Integrating Identities: Ethnic and Academic Identities Among Diverse College Students
by Lovey H.M. Walker & Moin Syed - 2013
Background/Context: Students of Color continue to be underrepresented at the undergraduate level. Recent research has demonstrated the importance of non-academic psychosocial factors for understanding college experiences. One factor, identity, is a broad, multidimensional construct that comprises numerous distinct domains, including political, religious, gender, ethnic, and academic identities. Two identity domains that are particularly relevant for college Students of Color are ethnic and academic identities.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In the present study we focused on identity development processes in college and how they differ between Students of Color and White students. Specifically, our study examined four hypotheses: Compared with White students, Students of Color would 1) report higher levels of ethnic identity and 2) endorse higher levels of ethnic-academic identity integration, and that the group difference in ratings of ethnic-academic identity integration would be both 3) mediated and 4) moderated by ethnic identity.
Research Design: This study was a cross-sectional survey of 282 college students in the U.S. (69% women, M age = 19.65, SD =2.78, Range = 18-39; 90% born in the U.S.). Participants were categorized as either White (54%) or as a Student of Color (47%). Participants completed rating-scale measures of ethnic identity exploration and commitment, academic identity, and ethnic-academic identity integration.
Findings/Results: Findings in the study supported our four hypotheses: 1) Students of Color reported higher levels of ethnic identity than White students, 2) Students of Color reported greater integration between their ethnic and academic identities than White students, 3) this difference was partially explained by Students of Color having stronger ethnic identities than White students, and 4) ethnic identity moderated the relation between ethnicity and ethnic-academic identity integration, such that ethnic identity predicts greater ethnicity-academic identity integration for Students of Color and White students, but the association is stronger for Students of Color.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Ethnic minority college students endorse higher levels of integration between their ethnic background and academic major. The ability for students to integrate their ethnic and academic identities may provide students with a sense of belonging during their college years. Both ethnicity and the academic environment play a role in the ways in which students feel belonging and pursue their academic careers. Thus, it is important to examine experiences of belonging in an academic context.
Despite increases in recent years, Students of Color continue to be underrepresented at the undergraduate level (Lewis, Menzies, Najera, & Page, 2009). This reality serves as a call for researchers in higher education to continue to provide broader society with information on how to overcome racial disparities in education (Philogène, 2004). Recent research has demonstrated the importance of non-academic psychosocial factors for understanding college performance (Bahrassa, Syed, Su, & Lee, 2011; Robbins et al., 2004). In the present study we focus on one such factoridentityand argue that the identity development process in college differs between Students of Color and White students. In particular, we adopt a developmental approach to investigate how ethnically diverse college students integrate their ethnic identities and academic identities. Developing a greater understanding of the differences in how college students integrate these important identity domains may be useful for educational policy focused on reducing ethnic disparities in educational success.
IDENTITY INTEGRATION AS A DEVELOPMENTAL TASK
Identity is a broad, multidimensional construct that comprises numerous distinct domains, including political, religious, gender, ethnic, and academic identities (Erikson, 1968). From an Eriksonian perspective, identity is a dynamic process that involves cognitive, affective, and behavioral components, whereas identification is the relatively static act of adopting a label to describe oneself. Within Eriksonian theory, a healthy sense of identity is a key development task of adolescence and emerging adulthood, and is characterized by an integration of the self over time and context (Schwartz, 2001; Schwartz, Côté, & Arnett, 2005; Syed, 2012b). Integration over time corresponds to individuals ability to develop feelings of continuity among their past experiences, current concerns, and future prospects. Integration over context signifies the need for individuals to pull together their multiple important identity domains into a coherent, integrated whole. It is this latter conception of identity integration that serves as the foundation for the present study.
A critical element of Eriksons beliefs about identity integration is that only identities that are viewed as important to an individual are in need of integration (Schachter, 2004). Two identity domains that are particularly relevant for college Students of Color are ethnic and academic identities (e.g. Syed, 2010; Syed & Azmitia, 2009). Following Erikson, if two domains of identity are concurrently viewed as important, then it is likely that the identity domains will reveal connections with one another. In other words, the development of an ethnic identity can both effect and be affected by the concurrent development of an academic identity. Very little research has explored the ways in which these two identity domains are related or spill over into one another (Syed, 2010). The present study investigates the relationship between these two identity domains, offering clues on how underrepresented college Students of Color construct their identities in the college setting.
