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Latina Undergraduate Students in STEM: The Role of Religious Beliefs and STEM Identity

Latinx/a/o Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Technology
June 18, 2019 Sarah L. Rodriguez Rachelle Friedensen Tara Marron

The following blog post is an excerpt from “Latina Undergraduate Students in STEM: The Role of Religious Beliefs and STEM Identity” originally published in The Journal of College and Character, Volume 20, Issue 1

Abstract

This phenomenological research study explored how Latina college students in STEM made meaning of and developed their STEM identities, particularly focusing on the role that religious beliefs played in shaping STEM identity. Findings reveal that Latina students believed that their STEM identities and religious beliefs reinforced each other. STEM identity was developed based on the need to balance discrepancies between their religious beliefs and the concepts that they were learning in class. At times, students found it difficult to reconcile these beliefs and attempted to separate their religious identities and beliefs from their STEM knowledge.


Racism, sexism, and socio-economic disparities can narrow educational opportunities for Latina students, both in STEM and other fields. STEM identity plays a critical role in long-term STEM participation, retention, and persistence rates, especially for Women of Color (Brickhouse, Lowery, & Shultz, 2000; Carlone & Johnson, 2007). That being said, both external environments and internal characteristics can influence STEM identity. Like other students (e.g., Abes, Jones, & McEwen, 2007; Harter, Castor, Seigler, & Abrahams, 2018), Latina students have complex, intersectional identities that they must negotiate in educational and STEM spaces.

One such identity is an individual’s religious, spiritual, or faith identity. Prior research has shown that strong religious backgrounds or faiths play a role in the college experience of many students in the Latinx community (Rendón, Nora, & Kanagala, 2014). More broadly, religious experiences have been seen to shape attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors (Emmons & Paloutzian, 2003; Pargament, Ano, & Wachholtz, 2005). Given that religion1 and science can have a contentious relationship both in popular discourse and personal estimation, religious affiliation or identity may have a potentially negative impact on STEM identity. Conversely, a harmonious understanding of the interplay between science and religion may positively impact STEM identity. Despite acknowledgement of the key roles that faith and religious beliefs play for many Latinx college students (Rendón et al., 2014), scholars have not explicitly explored the relationship between religious and STEM identities for Latina students pursuing undergraduate STEM degrees. Understanding this relationship may highlight possible interventions that could improve Latina student retention and persistence in STEM fields.

Purpose

To address this dearth of knowledge, this phenomenological research study explored how Latina college students in STEM made meaning of their identities, particularly focusing on the relationship between their religious beliefs and their STEM studies. The research study was guided by the following research question: What is the essence of the experience of being a Latina undergraduate student with both religious and STEM identities?

Understanding STEM and Religion for Latinx Students in Higher Education

The scope of this study encompassed religious and spiritual beliefs, Latinx experiences in higher education, and STEM identity. Therefore, we reviewed literature that highlighted the interplay between these concepts, including the role of religion in both higher education and Latinx communities, Latina STEM identity, and the connection between STEM and religion. This literature not only provides context for the current study but also shows both the intricacies of the interplay between STEM, religious, and Latinx identities and the gap addressed by the current study

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