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Identity Capital and Persistence among Latinx Engineering/CS Undergraduates at an HSI on the U.S.-Mexico Border

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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 2 Slot 3 Technical Session 2

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

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Erika Mein University of Texas at El Paso

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Dr. Erika Mein is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Educator Preparation in the College of Education at the University of Texas at El Paso, and Associate Professor in the Department of Teacher Education. Her scholarship focuses on disciplinary literacies in postsecondary contexts, with a particular emphasis on engineering identities and literacies among English Learners and bilingual students. Her research has been published in journals such as Theory into Practice, Action in Teacher Education, and Journal of Hispanic Higher Education. She earned her Ph.D. in Reading/Writing/Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and has been a faculty member at UTEP since 2008.

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Alberto Esquinca San Diego State University

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Alberto Esquinca is an Associate Professor in the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education at San Diego State University.

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Helena Mucino-Guerra University of Texas at El Paso

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Helena Muciño is a Ph.D. student in the Teaching, Learning, and Culture program at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). She holds a master's degree in Musical Education Research from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She is currently working as a Research Assistant for an NSF-funded project at UTEP dedicated to broadening the participation of Latinx students in higher education.

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About 10% of engineering and computer science degrees in the U.S. were awarded to Hispanics from 2004 to 2014 [1], while only 8% of the engineering workforce and 7% of the computing workforce, respectively, was comprised of Hispanics, as of 2018 [2]. In spite of concerted efforts over the last several decades at expanding their enrollment and participation in engineering and Computer Science, students from a range of backgrounds – including women, Latinx, Black, indigenous, and first-generation – continue to be underrepresented in these fields. This persistent underrepresentation impacts not only postsecondary engineering/CS programs, but also the profession more widely, as engineering/CS fields fail to reflect the diversity that is representative of U.S. society at large. A number of studies have focused on the challenges and barriers faced by students from underrepresented backgrounds in engineering/CS. As a response to deficit-focused narratives related to underrepresented groups in engineering, there is also an emerging body of engineering education scholarship that highlights more asset-based approaches to understanding the experiences of underrepresented groups in engineering, including the forms of community cultural wealth that minoritized students bring to their studies.

This study draws on two years of ethnographic data collection to uncover the tangible and intangible assets leveraged by Latinx engineering/CS undergraduates in order to persist in their studies to graduation and into the profession. The study is situated in a unique context: at a large, public Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) on the Mexico-US border whose student population is more than 80% Hispanic and that employs an explicit student success framework focused on equity and inclusion. The study included 27 Latinx engineering/CS students – 17 men and 10 women – who we followed from their final year of undergraduate studies through graduation and beyond. Our analysis bring together two theoretical frameworks – that of community cultural wealth [3] and identity resources [4] to identify and categorize the assets leveraged by participants as they persisted in their studies and into the field (or not). The four primary sets of assets leveraged by this group of students included relational, positional, aspirational, and communicative. Each of these will be described in detail in our paper.

Conceptual Framework: Identity and Theories of Capital

This paper draws on two primary conceptual lenses to identify and understand the tangible and intangible assets leveraged by Latinx engineering/CS students at the HSI: identity capital and community cultural wealth (CCW). Both frameworks share similar conceptual underpinnings: the notion of capital taken from critical social theory, particularly from the work of French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu highlights the role that capital plays in maintaining and perpetuating the social order and hierarchies within that order. His work pinpoints three primary types of capital: economic, social, and cultural [5]. While economic capital refers to tangible wealth (e.g. money, property), cultural capital has both material and symbolic manifestations, including (but not limited to) formal education and its accompanying credentials. Social capital refers to the social connections held by individuals – “the aggregate of actual or potential resources which are linked to a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (p. 21). Bourdieu’s theories of capital sheds light on how resources – both material and symbolic – can be accumulated to give individuals and groups a social advantage.

