit, Staklis, and Horn (2016), 8% of all undergraduates in the United States are foreign-born immigrants; however, this estimate does not include undocumented students, so this figure may be underestimated. In turn, there is an emerging body of higher education and student affairs literature focused on the experiences of immigrant populations (Griffin & McIntosh, 2015; Kim & Diaz, 2013; Muñoz & Espino, 2017; Stebleton & Aleixo, 2016). 

Despite this growing interest in immigrant college students, a gap remains in the literature regarding an understanding of foreign-born, immigrant women, specifically in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Student affairs practitioners and other higher education professionals who are informed on the unique issues faced by immigrant student populations will be better positioned to encourage immigrant women in STEM. More specifically, educators can support immigrant women by encouraging them to see themselves as future professionals in STEM fields, and to recognize and confront negative, often discriminatory, behaviors and attitudes that may discourage them from pursuing a STEM major. Moreover, institutional policies that make the STEM fields more welcoming to immigrant women and other underrepresented populations are needed. The purpose of this study is to learn more about the science identity experiences of foreign-born immigrant women studying in STEM fields. 

Rationale for Studying Foreign-Born Immigrant Women in Stem 

Although statistics are not available on the exact rate of participation of immigrant students in the STEM fields, various studies have demonstrated that this group is more likely than their U.S.-born peers to want to pursue a STEM major in college (Kim & Diaz, 2013; Porche, Grossman, & Dupaya, 2016). Whereas extensive scholarly work has focused on the experiences of certain underserved student groups in STEM, such as women and Students of Color (Dortch & Patel, 2017; Gayles & Ampaw, 2016; George-Jackson, 2014; Gibson & Espino, 2016), little attention has been paid to the experiences of foreign-born immigrant students at the postsecondary level (Muñoz, 2016; Stebleton & Aleixo, 2015). Because of the gendered nature of many of the STEM disciplines, it is important to consider the specific context of women immigrant students in STEM. 

While better serving this population is an important goal in and of itself, an improvement in the experiences of immigrant women in STEM may also produce benefits related to economic and social equity (Basile & Lopez, 2015). Because the STEM disciplines are connected to many of the highest paying jobs in the United States, successful entry into a STEM career represents an important pathway to upward mobility for immigrants (PayScale, n.d.; U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Moreover, in fields such as healthcare, ensuring equitable treatment for under- served populations will likely rely on the representation of those communities in the STEM workforce (Fenton et al., 2016). In summary, our goal is to better understand the experiences of immigrant, undergraduate women in STEM to enhance the understanding and support that student affairs practitioners, faculty, and other higher education professionals can provide to these students. Such efforts can improve immigrant women’s success and persistence in STEM, which may ultimately have broader positive implications regarding economic and social equity. 

This article presents findings from a qualitative study on the experiences of foreign-born, immigrant women pursuing undergraduate STEM majors. The Migration Policy Institute (as cited in Zong & Batalova, 2017) defines foreign-born immigrants as individuals who were born outside the United States and had no U.S. citizenship at birth. This term includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, persons on certain temporary visas, and those who are undocumented (Zong & Batalova, 2017). We were especially interested in how participants’ emerging identities as future professionals in the STEM fields (i.e., their science identities) were influenced by their self-perceptions (i.e., internal recognition), as well as the perceptions and actions of other people in their lives (i.e., external recognition). We explored how these science identity processes intersected with their identities related to immigration, gender, race, and ethnicity. 

It is critical that student affairs practitioners learn more about this growing population in order to better support their pursuit of a STEM degree and career. While other studies have focused on the STEM experiences of immigrant students at the K–12 level (Areepattamannil & Kaur, 2013) and the experiences of immigrant students in higher education across a range of academic disciplines (Conway, 2010), this is the first known study that explores the STEM- related motivations, assets, and challenges of this unique student group. Our overarching central research question for this study is: What are the experiences of foreign-born immigrant women enrolled in undergraduate STEM programs at four-year, predominantly White institutions in the United States? Our second, more specific research question is: How do these undergraduate women experience internal and external recognition processes that are related to science identity development? 

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