ETHNIC IDENTITY DURING COLLEGE
From a development perspective, ethnic identity refers to the degree to which individuals identify with their ethnic group (Phinney, 1990). Thus, we are interested not in how one identifies (e.g., ethnic label), but how much one identities with their ethnic group. Thus, this conceptualization of ethnic identity maps onto the Eriksonian distinction between identification (ethnic label) and identity (ethnic identity). Phinneys (1990) model of ethnic identity emphasizes two separate processes involved in developing an ethnic identity: exploration and commitment (Phinney, 1992; Roberts et al., 1999). Exploration corresponds to the behaviors and thought processes associated with an individuals search for the significance of their ethnic background, such as participation in cultural practices, or learning about the traditions and customs of their group (Phinney, 1990; Syed & Azmitia, 2009). The commitment aspect of ethnic identity involves positive feelings towards ones ethnic group, such as a sense of belonging and pride (Phinney, 1992). Examining these two processes as separate facets of the ethnic identity domain allows us to further understand how ethnic identity is related to students college experiences.
Tajfels (1981) social identity theory is useful for understanding why an ethnic identity can be especially important for college Students of Color, regardless of the particular ethnic groups they identify with. Social identity theory emphasizes that group membership provides meaning and acts as a foundation on which individuals can base their sense of self (Brown, 2000; Tajfel, 1981). Following social identity theory, students who are ethnically underrepresented in an academic setting would be especially likely to explore their ethnic identities. Thus, in the present study we consider college Students of Color as a group because collectively they are underrepresented on their college campus in comparison to their White peers. Importantly, notions of both race and ethnicity are captured by this conceptualization. These terms are highly contested within the literature, with no agreed upon definitions (e.g., Gjerde, 2004; Markus, 2008; Quintana, 2007). Our intent is not to resolve these debates, but rather to define Students of Color as individuals who identify with one of several racial and/or ethnic groups that are underrepresented demographically in the United States (e.g., African American or Black, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Mexican, Latino(a), or Hispanic, and multiethnic). Thus more broadly speaking, the Students of Color group consists of ethnic minorities. This grouping holds meaning vis-à-vis the theoretical underpinnings of the study: social identity theory suggests that minority status will bring greater awareness of individuals minority identities and Phinneys (1990) developmental model of ethnic identity indicates that this greater awareness will be associated with greater ethnic exploration and integration with other identities.
Past research examining ethnic identity supports the notion that ethnic minorities endorse higher levels of ethnic identity than White students, but that there are few differences in the levels and correlates of ethnic identity between various ethnic minority groups (Phinney, 1992; Santos, Ortiz, Morales, & Rosales, 2007; Syed & Azmitia, 2009). Thus, the research illustrates that ethnic identity is an identity domain that may be especially relevant for ethnic minority college students. In the present study, we expect to replicate this research finding and demonstrate that Students of Color will endorse higher levels of ethnic identity than their White peers. Our primary goal, however, is to examine the integration of ethnic identity with academic identity, a topic to which we now turn.
ACADEMIC IDENTITY: WHAT IS IT AND HOW IS IT RELATED TO ETHNIC IDENTITY?
In comparison to ethnic identity, which is primarily relevant to ethnic minorities, college students from all ethnic and racial backgrounds commit significant amounts of time to academic courses, declaring an academic major, and considering their professional goals. In other words, they are very concerned with their academic identities. Academic identity has been conceptualized in numerous disparate ways. For example, it has been defined as a sense of belonging within school settings (Goodenow, 1993), ratings of importance of doing well in school (Walton & Cohen, 2007), aligning current academic behavior with career expectations (Oyserman & Destin, 2010), and students style of writing and studying behaviors (Attenborough, 2011; Hyland, 2011). While these are all valid ways of exploring academic identities, in the present study we took a different approach by defining academic identity as the degree to which students identify with their academic major.
We operationalized academic identity as the subjective connection to the academic major for several reasons. First, students academic major serves as a microcontext within the larger college context, and determines with whom students spend their class time and the parts of campus they inhabit (Syed, 2010; Syed, 2012a). Second, there is very little research on the psychological aspects of students majors, with most of the research focusing on the decision-making process (Galotti, 1999). Third, students academic majors have implications for their future careers once they leave college, and thus serve as a point of continuity between college and post-college identities (e.g. Galotti & Kozberg, 1987; Walstrom, Schambach, Jones, & Crampton, 2008). Finally, conceptualizing academic identity in terms of the major is well aligned with Eriksonian identity theory, as it contains both an identification component (the major) and an identity component (the subjective sense of connection to the major). Thus, our definitions of both academic and ethnic identity are consistent with the theoretical foundations of the study, and allow us to examine how the two identity domains may be inter-related.
