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Critical Consciousness and Wellbeing Across Time and Contexts for Emerging Adult College Students

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Young people have long resisted systemic oppressions that undermine their and their communities' wellbeing. One way to conceptualize resistance to oppression is critical consciousness (CC). CC is a process through which individuals develop their analysis of structural oppressions and build their abilities to transform them (Freire, 1973). CC supports many important developmental outcomes for young people. Yet, the effects of CC on youth’s wellbeing are unclear, with research on emerging adult college students (EACS) especially unclear (Maker Castro et al., 2022). Wellbeing is defined to encompass one’s mental, socioemotional, and physical health. Through CC development, EACS may feel more hopeful about their ability to resist oppressive forces. Alternatively, and/or additionally, CC may lead to increased wellbeing challenges as EACS grappled with the magnitude of oppressive systems. The recent sociopolitical context, including the inequitable impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with heightened anti-Asian and anti-LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and other sexual and gender minority youth) discrimination, a global movement against racial injustice, and a highly polarized national political climate, may have significantly challenged EACS’ wellbeing. The relationship between CC and wellbeing for EACS may be further influenced by identities and experiences within oppressive systems. Therefore, this dissertation seeks to understand the ways in which CC development may inform wellbeing among diverse EACS within the recent sociopolitical context, and how salient experiences and identities can influence this relationship.

The dissertation includes two complementary studies to examine the ways in which CC and wellbeing develop over time in relation to EACS’ identities and experiences within oppressive systems. Drawing from sociopolitical development theory (SPD), Study 1 quantitatively examined CC development using survey data from a national cohort of emerging adult college students collected in April (n=707), July (n=544), and November (n=461) of 2020. The sample (61% women; 29% LGBQ+) was 54% White, 20% Asian/Pacific Islander, 9% Latinx, 5% Black, 1% Middle Eastern/North African, and 10% multiracial/ethnic. Latent profile transition analysis (LPTA) with auxiliary variables was used to identify patterns of CC development using the Short Critical Consciousness Scale (ShoCC; Diemer et al., 2020) and examine how patterns were associated with youth’s gender and sexual identities, discriminatory experiences, and wellbeing (i.e., stress, anxiety, hopefulness). Results indicated four CC profiles. Having, and especially growing in, CC during the year 2020 was associated with stress and anxiety. Women and LBGQ+ youth were likely to be in these groups, which reported more experiences with discrimination. Study 2 used thematic analysis of interview data and an inductive-deductive approach to coding to explore the CC and wellbeing experiences between 2019 and 2022 for 27 diverse EACS (52% cisgender women; 48% LGBQ+; 33% White, 33% Asian, 15% Black, 11% Multiracial, 7% Latinx), considering their identities and experiences with discrimination. Findings highlighted that wellbeing was a precursor, motivator, and consequence of CC development, creating a reciprocal and recursive relationship between domains. EACS experienced CC and wellbeing challenges related to developmental transitions associated with college as well as sociopolitical oppressions manifested in the greater climate and more proximal contexts. Together, these studies paint a complicated story ending on the cautiously optimistic note: EACS who grew in their CC between 2019-2022 ultimately found ways to support wellbeing, though developmental and sociopolitical challenges continued to be a threat.

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This item is under embargo until June 12, 2025.