Bridges And Barriers To Connection: Class, Race, And Student Engagement With Institutional Agents

Sherelle Ferguson, University of Pennsylvania


How people forge ties and build social connections, particularly social connections which help to advance their life chances, has long-been of sociological interest. Research on social capital, cultural capital, and trust within communities, in different ways, investigates the same fundamental process: how do interpersonal relationships—social ties—and cultural knowledge help young people get ahead? Studies have primarily focused on quantity of ties but not as much on the quality and dynamics. This dissertation, based on in-depth interviews and ethnographic observations, explores the connection between students and institutional agents in three interrelated but distinct ways. First, I investigate undergraduates’ perspectives on forming resourceful ties with institutional agents on campus—faculty, advisors, and administrators. Class differences persist: compared to their middle-class peers, students from working-class backgrounds more often miss out on forging these connections that can assist them beyond providing academic support. However, even among middle-class students, their strategies differ by race. White middle-class students demonstrate an embodied ease where they balance familiarity with deference to authority figures. On the other hand, black middle-class students rely on professional self-presentation when interacting with institutional agents and some express distrust of the institution. Second, I investigate from the perspective of undergraduate academic advisors the quality of their connections with students of different class backgrounds. Some middle-class and upper-class students view advisor-student relationships as more instrumental. More affluent students go over their advisors’ heads, activating hierarches, slipping through cracks, and pursuing accommodations. Students choose to activate cultural capital, not for a relationship, but for an advantage. Students from working-class backgrounds can miss out on personal accommodations because they do not enact the same assertive strategies as middle-class students. Finally, in a study of high school teachers and their mentorships with low-income black students, I show that relationships must be appropriately maintained or students risk losing assistance. Mutual trust and reciprocity are critical to maintaining social capital. In all, this dissertation considers the bridges and barriers that young people of diverse social backgrounds face as they navigate forming and leveraging ties—ties which help students comply with institutional standards.