Informal community spaces, mentoring and representation: unpacking factors that influence African American engineering undergraduates

Anu Tuladhar (Biomedical Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)
Carin Queener (Industrial and Operations Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)
Joi-Lynn Mondisa (Industrial and Operations Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)
Chinedum Okwudire (Mechanical Engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)

International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education

ISSN: 2046-6854

Article publication date: 25 June 2021

Issue publication date: 20 August 2021

712

Abstract

Purpose

In this article, we examine the experiences of African American engineering undergraduate students who participated in two student–faculty mentoring programs. This work provides critical insights about important factors that enhance students' experiences in higher education (e.g. the need for informal community spaces, mentoring and representation).

Design/methodology/approach

Using a sequential explanatory mixed-methods approach, participants were surveyed and interviewed about their experiences in the mentoring programs. Data were analyzed using basic statistical methods and thematic analysis.

Findings

Findings indicate that students prosper in informal community spaces, where representation allows them to build mentoring relationships that are fostered naturally through common identities in a shared space.

Research limitations/implications

Given the intimate size of the program, the sample population was limited.

Practical implications

To benefit student development, mentoring program practices should consider dedicating funding and space for students and faculty of shared racial backgrounds and lived experiences to meet informally.

Originality/value

This work identifies explicit mentoring program factors that support the development of minoritized students in engineering.

Keywords

Citation

Tuladhar, A., Queener, C., Mondisa, J.-L. and Okwudire, C. (2021), "Informal community spaces, mentoring and representation: unpacking factors that influence African American engineering undergraduates", International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, Vol. 10 No. 3, pp. 317-338. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-06-2020-0032

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

In the United States, it is critical to our nation's prosperity to address the lack of diversity in the numbers of engineering graduates and impending engineering workforce demands. One way of doing so is to examine how to provide equitable opportunities that support the retention and matriculation of minoritized student populations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Individuals from minoritized populations, such as Black engineering graduates, can help strengthen the workforce and enhance the nation's innovativeness and global competitiveness (National Academy of Sciences, 2011; President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology PCAST, 2012). However, in 2016, Black people held only 3.9% of bachelor's degrees in engineering, despite comprising 12.6% of the US population (National Science Foundation (NSF), 2019; US Census Bureau, 2016). Likewise, there have been small increases in the numbers of Black engineering graduates during the last few decades, fluctuating from 3.5 to 4.6% of bachelor's degree graduates in the past decade, down to 4.4% in 2019 (Roy, 2019; Roy et al., 2020). In identifying ways to support the retention and advancement of Black students in engineering, we can promote the success of these individuals and help create a diverse workforce that enhances our nation's innovativeness and global competitiveness. However, there are many underlying factors that negatively impact Black students' retention and matriculation in engineering.

Systemic and institutional racism have been widely viewed as prominent factors that impede the retention and graduation of Black students in engineering (National Academies of Sciences et al., 2020). Institutional racism promotes a culture that is detrimental to the retention of minoritized individuals in engineering (e.g. persons who identify as Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and American Indian/Alaskan Native) (Lee et al., 2020). Specifically, minoritized students can be subjected to unwelcoming campus climates that tend to foster isolation, and having to navigate negative stereotypes can undermine their confidence and inflict mental strain (Cabrera et al., 1999; Ferguson, 2019; McGee, 2016). Also, within these difficult environments, collaboration is a must, but finding a community with which to do so can be a hurdle for students (Davis et al., 2018; Mervis, 2011). In particular, at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), minoritized students are often unwelcome in study groups and must instead rely on community-based organizations, fraternities and mentoring groups (Burt et al., 2018). Together, these factors can create significant barriers for Black students in engineering. Removing these barriers and providing equitable support is imperative to developing campus environments where Black students can thrive and succeed.

In providing access to equitable support and opportunities, we can help to increase the numbers of Black engineering graduates, which can assist in addressing impending STEM workforce demands. The need for STEM workers is increasing rapidly in comparison to other occupations (PCAST, 2012, 2020). Specifically, it is reported that from 2010 to 2020, science and engineering employment needs were expected to grow by 18.7% in comparison to only 14.3% for all other occupations (NSF, 2014). It is vital to the US economy to increase the numbers of historically underrepresented and underserved persons in STEM fields to achieve greater economic prosperity for all (Cook, 2019; Hunt et al., 2012; PCAST, 2020; Vilorio, 2014). Providing supportive mechanisms that help to increase the numbers of Black engineering graduates may also result in helping to fulfill STEM workforce needs.

As more Black graduates enter the engineering workforce, they bring their diverse perspectives, which can help businesses increase their levels of innovation, profitability and global competitiveness. Without engineers from various backgrounds, including Black engineers, to offer their experiences, teams lack diverse perspectives. Without diverse perspectives, engineering teams create less-innovative solutions (Livermore, 2016; Lorenzo et al., 2017; Talke et al., 2011). In particular, homogenous teams may design products in ways that exclude or harm people not included in majority demographic groups. One example of noninclusive product design is facial recognition software, which can disproportionately misidentify those who are not white men and particularly Black women (Buolamwini and Gebru, 2018; Klare et al., 2012). In this and other similar situations, teams may create solutions that only serve people with identities similar to their own. This only further exacerbates inequality and reinforces biases (Buolamwini and Gebru, 2018; Klare et al., 2012; O'Neil, 2016). In addition, having more diverse teams helps companies to produce innovative solutions that can lead to higher profits for organizations (Herring, 2009; Hunt et al., 2018). In contrast, if US companies do not produce innovative solutions to meet the needs of diverse populations, their profits may suffer, and as a nation, the United States may become less globally competitive.