Yosso’s CCW framework draws from critical race theory and critical social theory to highlight six primary forms of capital possessed by Latinxs: linguistic, social, familial, navigational, aspirational, and resistant [3]. Importantly, Yosso’s framework seeks to “center the research, pedagogy, and policy lens on Communities of Color and call into question White middle class communities as the standard by which all others are judged” (p. 82). In drawing on critical race theory, and specifically LatCrit theory, Yosso’s framework highlights the “layers of racialized subordination” experienced by Latinx, where “racism, sexism, and classism are experienced amidst other layers of subordination based on immigration status, sexuality, culture, language, phenotype, accent, and surname” (p. 72). In engineering education, scholars have utilized CCW to understand the experiences of underrepresented groups in STEM, such as the use of navigational capital by low-income students to persist at a Predominantly White Institution [6] and the different forms of capital possessed by eight engineers if unidentified backgrounds [7]. A thorough meta-analysis of the literature in this area highlighted 33 studies explicitly focused on the community cultural wealth of “nondominant” groups in STEM [8].

Sociologists Cote and Levine draw on critical social theory, as well as psychology, to put forth the notion of identity capital, which they define as the tangible and intangible resources “cashed in” by individuals for particular ends [4]. Educational anthropologists have deployed Cote and Levine’s notion of “identity resources” in studies of identity development in athletes and professional learning among teachers. In an earlier analysis of a sub-set of participants from our two-year ethnographic study, we identified four primary kinds of identity resources articulated by nine focal participants in their decision to pursue engineering/CS: affinity, aspirational, positional, and relational [9]. The current paper expands this earlier analysis to include all 27 students participating in our study, with a focus on the resources that they identified as being supportive of their persistence to graduation.

Research Context and Methodology

This paper will present findings from a two-year, NSF-funded ethnographic study of Latinx students’ trajectories through undergraduate engineering/CS studies and into the profession. The study took place at a large, public, research-intensive HSI on the Mexico-US border with an explicit student success framework focused on equity and inclusion, and asset-based approaches to teaching, research, and student support. The study included 27 participants, 10 women and 17 men, all of whom could be categorized as Latinx, in the broadest sense. Four primary sources of ethnographic data were collected: demographic questionnaires; participant observation; artifact collection; and three in-depth interviews with each participant. Two interviews per participant took place during their studies, and the third interview took place 9-12 months after graduation.

The primary research question that guided this paper was: What are the struggles that Latinx engineering/CS students encounter in their engineering/CS studies, and how do they describe facing these struggles to persist to graduation?

Data were analyzed over multiple stages through an iterative process of open and focused coding [10], where large themes were identified across all data sources, starting with the interview transcriptions. For the purposes of this paper, the two primary thematic categories identified in early rounds of data analysis were “struggles” and “overcoming.” The analysis focused on participant accounts of the challenges and struggles that they faced during their engineering/CS studies, as well as the ways that they reported addressing these challenges. In the next section, we present a summary of the primary struggles identified by participants and the identity resources that they marshaled to manage (and in many, but not all, cases overcome) the struggles that they encountered.

Identity Resources Leveraged by Latinx Engineering/CS Undergraduates in the Face of Struggle Thematic analysis of the in-depth interviews with Latinx engineering/CS undergraduates uncovered six primary categories of struggle that they reported experiencing during their studies: financial, sociopolitical, academic, interactional, familial, and intersectional. Financial struggles included covering the cost of schooling, including tuition, which often entailed working a part-time job while going to school. Participants who were Mexican nationals often experienced sociopolitical struggles related to obtaining and retaining a visa to study in the U.S., as well as the difficulties associated with crossing the border on a daily basis to attend university. Academic struggles ranged from the individual to the institutional. Some participants highlighted the experience of learning academic English as a challenge; others emphasized the challenges they faced with teaching approaches in some of their classes, and the resulting difficulties in grasping content. Many of the participants noted that they experienced struggles with their peers, particularly related to the teamwork required for their capstone projects. At the familial level, some participants highlighted struggles that ranged from losing loved ones (often a parent) to perceiving a lack of support from parents and family. Intersectional struggles referred to the ways in which participants were positioned in engineering/CS based on different aspects of their identities; these struggles included feeling undervalued for being a Latina in engineering, or a gay man in engineering.

