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Black Faces, White Spaces: Understanding the Role of Counterspaces in the Black Engineering Graduate Student Experience

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2021 CoNECD


Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day

Publication Date

January 24, 2021

Start Date

January 24, 2021

End Date

January 28, 2021

Conference Session

CoNECD Session : Day 3 Slot 6 Technical Session 1

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

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Paper Authors


Katreena Thomas Arizona State University, Polytechnic campus Orcid 16x16

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Katreena Thomas is a graduate student at Arizona State University in the Engineering Education Systems and Design Doctoral program and the Human Systems Engineering Master's program. She is a member of the Shifting Perceptions, Attitudes and Cultures in Engineering (SPACE) Lab group and her research interests include broadening participation in engineering, engineering leadership and graduate student experiences in engineering. She received her B.S. in Industrial Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and worked in industry within operations as a manager before pursuing her graduate studies.

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Brooke Charae Coley Arizona State University, Polytechnic campus

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Brooke Coley, PhD is an Assistant Professor in Engineering at the Polytechnic School of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. Dr. Coley is Principal Investigator of the Shifting Perceptions, Attitudes and Cultures in Engineering (SPACE) Lab that aspires to elevate the experiences of marginalized populations, dismantle systematic injustices, and transform the way inclusion is cultivated in engineering through the implementation of novel technologies and methodologies in engineering education. Intrigued by the intersections of engineering education, mental health and social justice, Dr. Coley’s primary research interest focuses on virtual reality as a tool for developing empathetic and inclusive mindsets among engineering faculty. She is also interested in hidden populations in engineering education and innovation for more inclusive pedagogies.

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Michael Lorenzo Greene Arizona State University, Polytechnic campus

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Michael Greene is a PhD student in the Engineering Educations Systems and Design program at Arizona Sate University, Polytechnic Campus.

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Jeremi S. London Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Dr. Jeremi London is an Assistant Professor in the Engineering Education Department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. London is a mixed methods researcher with interests in research impact, cyberlearning, and instructional change in STEM Education. Prior to being a faculty member, London worked at the National Science Foundation, GE Healthcare, and Anheuser-Busch. She earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in Industrial Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University.

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Despite an increasing interest in diversity and inclusion in engineering, there has been a stagnant trend in the enrollment of black graduate students while students from other racial minority groups have shown a steady increase over the last decade (Yoder, 2017). Where it might seem that more studies would seek to understand why this is the case for Black students, a recent review of the broadening participation in engineering and computer science literature found Black graduate students to be the most understudied demographic (London, Lee & Watford, 2017). Understanding how students transition from undergraduate studies and come to experience graduate studies in engineering could be particularly insightful in demystifying the enrollment and retention trends. The transition from undergraduate to graduate studies is a challenging adjustment for many students, often involving at least one of many factors including matriculating to a new institutional culture, moving to and living in a different region, getting acquainted with greater autonomy and having to identify new support structures. These components of transition have often been accompanied by additional stressors that can cause anxiety, depression, and loss of motivation to pursue higher education. Tinto’s Model of Student Retention suggests the academic and social integration a student is able to establish within their university to be a critical influence on their decision to persist (Braxton, 2000). Many universities boast a variety of programs, organizations and support structures promoting academic and social integration among their student body; however, often these entities are focused on the undergraduate level and/or fail to prioritize the particular needs of students from underrepresented groups. For this reason, many underrepresented students seek to identify communities, referred to as counterspaces, where their marginalized identities can be empowered.

According to Case and Hunter, counterspaces are “settings which promote positive self-concepts among marginalized individuals (e.g., racial and gender minorities, persons with disabilities, etc.) through challenging the deficit-oriented dominant cultural narratives and representations concerning these individuals.” Counterspaces can come in many different forms having explicit connections to the profession (i.e., American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)), identity (i.e., Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs), or both (i.e., National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)) (Case & Hunter, 2012). One study investigated the impact of participating in ethnic professional organizations (NSBE and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE)) at the undergraduate level (Martin et al., 2016). However, the focus was solely on engineering related professional organizations and students that had attended a predominantly White institution (PWI).

It is often assumed that continuity in the availability of and access to supports at the graduate level is comparable to that which was realized in students’ undergraduate pursuits when in fact, to date, little is known regarding how graduate students identify and experience counterspaces to aid in the navigation of their engineering studies. It is possible that seeking out such structures could be arduous due to the differences in the responsibility, workload and needs of the student at the graduate level relative to what existed as an undergraduate student and particularly for students from marginalized populations. This study aims to explore how Black engineering students identify, engage in and experience counterspaces at the graduate level as a means of establishing adequate social integration to influence a desire to persist. Using a modified version of Tinto’s Model of Student Retention as the theoretical framework and counter-storytelling—a tenet of Critical Race theory, as a lens—this project takes a phenomenological approach to understanding the process of establishing counterspaces for Black engineering graduate students. This study sought to address the following research questions: RQ1: How do Black students describe their needs for counterspaces in engineering doctoral programs? RQ2: How do Black graduate students identify counterspaces while navigating engineering environments? RQ3: How does engaging in counterspaces impact the experiences of Black engineering graduate students, assuming they are successfully identified?