In sum, providing equitable support and opportunities to Black engineering students may promote their retention and advancement to help increase diversity in the workforce and, consequently, enhance the nation's levels of innovation and global competitiveness. As such, this study unveils several underlying factors that serve to enhance the retention and success of Black students in engineering through formal peer mentoring mechanisms. More specifically, the aim of this study is to advance our understanding of the importance of informal community spaces and mentoring for Black engineering students.

In the sections that follow, we first provide a review of the literature about factors that discourage the retention of Black engineering students, followed by a discussion of the importance and role of mentoring and formal mentoring programs to foster success. Next, we present background information about two student–faculty mentoring programs that assist Black engineering students. Then, we discuss the conceptual framework of social community and its role in mentoring minoritized populations. Finally, we discuss the study's methods and results, and provide a summary of conclusions and future research recommendations.

Literature review

Factors influencing the retention of Black engineering undergraduate students

In higher education, Black students may experience a lack of a sense of belonging and isolation in academic programs, fueled by racial discrimination, microaggressions, and systemic and institutional racism (Lewis, 2018; Reynolds et al., 2010; Shahid et al., 2018; Solorzano, 2000; Turner, 1994). A lack of positive peer interactions and academic support tends to contribute to a lesser sense of belonging experienced by African American undergraduate students (Chavous et al., 2018). This is further marred by the discrimination, noninclusive racial climates and microaggressions minoritized individuals may face that can contribute to a lower persistence rate among these students (Dortch and Patel, 2017; Hausmann et al., 2007; Rainey et al., 2018). This experience may be heightened at PWIs where minoritized students face obstacles that contribute to feelings of social and academic isolation that can negatively impact their academic performance (Ferguson, 2019; McClain, 2014; Strayhorn and Terrell, 2010; Zalaquett and Lopez, 2006). This isolation may also be experienced by students when seeking mentors. For example, minoritized students might not have adequate access to role models of the same race due to a lack of minoritized faculty members (Banks and Dohy, 2019; Nelson and Brammer, 2010). Representation at the faculty level is crucial for minoritized students as having a same-race mentor who may have similar experiences and shared struggles can be more important to students than advancing their professional career (Chavous et al., 2018). The disparity in Black undergraduate engineering retention may be due to the lack of visible role models and mentors who inspire and encourage students to participate. Thus, providing mentoring and formal mentoring programs that assist minoritized students may help support retention and student success for these populations. The following section discusses the role of mentoring in mitigating feelings of isolation and fostering academic success.

Mentoring and its role in student success and formal mentoring programs for minoritized populations

Mentoring is a formal or informal process in which an experienced individual or network of individuals provides emotional, psychosocial and career support to another individual (Dominguez and Hager, 2013; Mondisa et al., 2021; Ragins and Kram, 2007). Informal mentoring tends to occur when spontaneous relationships form between mentors and mentees with shared interests (Eby et al., 2007). In contrast, formal mentoring relationships and programs are typically arranged by a third party and may be less effective in comparison to informal mentoring relationships (Desimone et al., 2014; Ragins and Cotton, 1999). Peer mentoring can occur as an informal relationship in which the mentor offers guidance and support (Bynum, 2015). Peer mentors are generally similar in age and/or experience. Thus, in peer mentoring relationships, participants may feel more comfortable engaging with each other. Peer mentoring in particular provides opportunities for highly supportive relationships that can offer academic and social guidance (Fayram et al., 2018; Terrion and Leonard, 2010). These connections help participants build a sense of community that in turn positively affects academic performance (Colvin and Ashman, 2010). In summary, mentoring of many forms can be a significant factor in the academic success and persistence of undergraduate students in science and engineering, especially minoritized populations (Apprey et al., 2014; Estrada et al., 2018). Formal mentoring programs in particular have been implemented by some institutions to assist minoritized students.

Minoritized students who participate in formal mentoring programs that provide social support and access to faculty, peers and resources may have beneficial long-term outcomes (Mondisa and McComb, 2015; Ortiz-Walters and Gilson, 2005). Many universities have formal mentoring programs that provide mentoring interventions and support minoritized students, such as the M-STEM Academies Program at the University of Michigan (Mondisa et al., 2016), the Merit Program for Emerging Scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (Murphy et al., 1998), the Adventor Program at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania (Shultz et al., 2001) and the Benjamin Banneker Scholars Program at Central State University in Ohio (Kendricks et al., 2013). These are a few examples of institutional mentoring programs that have successfully supported minoritized students. In particular, these studies discuss aspects about the programs and their programmatic outcomes, but they do not discuss specific participant outcomes. Thus, examination of students' experiences in these programs may provide critical insights about what program and experiential factors may support the retention and success of minoritized students.

In summary, current research provides minimal studies about how implementing factors that improve the retention of minoritized populations influence students' experiences, especially in mentoring programs. The variety of obstacles faced by minoritized students in engineering, from hostile climates to isolation and lack of support, is well documented. The benefits of mentoring, especially when mentors share a minoritized identity with the mentees, are also known. Understanding this, formal mentoring programs, particularly for minoritized students, have been offered at universities across the United States. However, the experiences of the participants have yet to be thoroughly investigated. In this work, we explore how formal mentoring programs for minoritized students affect their communal experiences in engineering and how this may impact their retention.