Research on the connection between ethnic identity and aspects of students academic experiences is both minimal and limited, as the majority of it focuses on how GPA, test scores, and retention rates vary by ethnicity (rather than ethnic identity; Brower & Ketterhagen, 2004; Elliott, Strenta, Adair, Matier, & Scott, 1996; Grandy, 1998; Peng & Wright, 1994). While detected disparities from such work have laid the groundwork for the higher education community to develop methods of improving the educational experiences for students of underprivileged and underrepresented groups, academic performance is not an aspect of identity, per se. Specifically, the subjective experience of identity that is a part of the academic experience extends beyond behaviors associated with GPA or test scores and involves cognitive and affective processes. Indeed, few studies have considered the relation between subjectively experienced ethnic and academic identities, as conceptualized in the present study.
There are, of course, some exceptions. Studies by Oyserman and colleagues have examined how qualitatively different forms of ethnic identity (e.g., disengaged vs. in-group focused) and skin color are associated with academic engagement and performance (Oyserman, Brickman, Bybee, & Celious, 2006; Oyserman, Kemmelmeier, Fryberg, Brosh, & Hart-Johnson, 2003). Although useful, these studies focused more on academic performance than academic identity, per se, and were conducted with middle school and high school students. Focusing on college students, participants in Santos et al. (2007) cited their academic successes in the context of a strong sense of belonging with their college campus. Specifically, for some participants it was the perception that enough members of their ethnic group were also pursuing college and academic success that evoked a sense of preparedness and motivation to do well. Recently, Syed (2010) has taken up the question of the integration of ethnic and academic identities more directly, examining how students developing ethnic identities impacted their choice of major. The study demonstrated that ethnic minority students seek feelings of congruence, or integration, between their ethnic and academic identities, which impacted the choices they made about which major to pursue.
The study by Syed (2010) highlights an important implication about the integration of ethnic and academic identities, namely that the need for identity integration among ethnic minority college students may have an important impact on their educational decision-making. The study was limited, however, by the fact that academic identity was defined by choice of academic major, not students subjective connection with their major. Furthermore, the integration of ethnic and academic identities was inferred through qualitative analysis. The current study builds upon this past research by examining the intersection of ethnic and academic identities directly. Specifically, we used a rating-scale measure of students perceived level of ethnic-academic identity integration. Our second hypothesis is that ethnic-academic identity integration will be more strongly endorsed by Students of Color than by White students, as past research has demonstrated that ethnicity plays a larger role in educational decision-making among Students of Color (Syed, 2010).
MEDIATORS AND MODERATORS OF IDENTITY INTEGRATION
Testing for mediators and moderators of hypothesized bivariate relations is a fundamental aspect of psychological research (Frazier, Tix, & Barron, 2004). Based on past theory and research, there is rationale for the presence of both mediators and moderators in the present study. Membership in an ethnic group is a static construct, while the ways in which a person identifies with a particular group is more dynamic and changing (Phinney, 1992). That is, ethnicity, per se, is not sufficient to explain psychological and social phenomenon (Helms, Jernigan, & Mascher, 2005). Thus, it is always critical to test dynamic psychological constructs as mediators of observed ethnic differences in a given outcome. As stated earlier, research has demonstrated that ethnic identity is more strongly endorsed by ethnic minorities compared to Whites. Thus, our third hypothesis is that levels of ethnic identity will mediate the group difference in identity integration. In other words, levels of ethnic identity can explain why Students of Color report integration of their ethnic identity with their academic identity more than their White peers. This hypothesis derives support from past research showing that ethnic identity was a better predictor of students choice of major than was ethnicity (Syed, 2010).
