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To Live So Boldly: Portraits of South Asian American Women’s College Decision-Making Processes


Due to the highly stratified nature of American higher education, student outcomes vary widely by institutional type. Therefore, the college decision-making process merits close examination to understand how students select an institution that will shape their collegiate experiences and post-college opportunities. However, South Asian American experiences are largely absent from this literature, either omitted entirely or obscured by over-aggregation. Within this broader gap, there is also a need to focus on South Asian American women, who are found to be unequally burdened (compared to men) by their immigrant community’s cultural expectations. To address these needs, this dissertation examined how South Asian American women’s gender and cultural identities manifest and then influence their decision to attend either a community college, public state university, or elite private university.

Using Lawrence-Lightfoot’s method of portraiture, this study focused on the experiences of 11 women across the three institutional types, with data created from a series of three interviews with the participant and a participant-led interview with the family member she identified as having played a pivotal role in her decision-making process. Largely guided by a combination of Bhattacharya’s Par/Desi Framework and Perna’s Conceptual Model of Student College Choice, this study’s findings underscored the powerful influence of cultural and gender identities. The similarities among the women’s decision-making processes included feeling a sense of uncertainty in the initial decision-making process, bearing the weight of South Asian stereotypes, recognizing the role of performativity in their decision, and relying on family involvement. The differences included a contrast between prioritizing pragmatism versus prestige in the search process and the variations in traditional gender role expectations. Additionally, the themes that emerged across the differences in their decision-making process mirrored the differences in their ongoing perceptions and experiences of their institution.

Overall, this study’s findings illuminate the nuances of South Asian American women’s college decision-making processes and point to key implications for research, theory, and practice. Most importantly, the study contributes to the field’s understanding of how South Asian Americans in particular and immigrant communities more broadly engage with the American higher education landscape.

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