The Change: A Narrative-Informed Case Study Exploring the Tension between Structures and Agency in the Educational Trajectories of Engineering Students from Underserved Backgrounds

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Virginia Tech


In the United States context, there is a particularly prevalent dialogue about the transformative power of an engineering degree for underserved students. Long positioned as a mechanism for moving up the social ladder, engineering education is often discussed as a mechanism for upward mobility, promising underserved students the opportunity to climb. However, a critical examination of who enrolls and persists in engineering degree programs suggests not everyone can equitably leverage the transformative power of an engineering degree, with persistent inequities for underserved students. Though literature highlights systemic barriers faced by underserved engineering students, much less is known about how underserved students navigate barriers to pursue an engineering bachelor's degree. Accordingly, the purpose of my study was to explore how students from underserved backgrounds navigate their educational trajectories, focusing on the interplay between structures and agency. Using a Bourdieusian lens, my study was guided by the overarching research question: In their narratives, how do students from underserved backgrounds describe navigating their educational trajectories towards a bachelor's engineering degree? I used a single case study methodology with embedded units of analysis to explore this research question. My primary data sources included narrative interviews with 32 underserved engineering students and geospatial community-level data extrapolated from students' home zip codes. My results indicate that underserved engineering students describe a variety of strategies to enact agency by planning, optimizing, and, at times, redirecting their educational trajectories. This study also highlights the influence of family, community, economic, and political environments on the educational journeys of underserved engineering students, as students described navigating and adapting to these various social environments. Students also describe their environments as dynamic, with trajectories changing based on critical incidents such as a parent illness or loss of work. Lastly, students' narratives highlight a diverse range of reasons for pursuing engineering, which often extended beyond private goods approaches to engineering education. My results present implications for engineering education, the most notable of which is that underserved students are not a monolithic group and represent a diverse range of lived experiences. My results also highlight agency as a collective endeavor, challenging popular notions that agency is operationalized at the level of a single individual. Lastly, students' lived experiences with material hardship highlight the dynamic and multidimensional nature of economic disadvantage. Such insights compel engineering educators to reexamine how we conceptualize and measure economic disadvantage in higher education. Ultimately, this research highlights opportunities to increase access and equity in engineering education for underserved students.



engineering education, underserved, low income, first generation, access, equity