Syeds (2010) findings also point to the importance of within-group differences, suggesting moderation. It may be the case that both Students of Color and White students with stronger ethnic identities will report greater integration of ethnic and academic identities in comparison to their respective group members who identify less with their ethnic identity. Despite the well-documented group differences in levels of ethnic identity (e.g. Roberts et al., 1999; Syed & Azmitia, 2009), the correlates of ethnic identity may be similar across groups. Nevertheless, the greater emphasis placed on ethnic identity for ethnic minorities than for Whites suggest that the association between ethnic identity and ethnic-academic identity integration should be stronger for ethnic minorities than for Whites. That is, although there may be a positive association between ethnic identity and ethnic-academic identity integration for both groups, we expect that the association will be stronger for Students of Color than for Whites. Accordingly, our fourth hypothesis was that ethnic identity would moderate the association between group status and ethnic-academic identity integration.
THE PRESENT STUDY
The purpose of the present study was to examine how ethnically diverse college students integrate their ethnic identities with their academic identities. We propose the following four hypotheses to this end:
Students of Color will report higher ethnic identity than White students.
Students of Color will report greater integration between their ethnic and academic identities than White students.
The group differences in ethnic-academic identity integration will be mediated by ethnic identity.
Ethnic identity will moderate the relation between group status and ethnic-academic identity integration.
Two hundred and eighty-two college students attending a public university in California participated in the study (69% women, M age = 19.65, SD =2.78, Range = 18-39; 90% born in the U.S.). Participants responded to the open-ended question, What ethnic group(s) do you identify with being a member of (you may list as many as you wish). In order to answer the hypotheses, participants were categorized as either White (54%) or as a Student of Color (47%). The main ethnic groups represented were Mixed-ethnic (16%), Asian American (16%), and Latino (11%). The Student of Color sample was made up of Mixed-ethnic (34%), Asian American (34%), and Latino (24%) students
Socioeconomic status (SES) of the participants was assessed using the Hollingshead (1957) two-factor index. The Hollingshead index combines occupational status (1 = higher executive to 7 = unskilled employee) and education (1 = graduate/professional training to 7 = primary school or less) to classify individuals into one of five social classes. Due to the participants status as college students at a residential university, parent information was used for this measure, with the data being averaged across both parents (when available). The index was reverse-scored so that a higher value indicated a higher social class. The distribution of the five social classes was as follows: 1 = 4%, 2 = 11%, 3 = 29%, 4 = 38%, and 5 = 14% (M = 3.48, SD =1.02).
The participants varied in their year in college, with 44% first years, 17.7% second, 21.3% third, 10.6% fourth, and 6.1% fifth years. Students majors were classified into the five divisions at the university: social science, humanities, science, engineering, and arts. These divisions were then clustered into two categories, science and non-science. The majority of students were majoring or considering a major in the social sciences, arts, or humanities (85.4%), with 14.6% in science/engineering. Comparing the sample with the university as a whole (73% social sciences/humanities/arts, 27% science/engineering) indicated that students from social science/arts/humanities majors were over-represented in the sample. Year in college and major did not covary, nor was students ethnicity systematically related to year in college or major.
Students were recruited to participate in this study in two ways. Most participants signed up for the study through the psychology departments research pool, which listed the study as College Experiences Study. The research pool allows students to take part in research studies in exchange for course credit. The description of the study indicated that they would be asked questions about their academic experiences and ethnicity, and stressed that students from all ethnic backgrounds could participate. In order to recruit a more diverse group of students with respect to major and year in school, the study was also advertised via flyers on campus, online postings, and emails sent out to various campus-based listservs. Participants recruited through the research pool (78%) received course credit, whereas the participants recruited through the other advertising methods (22%) were paid $10 and entered into a drawing to receive an iPod or movie tickets.
After scheduling a convenient time, participants came to a psychology lab on campus to participate in the study. After completing the consent form they were given a brief description of the survey. A research assistant then sat them down at a computer to show them how to navigate the survey, which was hosted online through http://www.surveymonkey.com. The survey was completed individually, with no other participants in the room. A research assistant was occasionally in the same room as the participant, and when present, always sat on the other side of the room from the participants to ensure privacy. The survey questions presented in this paper were embedded in a larger study on students academic experiences and ethnic identity that included many open-ended questions pertaining to participants academic major, views on their ethnicity, as well as quantitative measures on ethnic identity, ego identity, and well-being. The entire survey took approximately 50-60 minutes to complete (range: 20-90 minutes), and was completely computer-guided, with the research assistant nearby only to answer any questions that arose.
