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Racial Microaggressions within the Advisor-advisee Relationship: Implications for Engineering Research, Policy, and Practice

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Dissecting the Nuances that Hinder Broad Participation in Engineering

Tagged Division

Minorities in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Brian A. Burt Iowa State University

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Brian A. Burt is Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Iowa State University. He studies graduate students' learning and achievement, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM fields. He also examines the institutional policies and practices that influence students’ educational and workforce pathways. His research, writing, and teaching and advising directly relate to his personal journey as a collegiate student leader, emerging scholar, and the decision to pursue a faculty career.

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Alade S McKen Iowa State University

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Alade Shola McKen, M.S. Ed., is a first-year doctoral student and graduate assistant in the School of Education at Iowa State University. Alade received his B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University, and his M.S. Ed. in Higher Education Administration from Baruch College, School of Public Affairs. Alade has worked in higher education for over 10 years. He also volunteers through a number of non-profit organizations and community partnerships. Alade examines the social foundations of education and culture within society. He is interested in researching diverse issues faced by African American students in higher education

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Jordan Anthony Burkhart Iowa State University

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Jordan Burkhart is a Master’s student in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Iowa State University. He is an Apartment Community Manager within the Department of Residence. He is particularly interested in the areas of student conduct and Title IX. Jordan graduated from Luther College, where he conducted paleoclimatology research and earned a degree in Environmental Studies (with a focus on geoscience).

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Jennifer Hormell Iowa State University

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Jennifer Hormell is a first-year graduate student in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Iowa State University. She serves as a graduate assistant in the Academic Success Center, working specifically with the Supplemental Instruction program. Prior to attending Iowa State University, Jennifer received a Bachelor of Arts in Government from Centre College.

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Alec James Knight Iowa State University

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Alec Knight is a first-year Master’s student in the Student Affairs program at Iowa State University. He is a Graduate Assistant in the International Students and Scholars Office, tasked with planning International Student Orientation. He is a graduate of Grinnell College, where he received a BA in German with a Concentration in Linguistics.

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The underrepresentation of Black men in engineering highlights a missing segment of the population who could contribute to the knowledge economy. Increases in Black male engineers could aid in increased numbers of Black faculty members – and in general, role models – who could teach and inspire future generations of students in STEM. To address this national concern, however, stakeholders need to identify prevailing issues, for example, racial microaggressions, and where they occur. Racial microaggressions are sometimes described as [subtle] comments or behaviors that add psychological stress to the recipient. By addressing the practices and activities that are turning students away from sustained participation in engineering, we may be able to increase the number of Blacks males who enroll, remain in, and graduate from engineering programs.

Literature and Theory

In engineering fields, students’ experiences with research, and their relationships with the faculty advisor and peers, appear to be most germane to shaping students’ learning, their professional identity, and graduate experiences. Because of the important role of interactions with others in educational contexts, sociocultural learning perspectives provide the theoretical framework used in this study. From a sociocultural perspective, learning occurs through the co-construction of knowledge and interactions with others within a given community of practice.

Drawing on sociocultural learning perspectives, the following research questions guide this study: 1) What do racial microaggressions look like in a domain-specific context like engineering? 2) In what engineering-specific contexts are they taking place?


Data includes interviews from eleven Black male participants from a large Midwestern research institution; interviews semi-structured, and lasted at least one-hour. Participants were asked questions about their collegiate background, doctoral experiences, and identification with and intentions to remain in engineering. Audio recordings were transcribed verbatim. Grounded theory techniques were used to analyze data.


Findings from this study illustrate that some Black male students deal with racial microaggressions that threaten their understandings of their professional identity as engineers and – in part – influence their decisions whether or not to persist in engineering. Some students described receiving racial microaggressions across the College of Engineering context (e.g., advisors, peers in their research group and classrooms). The outcomes of receiving these perceived threatening comments and behaviors made students feel less comfortable in their field of study. Further, students expressed exhaustion from having to negotiate and navigate their unwelcoming academic space.


The findings in this study provide a clearer understanding of racial microaggressions from an engineering perspective. This new scholarship will better inform engineering faculty, staff, administrators, and peers who interact with diverse students. Improving the nature of interactions by being more mindful of how we racially microaggress, and addressing the systems that allow these behavior to continue, we may make engineering a more welcoming field of study.

Burt, B. A., & McKen, A. S., & Burkhart, J. A., & Hormell, J., & Knight, A. J. (2016, June), Racial Microaggressions within the Advisor-advisee Relationship: Implications for Engineering Research, Policy, and Practice Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26029

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: © 2016 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