Giving back or giving up: Native American student experiences in science and engineering

Publication Abstract

Smith, Jessi L., Erin A. Cech, Anneke Metz, Meghan Huntoon, and Christina Moyer. 2014. "Giving back or giving up: Native American student experiences in science and engineering." Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 20(3): 413-429.

Native Americans are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. We examine communal goal incongruence-the mismatch between students' emphasis on communal work goals and the noncommunal culture of STEM-as a possible factor in this underrepresentation. First, we surveyed 80 Native American STEM freshmen and found they more highly endorsed communal goals than individualistic work goals. Next, we surveyed 96 Native American and White American students in STEM and non-STEM majors and confirmed that both Native American men and women in STEM highly endorsed communal goals. In a third study, we conducted a follow-up survey and in-depth interviews with a subset of Native American STEM students in their second semester to assess their experiences of belonging uncertainty, intrinsic motivation, persistence intentions, and perceived performance in STEM as a function of their initial communal work goals. Results demonstrate the prominence of communal goals among incoming Native American freshman (especially compared with White male STEM majors) and the connection between communal goals and feelings of belonging uncertainty, low motivation, and perceived poor performance 1 semester later. The interview data illustrate that these issues are particularly salient for students raised within tribal communities, and that a communal goal orientation is not just a vague desire to "help others," but a commitment to helping their tribal communities. The interviews also highlight the importance of student support programs for fostering feelings of belonging. We end by discussing implications for interventions and institutional changes that may promote Native American student retention in STEM.


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