Background

BIndx and BMechx: the development of student–faculty mentoring programs

In 2016, faculty in the mechanical engineering (ME) department at the University of Michigan (UM) recognized a need for increased support of minoritized students within the department. It was found that students from particular minoritized groups (i.e. African American/Black students) had significantly poorer academic performances in core ME courses in comparison to their peers. In response, two ME professors, Professors Chinedum Okwudire and Elijah Kannatey-Asibu, began meeting with students monthly during the 2016 to 2017 academic year to better identify opportunities for supporting them. These meetings culminated in the creation of a department-sponsored student–faculty mentorship and support group for students, especially Black ME students, facilitated by Professors Okwudire and Kannatey-Asibu. They named the group BMechx (pronounced BEE-mex), an abbreviation for Black mechanical engineers. Professor Okwudire continued on as the group's informal faculty advisor.

That summer, an industrial and operations engineering (IOE) student who had heard about BMechx from peers approached IOE Professor Joi-Lynn Mondisa, with the idea of starting a similar group for IOE students. The IOE department provided Professor Mondisa with funding and other support to host monthly meetings with IOE undergraduate and graduate students and guest faculty mentors. The group members chose the name BIndx (pronounced BIND-ex), an abbreviation for Black industrial and operations engineers.

In addition to facilitating the BIndx and BMechx groups, Professors Mondisa and Okwudire also sought to identify what aspects of their programs supported community development for program participants. Specifically, the professors wanted to determine the role of social support in the programs and what elements of the program made the participants feel supported. In her prior research work, Professor Mondisa had studied several mentoring programs that supported minoritized populations using a social community framework. A social community (discussed in further detail in the next section) is an environment in which like-minded individuals engage in dynamic, multidirectional interactions that foster social support and build participants' resilience, social capital and engagement in communities of practice (Mondisa and McComb, 2015). Through various program elements, participants in a social community are socially supported, and their experiences may produce beneficial outcomes for them. Given that BIndx and BMechx groups may encapsulate some of these elements, understanding the role of social community in participants' experiences may provide critical insights about how to better support minoritized populations through mentoring program mechanisms. Given Professors Mondisa and Okwudire's desire to understand what group members experienced, they designed and conducted a research study and collected data from program participants to answer the overarching research question: What are the social community experiences of engineering undergraduates who participate in a discipline-based student–faculty mentoring program? In the following section, we discuss the conceptual framework used to guide the research study: social community.

Conceptual framework: social community

A social community is composed of program values and program elements that facilitate social support and produce beneficial outcomes for community members (Mondisa and McComb, 2018); see Figure 1. Social community is grounded in social exchange theory, which posits that people behave and interact with the intent of costs and rewards based on their engagement (Blau, 1964; Cropanzano and Mitchell, 2005). In addition, the social community model (Mondisa and McComb, 2015) is based on existing literature about social support, resilience, communities of practice and social capital. According to the model, community members engage and access resources through multidirectional interactions and, as a result, produce a sense of connectedness and social support (i.e. supportive actions and behaviors) for each other (Brown et al., 2004; Cole et al., 2007). As members support each other, they increase their resilience and ability to bounce back from hardship (Strayhorn and Terrell, 2010), engage in communities of practice (Eckert, 2006; Wenger, 2000) that have similar experiences and resources, and build social capital (Bourdieu, 2011). In this study, the social community model was used as a framework to examine the experiences of BIndx and BMechx members to understand the elements of social support that assisted in their academic and personal development. The definitions of the major constructs of the social community model (Mondisa and McComb, 2015) are shown in Table 1.

Social community elements have been studied in various contexts such as mentoring programs as well as across college campuses in both virtual and in-person learning formats. Within one mentoring program, white and male students were found to have felt the most connected and resilient within a university mentoring program (Mondisa and McComb, 2018). This may indicate a need for greater access to same-sex and same-race role models, and mentors for minoritized students (Mondisa and McComb, 2018). In addition, multiple studies have shown that a sense of community and perceived learning are correlated. In one example, a greater sense of classroom community through virtual platforms led to higher perceived learning (Rovai and Baker, 2005). In another example, more frequent, in-depth interactions between learners (students) led to a stronger perceived sense of community (Dawson, 2008). Also, a study of undergraduate and graduate engineering students found that a large majority of students sought support for academic difficulties from friends (Mondisa and McComb, 2014). Measuring the role of social community in mentoring programs for minoritized students in particular is crucial to examining beneficial support systems to encourage students' success (Mondisa and McComb, 2015). This is further explored in this study using the social community model as a framework to examine the experiences of minoritized students in mentoring programs.

Methods

In this study, we used a sequential explanatory mixed-methods approach (Ivankova et al., 2006) to examine the program and community experiences of BIndx and BMechx participants. We collected data via pre- and post-surveys and then conducted semi-structured interviews with participants. First, we collected quantitative data and then followed up with the surveyed participants to conduct qualitative interviews. In the interviews, the participants were able to provide a richer understanding of their experiences, though both the quantitative and qualitative results were incorporated in the themes. The emergent themes from the qualitative data are emphasized in the “Discussion” section. In the following sections, we provide details about the study participants and our quantitative and qualitative data collection and analyses procedures.

