Re-Engineering Risk: A Portraiture Of Black Undergraduate Engineering Persistence In Higher Education

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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higher education
Higher Education Administration
Higher Education and Teaching
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Prior research has examined underrepresented students in engineering from a deficit-oriented perspective. Black students are the most vulnerable subgroup in engineering due to low undergraduate completion rates and low participation in the workforce. We know that successful Black engineering students exist, and often thrive, at highly selective and competitive and predominantly White institutions (PWIs). These institutions can be unwelcoming and unsupportive environments for Black students, exposing them to risk factors that threaten their success. This qualitative study examines the lives and collegiate experiences of 57 Black undergraduate engineering students at 15 PWIs with highly-competitive engineering programs across six states through semi-structured in-person or virtual interviews. The goal of this study is to understand the individual and institutional factors that most contributed to their persistence, retention, academic success, and completion of their programs. Portraiture served as the methodological framework for its ability to capture the complex and multi-dimensional nature of the human experience. Seven themes emerged as representative of the Black engineering experience: (1) foundations in engineering; (2) adapting to college STEM rigor; (3) building community; (4) peer mentoring and support; (5) navigating the racial climate; (6) identifying institutional priorities; and (7) obstacles. The empirical conclusions from this study are as follows: formalized and extemporaneous collegiate communities helped Black engineering students adapt to college environments and reduce the risk of attrition; quality of pre-college math and science experiences influenced but were not determinative of future success; diversity strategies were perceived as ineffective and disingenuous; and the global racial climate had direct and potentially damaging effects for race relations on local campuses. This study offers new considerations for efforts around diversifying engineering and places higher expectations for ensuring continued access, persistence, and success on the institution and its agents.

Shaun R. Harper
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