We used the revised 12-item version of the Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure (MEIM; Phinney, 1992; Roberts et al., 1999). The scale contains a five-item exploration subscale and a seven-item commitment subscale. Past longitudinal research has indicated that the two-factor solution for the MEIM is invariant across the college years for ethnically diverse students (Syed & Azmitia, 2009). In the present sample the two-factor solution had acceptable fit, CFI = .91, RMSEA = .10, SRMR = .05, and was a much better fit to the data than the one-factor solution, CFI = .87, RMSEA = .12, SRMR = .06, Δχ2(1) = 48.52, p < .001. Participants responded to questions on a four-point Likert scale that ranges from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Scores on the items were averaged for each subscale so that higher values represent greater exploration or commitment. Sample items for the exploration subscale include, I am active in organizations or social groups that include mostly members of my own ethnic group and for the commitment subscale, I have a clear sense of my ethnic background and what it means for me. Cronbach’s αs for ethnic minority participants and White participants on exploration were .73 and .75, respectively, and .85 and .86 for commitment.
Academic Major Identity
We assessed academic major identity using a set of items adapted from Chemers, Zurbriggen, Syed, Goza, and Bearman (2011). This measure contains a seven-item scale that measures the degree to which individual identify with their academic major. A sample item includes being a [participants academic major] student is an important reflection of who I am. Participants responded to the scale on a five-point Likert scale that ranges from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Scores on the items were averaged so that higher values represent greater academic major identity. Cronbachs α was .83
Ethnic-Academic Identity Integration
We also assessed ethnic-academic identity integration by a set of items adapted from Chemers et al. (2011). This two-item integration scale was developed specifically to assess the degree to which participants reported their ethnic identity being a part of their identification with their academic major. The two items that constitute this scale are having more people with my ethnic background in my field makes me feel more like a [participants academic major] student and my ethnic identity is an important part of my being a [participants academic major] student. Participants responded to this scale on a five-point Likert scale that ranges from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Scores on the items were averaged so that higher values represent greater identity integration. The bivariate correlation between the two items in the integration scale was r = .61, p < .001.
HYPOTHESIS 1: ETHNIC DIFFERENCES IN ETHNIC IDENTITY
Mean scores for all of the study variables, separated by Students of Color and White students, are listed in Table 1. To test the first hypothesis, a series of t-tests were conducted to assess mean differences between Students of Color and White students with regards to ethnic identity. For the measure of ethnic identity exploration, Students of Color scored significantly higher (M = 2.69, SD = 0.58) than White students (M = 2.21, SD = 0.59), t(279) = 6.78 , p < .001, d = .82. For the measure of ethnic identity commitment, Students of Color scored significantly higher (M = 3.11, SD = 0.55) than White students (M = 2.65, SD = 0.57), t(277) = 6.89 , p < .001, d = .82. These mean differences support our first hypothesis that Students of Color would score higher on ethnic identity, compared to White students.
HYPOTHESIS 2: ETHNIC DIFFERENCES IN ETHNIC-ACADEMIC IDENTITY INTEGRATION
To test the second hypothesis, a t-test was conducted to assess the mean differences between Students of Color and White students with regards to ethnic-academic identity integration. Students of Color reported significantly higher scores (M = 2.58, SD = 1.14) on this subscale, compared to White students (M = 1.75, SD = 0.83), t(279) = 7.06, p <.001, d = .83, supporting the hypothesis that Students of Color would report greater integration between their ethnic and academic identities than White students. There were no significant mean differences between Students of Color (M = 3.45, SD = 0.55) and White students (M = 3.55, SD = 0.73) on academic major identity, t(280) = 1.04, p = 0.30, d = .15.
HYPOTHESIS 3: ETHNIC IDENTITY MEDIATES THE ETHNIC DIFFERENCE IN IDENTITY INTEGRATION
Before testing our third hypothesis, we computed correlations to assess if a relationship existed between the ethnic identity subscales (exploration and commitment) and the two subscales of academic major identity. Across the entire sample, ethnic identity commitment was significantly correlated in the positive direction with both academic major identity (r = .14, p = .02) and ethnic-academic identity integration (r = .35, p <.001). Similar results were detected when this analysis was conducted with only Students of Color or with only White students. Exploration was not significantly correlated in the positive direction with academic major identity across our whole sample (r = .11 p = .07), but was significantly correlated in the positive direction with ethnic-academic identity integration (r = .46, p <. 001). These and other correlations are summarized in Table 2.