Quantitative procedures: surveys

Participants

After the UM Institutional Review Board (HUM00140545) approved this study as exempt, subjects were solicited to participate in the study through the BIndx and BMechx email listservs. Researchers administered both pre- and post-surveys to BIndx and BMechx members at the first and last group meetings of the 2018 to 2019 academic year. Of the 46 undergraduate and graduate students in IOE and ME who self-identified as Black in (September) fall 2018 (Office of the Registrar, n.d.), a total of 23 were anonymously surveyed about their experiences within the BIndx/BMechx programs. This means that half of the total population of Black students in IOE and ME completed the survey. Of these, a total of 31 surveys were completed (18 pre and 13 post); eight individuals completed both pre- and post-surveys, and these were then used for analysis. Although a small sample, this is a commensurate response rate for surveys about university students' academic experiences and persistence (Lipson and Eisenberg, 2018). The demographics of students who completed both surveys are shown in Table 2. Almost all participants self-identified as Black or African American, and one participant self-identified as Asian and Black or African American. A majority of the participants were undergraduate students, from sophomore to senior standing (87.5%, n = 7). There was parity between IOE and ME students. Homogeneity was ensured by the use of purposeful sampling (Creswell and Poth, 2016).

Data collection

We developed an online survey using Qualtrics software composed of questions from the Social Community Scale (SCS) as well as questions developed to assess participants' program experiences. There were 59 total survey items, which included 15 items about clubs and organizations and student acquaintances (Pace and Kuh, 1998) and items from the SCS (Mondisa and McComb, 2018) about students' sense of connectedness to the BIndx and BMechx programs and UM (20 items), communities of practice (6 items), social capital (5 items), resilience (6 items) and satisfaction (7 items). The questions were based on a five-point Likert scale, ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree. In addition, we asked the following four open-ended questions at the end of the survey:

  1. What types of academic challenges do you face/expect to face while completing your undergraduate degree?

  2. What are some aspects you like about the BIndx/BMechx program?

  3. What are some aspects you dislike about the BIndx/BMechx program?

  4. What suggestions do you have for improvement of the BIndx/BMechx program?

The survey was sent via email to the BIndx and BMechx listservs. All responses were anonymous to maintain participant privacy.

Data analysis

There were 46 survey responses. After removing any incomplete submissions, 31 unique surveys remained; 18 were pre-surveys, and 13 were post-surveys. Surveys were then paired based on respondents' age, major, sex and grade point average, resulting in eight pre-surveys and eight post-surveys for analysis. For the purposes of this study, only paired surveys were used for quantitative analysis to accurately measure changes in response per construct as a result of participants' experiences in the program. All Likert format questions were converted to a numeric scale, with Strongly Disagree = 1, Disagree = 2, Neutral = 3, Agree = 4, and Strongly Agree = 5, with the exception of seven reverse-coded survey items. Reverse-coded survey items are questions that denote a negative answer; one such question was “I feel isolated in the BIndx/BMechx program.” An increase in the average response to this question would imply a negative program experience; thus, the numeric scale for these questions was flipped, with Strongly Disagree = 5, Disagree = 4, and so on. Descriptive statistics were calculated for each question in the pre and post categories, as well as two-sided, two-sample t-tests assuming unequal variances for significance in R statistical analysis software. A two-sided t-test was used to calculate significance in a nondirectional method since the change in means ranged from −1.38 to 0.75 (Pillemer, 1991).

Qualitative procedures: interviews

Participants

At the end of the post-survey, 15 people expressed interest in being interviewed about their experiences and the BIndx/BMechx programs. Emails to schedule interviews through online scheduling software were sent out with weekly reminders. Four participants signed up for individual half-hour interviews. They were compensated with a $10 gift card for their time. Three of the participants were from BMechx, and one was from BIndx. Two self-identified as female, and two self-identified as male. All self-identified as Black and/or African American, and all were undergraduate engineering students.

Data collection

Interview questions were developed based on some constructs from the social community model (Mondisa and McComb, 2018). In particular, there were ten questions, some with follow-up question prompts, that focused on mentoring, communities of practice, social capital and resiliency. First, to develop the interview questions, the research team reviewed the existing survey items from the SCS. Specifically, we focused on the objectives of the survey items to inform the development of open-ended interview questions that addressed the study's constructs. For example, existing survey questions that focused on understanding participants' mentoring experiences or social capital were elaborated to create open-ended follow-up questions related to each construct. Once we developed each interview question using this process, we informally piloted the protocol with two of our research group members who were also BIndx program participants. Finally, we used feedback from these pilot interviews to modify and finalize the interview protocol. Table 3 shows examples of interview questions.

Data analysis

Interview data were analyzed using thematic analysis (Boyatzis, 1998). The audio recordings of the interviews were sent to a transcription service. Two of the authors analyzed each of the four interview transcripts individually, highlighting any quotations that aligned with the four constructs designated by previous research (mentoring, communities of practice, resiliency and social capital). Both authors compared what had been individually identified and discussed any differences. Differences were resolved through discussion and consequential agreement on the alignment of a quote with a construct. This continuous iteration of discussing potential quote misidentification led to a better understanding of each construct as more examples were found to better define them. After coding, both authors annotated quotes and uploaded each into one Google sheet, bolded key quotes, and read over each other's online annotations to ensure consistency. Initially for thematic analysis, both authors independently created themes encompassing the quotes, such as community, commonality and mentorship. The two met to discuss themes, combining the ones that were similar and deciding upon new ones for any that were different.

Trustworthiness and positionality

To ensure trustworthiness in the making and handling of the data, we employed several steps in the research design and methods. First, we used both quantitative and qualitative data to triangulate participants' experiences. Second, we used coding processes that involved thematic analysis, organized and documented as detailed above. This ensured that analysis of the data was rigorously conducted.