One important finding from our in-depth analysis of interviews was the ways in which participants described the struggles that they faced and the ways that they overcame those struggles within the same account. In some instances, the source of struggle was also the source of overcoming that struggle. It was in our analytical focus on “overcoming,” that we uncovered four primary sets of “identity resources” [5] marshaled by students to successfully navigate challenges during the course of their engineering/CS studies: relational, positional, aspirational, and communicative. The current findings expand on our earlier findings related to the identity resources deployed by a smaller sub-set of participants in this study (n=9) in their decision to pursue engineering/CS [9].

In this analysis, relational resources referred to the family, peers, friends, and mentors that served as a source of support, especially through trying moments. Positional resources referred to the ways that participants were positioned by people in authority (e.g. teachers, mentors, and program administrators); being positioned in a positive manner, e.g. as “good at math,” could lead to particular material outcomes, e.g. opportunities for scholarships or internships. Aspirational resources signals the goals, hopes, and dreams articulated by participants, while communicative resources refers to the dispositional and interactional skills that participants leveraged in order to gain an advantage, e.g. the “people skills,” that they deployed to build their professional networks, ultimately resulting landing positions post-graduation. The longer paper will describe these resources in detail.


This paper will present findings from a larger two-year, NSF-funded ethnographic study examining the experiences of Latinx undergraduates in engineering/CS through completion and into the profession or graduate school. The paper will analyze their first-hand accounts not only of the struggles that they faced throughout their studies, but also the resources that they leveraged to encounter and (in many cases) overcome these struggles to persist to graduation. This paper will contribute to a growing body of scholarship that disrupts deficit views of minoritized engineering students by highlighting the “community cultural wealth” and “capital” that underrepresented students bring to their studies. Furthermore, this study helps expand asset-based theories to understand the unique strengths and resources deployed by Latinx students in engineering/CS in the face of difficult challenges that are both institutional and personal in nature. Findings from this study have implications for faculty and program administrators, whose adoption of an asset-based (rather than deficit-focused) lens in their teaching and program administration has the potential to transform the experiences of Latinx and other underrepresented students in engineering, contributing to their greater recruitment and persistence in the field.


[1] National Science Foundation, “Bachelor’s degrees awarded, by field, citizenship, ethnicity, and race: 2004–14,” 2017. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 14, 2018]. [2] N. Graf, R. Fry, and C. Funk, “7 facts about the STEM workforce.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Oct. 14, 2018]. [3] T.J. Yosso, “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth,” Race, Ethnicity, and Education, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 69-91, 2005. [4] J. E. Cote and G. Levine, Charles, Identity Formation, Agency, and Culture: A Social Psychological Synthesis. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002. [5] P. Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, J. Richardson (Ed.), Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986, 241-258. [6] C. Carrigan, E.A. Riskin, J.L. Borgford-Parnell, P.N. Mody-Pan, and D. Wiggins, “Learning from Pell-Eligible Engineering Students’ Class Standpoint,” Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education, 2015. [7] J.P. Martin and S.S. Newton, “Uncovering Forms of Wealth and Capital Using Asset Frameworks in Engineering Education,” Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education, 2016. [8] M. Denton, M. Borrego, A. Boklage, “Community cultural wealth in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education: A systematic review,” J. Eng. Educ., 2020. [9] Authors, 2019. [10] R. M. Emerson, R. I. Fretz, and L. L. Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, 2nd ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2011.

Mein, E., & Esquinca, A., & Mucino-Guerra, H. (2021, January), Identity Capital and Persistence among Latinx Engineering/CS Undergraduates at an HSI on the U.S.-Mexico Border Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day .

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