Our third hypothesis was that the difference between Students of Color and White students on ethnic-academic identity integration would be mediated by ethnic identity. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a hierarchical multiple regression that treated ethnic-academic identity integration as the outcome variable. We conducted two separate models, one with ethnic identity exploration as the mediator and one with ethnic identity commitment as the mediator; otherwise the models were identical. We followed Baron and Kennys (1986) causal steps approach to testing for mediation. First, we regressed ethnic-academic identity integration on academic major identity and year in school, treating these predictors as covariates. In the second step we added ethnic minority status to the model (coded as 1 = Student of Color, 0 = White). In the third step we added the ethnic identity measure (exploration or commitment). These measures were converted to z-scores to facilitate interpretation. Mediation was tested using bootstrapping methods described below. The results from Step 3 of both regressions are summarized in Table 3.
Ethnic Identity Exploration
In step one, academic major identity significantly predicted ethnic-academic identity integration (B = .22, SE = .06, p = .001). Year in school did not significantly predict integration (B = -.01, SE = .05, p = .88). In the second step, ethnic minority status was a significant predictor of ethnic-academic identity integration, B = .86, SE = .12, p < .001. In the third step, ethnic identity was a significant predictor for ethnic-academic identity (B = .37, SE = .06, p <. 001). Although the coefficient for ethnic minority status was reduced, it remained a significant predictor (B = .58, SE = .12, p <. 001).
SPSS macros for bootstrapping mediation effects (Preacher & Hayes, 2008) were used to further test the direct and indirect effects of ethnic minority status on ethnic-academic identity integration. The total effect (c) and the direct effects of the independent variable ethnic minority status (c¢) were B = .86, p < .001 and B = .58, p < .001, respectively. The indirect effect of ethnic identity on ethnicity in major identity was significant, B = .28, SE = .06, confidence intervals (CIs) = (.18, .42). These findings partially support our mediation model: Ethnic identity exploration accounted for a significant amount of the shared variance between ethnic minority status and ethnic-academic identity integration, although ethnic minority status remained a significant predictor even after accounting for ethnic identity exploration.
Ethnic Identity Commitment
The model for ethnic identity commitment was conducted using identical procedures as for exploration. In step one, academic major identity significantly predicted ethnic-academic identity integration (B = .22, SE = .07, p = .001). Year in school did not significantly predict integration (B = -.01, SE = .05, p = .80). In the second step, ethnic minority status was a significant predictor of ethnic-academic identity integration, B = .87, SE = .12, p < .001). In the third step, ethnic identity commitment was a significant predictor for ethnic-academic identity integration (B = .20, SE = .06, p = .001), but ethnic minority status remained a significant predictor (B = .71, SE = .13, p <. 001).
SPSS macros for bootstrapping mediation effects were used to further test the direct and indirect effects of ethnic minority status on ethnic-academic identity integration. The total effect (c) and the direct effects of the independent variable ethnic minority status (c¢) were B = .87, p < .001 and B = .71, p < .001, respectively. The indirect effect of ethnic identity on ethnic minority status in major identity was significant, B = .16, SE = .06, confidence interval (CIs) = (.05, .28). As with ethnic identity exploration, these findings offer partial support for our mediation model, in that ethnic identity commitment accounts for some, but not all, of the ethnic difference in ethnic-academic identity integration.
HYPOTHESIS 4: ETHNIC IDENTITY MODERATES THE ETHNIC DIFFERENCE IN IDENTITY INTEGRATION
To test for a moderation model, we added a fourth step to the regression analysis reported above, in which we entered the interaction between ethnic minority status and the z-scored ethnic identity measures. These results are also summarized in Table 3.
Ethnic Identity Exploration
The interaction between ethnic minority status and ethnic identity exploration was significant (B = .25, SE = .12, p < .05), indicating that scores on ethnic-academic identity integration for Students of Color increased more than the scores of White students, when moving from scores of low to high ethnic identity exploration. Ethnic minority status (B = .57, SE = .12, p < .001) and ethnic identity exploration (B = .25, SE = .12, p < .05) remained as significant predictors in this fourth step.
Simple slope analyses were conducted to further examine the significant interaction effect. The unstandardized simple slope for White students from low to high ethnic identity was .25, p < .05, and the unstandardized simple slope for Students of Color from low to high ethnic identity was .50, p < .001 (see Figure 1). Thus, greater ethnic identity exploration was associated with greater ethnic-academic identity integration for both Students of Color and White students, but the difference in scores between students reporting low ethnic identity exploration and students reporting high ethnic identity exploration was greater among Students of Color.