As researchers, we recognize that our identities and experiences played a role in the research process. The primary research team consisted of an Asian American female and a white female. Both authors acknowledge that their race and sex may have impacted how qualitative responses were interpreted. The first author was especially aware of how her race, sex and age may have impacted responses of interviewees in being able to either support or deny rapport building during qualitative data collection. To account for this, the first author attempted to create a space with mutual understanding surrounding shared experiences, such as discussing the stress during exam season, so participants could feel more comfortable and be authentic in sharing their program experience. The second author was not involved with the data collection procedures but participated in the data analysis process and interpreting the findings. The third author, an African American female, constructed and facilitated the research design but was not directly involved with conducting the interviews. However, she challenged the interpretation of the data with the first two authors. The fourth author, an African American male, contributed to the development of the open-ended survey questions and provided constructive feedback regarding the interpretation of the data and findings.

Results

Surveys

From the 59 quantitative survey items, eight were deemed significant by the t-test. Five of the eight had a positive significant increase in mean, indicating a more positive program experience (see Table 4).

Notable measures included a significant decrease in feelings of isolation within BIndx/BMechx (p = 0.011) and a significant increase in participants' self-identified strength (p = 0.011). There were significant negative responses, including decreased levels of “becoming acquainted with students of a different race or ethnic background” and “the ability to find out about events in another town from a BIndx/BMechx member living there.” These negative responses likely correspond to how both programs operated entirely on campus and almost all participants being of the same race.

Constructs were analyzed as grouped survey questions to find the overall mean values and significance value of each construct group (see Table 5).

A decrease in connectedness within UM and an increase in resiliency were the only significant constructs, with p-values of 0.019 and 0.003, respectively.

Interviews and open-ended survey questions

Three themes emerged from both the open-ended survey questions and the interview data. The themes are that participants (1) had an ability to exercise personal resilience and contextualize hardships, (2) built resilience through interactions with peers and (3) developed connections through a common identity. Demographics and pseudonyms of the four interview participants are shown in Table 6. In the following paragraphs, we discuss the results for each emergent theme.

Ability to exercise personal resilience and contextualize hardships

A strong presence of resilience (the ability to “bounce back” from hardship) was found in all interviews. The ability to be optimistic, a positive personality trait generated from within oneself, was a strong predictor for resilience among students. This was something that Wade identified for himself. He said, “Optimism is probably what I identify as the key for bouncing back.”

Kennedy agreed with Wade about the importance of optimism. Kennedy said,

One is just being optimistic but also realistic with yourself … at some point you're like, alright, everything's going to be okay, realistically, everything is going to be okay. And then move forward from there and try to stay positive about it … I always try and stay positive.

Kennedy's forward-thinking manner was reiterated by Nadia, who said, “So, sometimes I do this thing where I'm like okay, [I think to myself] in five years, this wouldn't matter so it's like, not that bad.”

Both Kennedy and Nadia recognized how time would help redefine the relative importance of any situation. In doing so, they built resilience within themselves by understanding that any hardships would be temporary. Likewise, Abe considered his reflections on such experiences in helping him create belief in himself. He said, “No matter what's going to happen … the belief in yourself that you'll figure something out. The idea that you will not give up no matter what.”

Abe was able to create a source of strength within himself through mentally preparing to persevere through any hardship (such as a difficult second semester at college).

Overall, the perception of hardships as learning opportunities was a common thread throughout all of the participants' responses. Students built up their own personal resilience through experience. Reflecting on past hardship experiences allowed participants to become more aware of their own reactions, allowing them to step back and contextualize the experience. How this personal resilience was further built through the social community participants experienced within BIndx and BMechx is explored in the next theme.

Building resilience through peer experience

Building resilience through reliance on others was the second theme that emerged from the data. This meant that participants found people they could trust to help them quickly bounce back from hardship. Participants relied on institutional resources, family, peers from the National Society for Black Engineers (NSBE), upperclassmen, and professors within BIndx and BMechx. For example, Kennedy went to her professor's office hours, attended tutoring sessions and began talking to a counselor at the on-campus student mental health support center. She said, “I went to a lot of office hours and tutoring. I also started seeing a counselor at [the campus mental health clinic] … [and] talking to my parents.”

In addition, she talked to her parents and upperclassmen within BMechx and frequently asked questions of three fellow program members in particular. One program member, who was also her graduate student instructor, advised her through many situations. Having someone she could rely on both in and out of class helped her build resilience as she began to explore unknown areas where she felt she needed assistance.

Similarly, Wade relied on his community within NSBE, his family and his peers within BMechx for help. In speaking of one peer in particular, he said, “He's [a mechanical engineering PhD candidate] somebody that I know and I know I could reach out to if I ever had questions about anything.”

Through talking with people in their communities, students were able to get the help and advice they needed. For Abe, this included his peers within BIndx, including the BIndx liaison (a BIndx student who plans meeting topics with Professor Mondisa), whom he had gone to for advice and to confide in. Abe said,

The BIndx liaison … I confided in him after I had a rough second semester. [It] really rocked me. It was tough and I felt so defeated at the end of my second semester here. And I went to him and I was like … “it's not something that I feel like I'm incapable or I did not study.” … I had really come to trust him and respect him a lot, and so he told me that situations like this are a test of your response. And I've carried that with me ever since.

BIndx offered Abe someone he could trust with discussing the reality of his semester – someone who was able to offer him advice that helped him stay resilient when his personal strength was faltering. He also relied on professors within BIndx for support through recommendation letters and connecting through shared backgrounds and struggles; he said, “She [Professor Mondisa] has been a source of moral support in my time here at Michigan from the very beginning.”