This study took utilized narrative interview methods to capture stories of the lived experience of Black graduate students in engineering. Specifically, there were three inclusion criteria for participants: (1) they had to identify as Black; (2) be a graduate student currently enrolled in a doctoral program in engineering at an institution in the United States; and (3) have engaged in either NSBE and/or BGLOs as an undergraduate student. As an initial recruitment effort, a demographic survey was deployed to targeted institutions through networks of Minority Engineering Program advocates and listservs associated with Black engineering organizations. The demographic survey contained information related to the study and consent documentation. It was noted that completion of the survey would indicate interest in participation in the study. More than 60 Black engineering graduate students completed the demographic survey as a result of the snowball sampling that occurred as students shared the study with their own professional networks and peers.

Participants participated in narrative interviews that were initiated with a prompt that composed the narration phase. The prompt stimulated participants to share their experiences in navigating engineering through undergraduate and graduate school, including how they perceived facets of their identity and engagement with specific organizations to impact their experience. This encouraged participants to elaborate on their stories. Following this phase, a semi-structured approach was taken to follow-up on specific points based on the stories shared by participants in what is known as the conversation phase. The conversational phase consisted of questions meant to delve deeper into the experiences shared. In total, 37 participants completed interviews ranging in duration from 60 minutes to 90 minutes. Of the 37 participants, 17 students were identified to provide more context to their graduate experience. The participant sample was composed of 7 men and 10 women; 1st year (7), 2nd year (2), 3rd year (5), 4th year (2) and 5th year (1) graduate students representing Mechanical Engineering (6), Bioengineering (3), Chemical Engineering (2), Industrial Engineering (2), Electrical Engineering (1), Civil Engineering (1), Aerospace Engineering (1), and Engineering Education (1). Of the participants, 13 were domestic Black students and 4 were international Black students representative of the following nationalities: Kenyan, Nigerian, and Ethiopian. Students also represented a host of institutions across the country with 13 being from PWIs, 2 being from predominantly White institutions that serve large numbers of underrepresented students (PWI-Ds) ( i.e., Georgia Tech, University of Maryland Baltimore County, etc.) and 2 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Interviews were audio and video recorded and transcribed. Interview transcripts were taken to be the primary source of data. To analyze the data, deductive codes were created based on the research questions as the first cycle of coding. Among the codes created, support systems and impactful interactions, identity related experiences, culture and achievements and success, were selected to be most related to the aforementioned research questions. Pattern coding was applied as a second cycle analysis to identify bigger pictures and themes as related to students’ experiences with counterspaces at the graduate level.

Many of the participants reported feelings of isolation or being the “only” in the engineering spaces they occupied. Academic support was not mentioned as a prominent “need” as many of the students recognized that graduate school is a different level of rigor and emphasizes more independent research. However, having a space that allowed them to vent, express frustration, or motivate them to continue was something that was commonly sought. Students who engaged in counterspaces at their undergraduate institution were able to better identify their changing needs for social integration upon entering their graduate program, whereas the students who had not, did so as a result of a critical event, either academically or personally.

Not all students articulated perceiving a change in their needs from their undergraduate experience as they began graduate programs. This, compounded with the strenuous nature of graduate education, led to feelings of frustration and lack of motivation, which resulted in them contemplating major changes, such as switching programs or advisors. Other students who were able to identify these counterspaces prior to or earlier in their programs were able to transition into their programs knowing how to leverage these spaces for the support that they needed specifically. Thus, a variety of counterspaces were utilized by the participants, largely based on academic interests, hobbies, or facets of their identities including service-based, technical, professional and religious units.

The participants sought counterspaces as a way to feel inclusivity among like-minded peers. Additionally, students also reported utilizing counterspaces as a way to break up the rigor of their engineering discipline. This enabled them to separate from their engineering world and focus on their non-technical interests and hobbies. Counterspaces provide an avenue for Black graduate students in engineering to mitigate their feelings of isolation stemming from often being the only Black representatives in their academic fields. These counterspaces enhanced their willingness to persist in their programs during instances when they lacked motivation.

Thomas, K., & Coley, B. C., & Greene, M. L., & London, J. S. (2021, January), Black Faces, White Spaces: Understanding the Role of Counterspaces in the Black Engineering Graduate Student Experience Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day .

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2021 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015