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Navigating the transition to college : first-generation undergraduates negotiate identities and search for success in STEM and non-STEM fields


Historically, racial and ethnic minority students from low income backgrounds have faced unequal access to colleges and universities. Recently, both K-12 and higher education institutions, specifically the University of California, in response to Proposition 209, have made efforts to increase access and opportunities for all students. Similarly, female minority students are underrepresented in selected science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors and careers. Using a qualitative research design, this study investigates how first generation, low income, underrepresented minority students who graduated from an innovative college preparatory high school enact coping strategies that they were explicitly taught to achieve success within the context of university science and math courses. The presence of a unique, college-prep high school on the campus of UC San Diego, which accepts exclusively low-income students through a randomized lottery system, creates an unusual opportunity to study the transition from high school to college for this population, a cohort of underrepresented students who were taught similar academic coping strategies for success in college. This study aims to understand how students develop their college-going, academic identities within the context of their colleges and universities. Furthermore, this study intends to understand the phenomenon of "transition to college" as a lived experience of first-generation, low income, minority students, who all share a similar college preparatory, high school background. The main research questions are: 1) How do underrepresented students experience the transition from a college preparatory high school to college? 2) How are students developing their college- going, academic identities in the context of their educational institutions? and 3) What factors support or constrain student participation and success in college science courses? Twenty-eight students participated in this study. Based on surveys and individual interviews with the participants, twenty student narratives were written and analyzed. The students' narratives provide a picture of how these underrepresented students are experiencing the transition to college. In this sample, five factors impact the students' college-going academic identity development, major choice, and career path: 1) college preparation in high school, 2) self-efficacy, 3) success in college academics, 4) affinity group participation, and 5) interaction with college faculty.

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