In participating in BIndx, Abe was able to build upon his own resilience with the support of other program members.

Similarly, and in regard to moral support found within BMechx and BIndx, Wade emphasized,

Just knowing that even at the worst time ever, either you have someone you can reach out to [within BMechx] or that you feel that you have the skillset or the determination or something that can get you to a better place [is crucial for bouncing back from hardship].

Having someone to rely on helped Wade persevere, demonstrating that the relationships he had made in BMechx were key sources of comfort in difficult times.

In addition, having peers, upperclassmen and professors within BIndx and BMechx offered students critical support through shared experiences. Abe expressed the importance of having shared backgrounds and experiences; he said, “I readily relied on the people who I think would understand and who have come before me.”

This seems to indicate that having others who had gone through what he was currently experiencing was key in being able to rely on them. Subsequently, shared experiences and connection to others may provide participants with needed support and a sense of identity. This is expanded upon further in the following theme.

Shifting connections through a common identity

Sharing an identity with others in the programs mattered significantly in participants' experiences of connectedness. By connecting through aspects of shared identities that students held in common with their peers and professors in the program, they were able to make stronger and more meaningful connections within BIndx and BMechx, although potentially highlighting racial disparities at the university. In addition to the shared aspects of identities (e.g. being a Black engineering student in their given major), other common identities included gender identity, geographic identity (where they grew up), and similar lived experiences.

The ability to find peers in their major and to discuss common struggles created an intimate community where participants could bond over their difficult engineering courses. As Kennedy commented, “It was just comforting because we were all supporting each other like, ‘Hey, how's it going?’ ‘Oh I just failed an exam.’ That's okay because we've all been there.”

Because BIndx and BMechx students share the same majors, they can provide stronger moral support due to their shared experiences. As Abe said, “BIndx really allows me to work with people who are on the same journey as I am, a little more closely [than NSBE].”

NSBE is a nationwide organization that supports the professional development of Black engineers. Many BIndx or BMechx participants are also members of NSBE. For Abe, his experience in BIndx was slightly more valuable due to the alignment of the program with his specific major, in addition to his racial and engineering identities.

All of the interviewed participants discussed their shared identities as Black students, as Nadia expressed that “We notice each other because [of] how many of us [are there], and to really see all of us in the room and asking questions and eating together. The professors are there too.”

BIndx and BMechx meetings create spaces where students can see and engage with others who look like them, a stark contrast to other spaces on campus. Abe expanded on this connection by discussing the experience of gathering with others with shared-identity aspects of race and academic discipline; he said,

A lot of us are of a similar experience, being Black at this university … not even in the College of Engineering, but at this university is something that is a challenge that you have to navigate through. … It's understanding and internalizing that representation does exist and so I can do it too.

Black representation through BIndx and BMechx provided role models who navigate multiple identities and demonstrate that hard work can lead to success. By sharing details about the hardships of navigating the university as a Black student, participants connected within BIndx and BMechx. They also became more aware of the lack of representation and the additional challenges they faced as Black students at a PWI, leaving them feeling less connected to the university.

Discussion

This study provided several critical insights about the experiences of participants in discipline-based student–faculty mentoring programs that can help us understand how to better improve these programs. Overall, quantitative results indicated that resilience increased while connectedness at UM decreased. The qualitative results indicated an increase in connectedness and reliance on others within BIndx and BMechx. In the following paragraphs, we discuss how connectedness and resilience may have been shaped by key components of the program, such as informal community spaces and the importance of peer mentorship through shared identities.

Need for informal community space to support a sense of connectedness

This work seems to indicate that informal community spaces support the development of connectedness among minoritized students. Specifically, both BIndx and BMechx are semi-structured programs that occur in informal spaces where participants are able to come together, share a meal and discuss any topic. Participants' conversations ranged from arguing about how everything could be classified as a soup/salad/sandwich to discussing their individual experiences of imposter syndrome. Most notably, participants were free to be themselves in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere that caters to fostering and strengthening relationships. Prior research indicates that providing informal gathering opportunities supports students in ways that are vital for the creation of their engineering identities and retention in their disciplines, especially for minoritized students (Liptow et al., 2016; Matthews et al., 2011).

In coming together in the space facilitated by BIndx and BMechx, the mere presence of fellow Black undergraduates, graduate students and professors reminds participants that they are not alone, something that may be lacking in everyday experiences at the university. The connections participants develop help to mitigate feelings of isolation among participants within the program, but not within the university collectively. Feelings of being alone can lead to isolation, a pressing concern at college campuses. In a 2012 survey of more than 31,000 college students across the United States, 63.1% of students had felt very lonely within the past year (American College Health Association, 2018). This feeling is exacerbated for Black students, who are much less likely to feel a sense of belonging at PWIs (Woldoff et al., 2011).

In particular, at UM, a PWI, minoritized students may experience a culture of isolation. While it is among the top 10 schools conferring undergraduate engineering degrees, fewer than 2% of UM undergraduate engineering degrees were awarded to Black students in 2015 (UM, 2015; Yoder, 2017). However, BIndx and BMechx provide a community of engineers that seems to prevent isolation among participants as they come together to draw strength from each other's experiences. Yet, this decrease in isolation at the program level, as seen in our qualitative interviews, may come at the cost of a lessened sense of connectedness at the university level, seen in the quantitative analysis. So, while the program did connect students within it, it may not change the greater unwelcoming environment that many Black students may face at PWIs and may even possibly heighten their awareness of it. Thus, systemic barriers such as institutional racism must be addressed so that Black students do not need to seek out affinity spaces to find community. Likewise, students should not feel forced to develop their own sources of support on campuses that should readily offer resources that support them. Universities must recognize existing systemic structures that may estrange Black students, and then enact policies and practices that build a sense of belonging for all.

