The Journey of Becoming and Belonging:  A Longitudinal Exploration of Socialization's Impact on STEM Students' Sense of Belonging

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Virginia Tech

Persistently high attrition rates from STEM majors present a stubborn challenge for researchers, administrators, and faculty alike. To approach this problem, my dissertation examined the socialization processes by which students develop a sense of belonging to both their institution and their discipline. Previously identified as an important factor in students' persistence and overall satisfaction with their undergraduate experience, belonging is a critical piece of the retention puzzle. However, not every student experiences or develops belonging in the same way. This dissertation applied the theoretical lens of socialization to deepen the understanding of how social interactions help or hinder students' belonging to their university and chosen major alike. My dissertation work was grounded in the synthesis of two theoretical frameworks: Conrad et al.'s (2006) model of socialization and Strayhorn's (2018e) conceptualization of sense of belonging. The study took the form of an embedded case study of two similar disciplinary contexts within a large public land-grant Research 1 institution, with four students from each context for a total of eight participants. By leveraging four years of interview data from each participant, supported by institutional documentation, I addressed the question: In what ways does a student's socialization experience influence, if at all, their sense of belonging to both their chosen discipline and their university? Data analysis included qualitative coding, trajectory mapping, and thematic analysis. Trajectories were produced for each participant before expanding the analysis to examine patterns across and between the contexts. My findings addressed the mechanisms of socialization at the undergraduate level and how they evolved over time. The primary outcome of my work was a set of three distinct socialization trajectories, named the Anchored, who built strong socializing relationships early and maintained them throughout their undergraduate years; Independents, who neither sought nor wanted such relationships; and Wanderers, whose socializing relationships tended to be short-lived and inconsistent, although desired. Fourteen unique groups of socializing agents were identified, along with five common drivers for intentionally engaging with specific agents: personal and academic support, research and industry aspirations, and finding a path. Pre-college socialization experiences were salient for developing anticipatory belonging, as students who were exposed to their discipline or institution prior to arriving as students had an easier time becoming integrated to their communities. Once students arrived, their socialization trajectories tended to shape their feelings of belonging to the institution, with close ties forming for the Anchored, appreciation for general support among the Independents, and a mix of happiness and frustration for the Wanderers. By contrast, disciplinary belonging was more reliant on the individual participant's goals and interests. Disciplinary differences between the two contexts were identified but were limited in scope and generally linked to the career outcomes students associated with their chosen major rather than their experiences in the major. Finally, my research revealed that a strong sense of belonging in one domain of undergraduate life could be sufficient for a student to persist to degree completion despite weak or absent feelings of belonging in other areas.

Socialization, Sense of Belonging, STEM Education, Longitudinal