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Examining Undergraduate Experiences and Identity Navigation in STEM


Undergraduate education represents an important transitional stage where students decide upon and pursue their respective career pathways. Although an increased demand for professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce supports the recruitment of larger student populations into higher education, the number of trained professionals is expected to be insufficient due to the low retention of students in STEM degree programs and research, especially under-represented minority and first-generation students. Understanding the challenges that students broadly face during their university experiences is essential for informing institutional practices that foster the retention of students in STEM. Because a large proportion and diverse group of undergraduate students begin their post-secondary education at community college, this study examined the experiences and identity navigation of transfer students (n=29) majoring in STEM as they transitioned into a university-level education and pursued professional opportunities. The first analysis used Holland’s (1998) figured worlds as a theoretical perspective to examine multiple points of misalignment between the expectations that transfer students possessed prior to entering the university and their understanding of success that was reconfigured by their university experiences. The second analysis used phenomenography to define an outcome space that describes variations in these students’ conceptions of the research profession. A comparison between the participants’ current and retrospective conceptions revealed a more nuanced understanding of the nature of research after developing their own research and professional experiences in STEM.

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