Peer mentoring: shared identity and informality as factors in building resilience

Having a community of Black engineering students from various academic levels to informally mentor participants is crucial for fostering students' resilience. Mentoring relations between peers were formed as friendships and built through the programs. These peers were often upperclassmen, graduate students or professors within BIndx and BMechx who participants felt would understand their situations. Common characteristics such as shared racial identity, gender identity or hometown helped in reducing barriers between participants. These common elements helped to foster connections that allowed for more comfort in asking for favors and advice, which further built resilience as participants came to rely on each other's strengths. This was seen particularly in Abe's experience, as he connected with upperclassmen and professors in the program on whom he could depend. The development of these relationships through shared identities, primarily by race and major, helped informal mentorships blossom. Also, hearing about what their peers had overcome allowed participants to exercise their own resilience, as evidenced by both the quantitative and qualitative results. Research has shown that the involvement of a mentor of color is significant in the retention rates and resilience of Black students (Hunn, 2014). Subsequently, having a mentor who truly understands, confronts and overcomes systemic barriers can positively impact students.

The presence of mentors, specifically those with shared identities, can significantly impact the retention of minoritized engineering students. By increasing the diversity of graduate students and faculty on campus, we can provide role models for students. In creating student–faculty mentoring programs such as BIndx and BMechx, we might retain more Black engineering students by providing mentors to guide them, thus increasing the percentage that graduate and enter the workforce. In addition, this may support increasing the diversity of the engineering workforce in which diverse teams make an equitable global impact. In sum, increasing diversity improves and stimulates innovation – a key trait for success in engineering (Egan, 2011). Subsequently, there is a critical need to retain and graduate Black engineering students, and mentoring programs may be a method to support doing so.

Limitations

There were some limitations of the study in regard to sample size and participation. First, the sample size was limited to eight paired responses from the pre- and post-surveys and only four interviewees. The dearth of interviews may be due to the fact that despite participants' indication of their willingness to participate, scheduling interviews during a final exams period proved to be difficult. However, our study does not seek to produce generalizable results. Rather, using our demographic subset, we provide an extrapolation of the data in terms of thinking about other potential applications of the findings (Merriam and Tisdell, 2016; Patton 2015). Second, the study may be subject to response bias given that those who volunteered to participate in the interviews may have done so because they had positive experiences within the program (Mazor et al., 2002). Yet, the intent of this explanatory study was to examine the perspectives of participants, which includes such positive experiences. Overall, these limitations did not prevent our study from determining factors important to participants in this program and supports a call for additional work in this area.

Conclusion and future recommendations

In summary, this study found that within student–faculty mentoring groups, students experienced a strong sense of connectedness within a community that aided in building their resilience. Findings seem to indicate that students prosper in informal community spaces, where representation allows them to build close mentoring relationships that can be fostered naturally through common identities and shared disciplines. As a result, this program has been vital in the development of community and mentorship for Black engineers at the university. Furthermore, this work may provide pertinent implications and opportunities for university administrators and future researchers. In the following paragraphs, we provide some insights about the important implications of this work and recommendations for future research and practice.

There are several implications of this work. First, informal spaces may be critical to helping generate resilience in minoritized students as well as supporting connectedness. Subsequently, administrators at colleges and universities might implement semi-structured mentoring programs like BIndx and BMechx for underrepresented students in engineering majors. Likewise, in other studies, similar mentoring programs have been proven to provide critical support for participants (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019). Given that this work indicates that discipline-specific bonds are significant, administrators should consider creating mentoring programs within individual majors. Another implication of this work is that it acknowledges the importance of representation in contributing to students' success. Having access to professors of the same racial or cultural background with similar lived experiences may help students form more intimate relationships with mentors who have personal experience with bias (Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., 2012; Rockquemore, 2013). Therefore, higher education administrators should support the creation of programs that encourage minoritized student and faculty interactions. This may include providing dedicated funding and support to individuals who wish to create this space so that these social support systems are present to support participants. As a result, institutions may help to increase the retention and further representation of minoritized students in engineering majors.

From a practice perspective, we propose two recommendations that may help improve student–faculty mentoring program structures and students' experiences. We recommend that future iterations of the program include a semi-structured informal setting. Specifically, the informal nature of BIndx and BMechx programs foster natural mentoring relationships within the program that were instrumental to student development and resilience (Sinanan, 2016). In addition, mentoring programs should include the presence of students and professors at various stages in their academic careers. Having access to professors and participants at the undergraduate and graduate student levels provided access to a breadth of resources for participants. In designing mentoring programs, providing informal settings and including people at various career stages may help to foster a supportive environment and positive participant experiences.

There are also several future research opportunities that might better enhance this work. Future researchers might examine the experiences of other minoritized populations as well as students from other academic majors. In these studies, researchers might compare and assess these populations' experiences in developing social community in programs like BIndx and BMechx. In exploring the experiences of other minoritized populations, future researchers may also develop a better understanding of what factors are salient to each population. In doing so, they could provide information about what specific resources may help improve support to students as well as increase their sense of belonging. In addition, future researchers should examine differences in cross-cultural and cross-gender mentoring given the notable intersections of identity from this work. Also, prior research has found that females find it especially important to have a female mentor (Blake-Beard et al., 2011; Ragins and Scandura, 1994). Thus, it would be beneficial for programs to understand the importance of same-gender and same-race mentors in constructing spaces that will allow for participants to have the most success both during and after their experience. Finally, it would be valuable to conduct a longitudinal study about the experiences of BIndx and BMechx program participants. This research may provide insights about the long-term effects of retention, feelings of connectedness and resilience. Quality mentoring experiences have been shown to be predictors for the persistence of minoritized students in STEM (Estrada et al., 2018). Thus, understanding if and how the benefits of BIndx and BMechx continue after participation can be used to improve existing programs and to better design similar ones. In sum, this current work highlights the importance of representation within informal mentoring relationships that aid in the resilience and connectedness of participants in shared-identity, discipline-based mentoring programs.

Figures

The social community model (from Social Community: A Mechanism to Explain the Success of STEM Minority Mentoring Programs. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, Published 12 Jun 2015, reprinted by permission of the publisher Taylor and Francis Ltd, http://www.tandfonline.com)

Figure 1

The social community model (from Social Community: A Mechanism to Explain the Success of STEM Minority Mentoring Programs. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, Published 12 Jun 2015, reprinted by permission of the publisher Taylor and Francis Ltd, http://www.tandfonline.com)

Social community construct definitions

ConstructDefinition
ConnectednessHow linked the participant feels to a particular community
Social supportHow participants interact, assist and work with each other through supportive actions and behaviors
Communities of practiceHow participants engage in communities of practice (i.e. collections of like-minded individuals sharing similar experiences and social resources as they interact with and support each other)
Social capitalThe currency (i.e. connections, networks, relationships, resources) accrued and used by members of a social network when they engage in a community of practice
ResiliencyThe ability to recover from confronting obstacles and hardships and to persist

Demographics of the sample population and demographic percentages of the college of engineering student population

BIndx/BMechxCollege of engineering (%)
Sex
Female3 (37.5%)26.5
Male5 (62.5%)73.5
Race
Asian and Black or African American1 (12.5%)N/A
Black or African American7 (87.5%)2.4
Academic Standing
Undergraduate7 (87.5%)64.9
Graduate1 (12.5%)34.7
Major
Industrial and Operations Engineering4 (50.0%)6.1
Mechanical Engineering4 (50.0%)13.0
Age
Mean20.75N/A
Range19–23N/A
Grade point average
Mean3.07N/A
Range2.5–3.7N/A
Citizenship status
United States citizen8 (100%)73.8

Note(s): Data reflects the pre-survey responses

Interview questions

ThemeSample question
MentoringIn your opinion, what is the role of a mentor?
Communities of practiceWhat do you feel you have contributed to the BIndx or BMechx community?
Social capitalWhat types of activities do/did you do with your friends [in BIndx/BMechx]?
ResiliencyPlease describe what you believe are the qualities that assist a person in being able to “bounce back” from hardship

Significant survey measures

MeasureQuestion or statementMean changeSignificance
Student acquaintancesBecame acquainted with students whose race or ethnic background was different from yours−1.3750.064*
Connectedness within BIndx/BMechxI do not feel isolated in the BIndx/BMechx program0.6250.011**
Connectedness within UMI feel a spirit of community at Michigan−0.6250.095*
Social capitalI'd be able to find out about events in another town from another BIndx/BMechx member living there−1.1250.026**
If I needed to, I could ask another BIndx/BMechx member to do a small favor for me0.3750.080*
ResiliencyI can deal with whatever comes0.3750.080*
I tend to bounce back after illness or hardship0.3750.080*
I think of myself as a strong person0.6250.011**

Note(s): *p < 0.1, **p < 0.05. Reverse-coded questions are rewritten

Significant constructs

ConstructMean changeSignificance
Connectedness (BIndx/BMechx)0.1130.302
Connectedness (UM)−0.2630.019**
Communities of practice0.1460.442
Social capital−0.1500.323
Resiliency0.2920.003***

Note(s): **p < 0.05, ***p < 0.01

Interviewee demographics

Name*SexProgram
KennedyFemaleBMechx
WadeMaleBMechx
NadiaFemaleBMechx
AbeMaleBIndx

Note(s): *Names provided are pseudonyms

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Sarah Jane Bork for her contributions to this paper. This work was supported by the University of Michigan's Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) Faculty Development Fund Grant and the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) Grant to Support Research and Scholarship for Social Change.

Corresponding author

Joi-Lynn Mondisa is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: jmondisa@umich.edu

About the authors

Anu Tuladhar is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan. She earned a B.S.E. in Biomedical Engineering with a minor in Medical Anthropology.

Carin Queener is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan. She earned a B.S.E. in Industrial and Operations Engineering with an International Minor for Engineers.

Joi-Lynn Mondisa is an assistant professor in the Industrial and Operations Engineering Department and an engineering education faculty member at the University of Michigan. Mondisa earned a B.S. degree in general engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, an M.B.A. degree at Governors State University, and an M.S. degree in industrial engineering and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. In her research, she examines mentoring minoritized populations in STEM, mentoring experiences and intervention programs in higher education, and learning experiences in engineering education.

Chinedum Okwudire received his Ph.D. degree in mechanical engineering from the University of British Columbia in 2009 and joined the mechanical engineering faculty at the University of Michigan in 2011, where he is currently an associate professor. His expertise lies in smart and sustainable automation, where he leverages the fundamental engineering disciplines of machine design, structural dynamics and control theory to tackle challenging problems in precision, throughput and energy efficiency faced by the manufacturing and vehicle automation industries.

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