Ethnic Identity Commitment
We conducted the same model as reported above using the z-scored ethnic identity commitment scale instead of exploration. These results are also summarized in Table 3. The interaction between ethnic minority status and ethnic identity commitment, however, was not significant (B = .21 SE = .12, p = .09).
The purpose of the present study was to examine how ethnically diverse college students integrate their ethnic identities with their academic identities, defined as the students subjective connection with their academic major. We tested four hypotheses that received full or partial support: 1) Students of Color reported higher levels of ethnic identity than White students, 2) Students of Color reported greater integration between their ethnic and academic identities than White students, 3) this difference was partially explained by Students of Color having stronger ethnic identities than White students, and 4) ethnic identity moderated the relation between ethnicity and ethnic-academic identity integration, such that ethnic identity predicts greater ethnicity-academic identity integration for Students of Color and White students, but the association is stronger for Students of Color. Below we consider each of these findings in greater detail.
ETHNICITY, ETHNIC IDENTITY, AND IDENTITY INTEGRATION
In our study, Students of Color reported higher ethnic identity than White students, a trend that has been consistently detected in previous research examining ethnic identity (e.g., Phinney, 1992; Syed & Azmitia, 2009). We used Phinneys (1990) model of ethnic identity, which emphasizes two separate processes individuals undergo in identifying with their ethnic group: exploration and commitment (Phinney, 1992; Roberts et al. 1999). Students of Color in our sample demonstrated higher levels of both exploration and commitment. Thus the behaviors and thought processes associated with an individuals search for the significance of their ethnic background, as well as their sense of belonging and pride towards ones ethnic group, are all important to consider for ethnic minority research.
Students of Color also demonstrated greater ethnic-academic identity integration than White students. This finding indicates that ethnic minority college students endorse higher levels of integration between their ethnic background and academic major (see also Syed, 2010). The items we used to measure ethnic-academic identity integration pertained to feeling as if they can define their ethnic identity as being a part of their academic major and having members of the same ethnic group in their academic courses. Thus, Students of Color may have a greater tendency to place value on the role of ethnicity within their major both individually, in terms of being able to fit together different aspects of their identities, and contextually, in terms of others who are pursuing a similar academic trajectory. It is important to note that Students of Color and White students did not differ in how much they identified with their academic major, so the differences observed for ethnic-academic identity integration cannot be accounted for by Students of Color generally feeling less connected with their major than White students. Rather, it is the degree to which Students of Color see their ethnicity as related to their academic identity that differs.
Although we found ethnic differences in ethnic-academic identity integration, we also found that ethnic identity was a significant predictor of identity integration. The result was similar when ethnic identity was measured as either exploration or as commitment. Importantly, ethnic identity was a unique predictor over and above ethnicity, and accounted for some of the association between group status and identity integration. In other words, part of the reason why differences in ethnic-academic identity integration were observed between Students of Color and White students is due to parallel differences in levels of ethnic identity. Students who identify more strongly with their ethnicity also place greater emphasis on including this aspect of their self in their academic major. This finding supports identity theory that emphasizes identity integration as an important developmental task for emerging adults (Erikson, 1968; Schachter, 2004; Syed, 2010), and points to the value of examining subjective ethnic identity, rather than relying solely on the static demographic category of ethnicity (Helms et al., 2005).
Despite the observed mediation, ethnic identity only partially explained why Students of Color in our sample demonstrated greater ethnic-academic identity integration than White students. This finding suggests that there are dynamic constructs, beyond ethnic identity, that may account for the ethnic difference. The model and measure of ethnic identity we used includes exploration and commitment as the only dimensions of ethnic identity. This is not the only measure of ethnic identity used, nor is it the only way this identity domain has been conceptualized (e.g., Viladrich & Loue, 2009). It is possible that other processes of identifying with ones ethnicity can explain group differences in identity integration. Additionally, other psychological processes other than ethnic identity may also explain why Students of Color demonstrated greater integration between their academic and ethnic identities. For example, it is possible that students academic interests may predict the degree to which they understand and wish to involve their ethnic heritage into their academic major. Furthermore, opportunities to discuss ethnicity or topics on culture in academic courses related to a students major may affect the students perceptions or attitudes on how integrated ethnicity can be with their academic major. Thus, while we were able to detect some of the explanatory mechanisms for the observed ethnic differences, there is still much research to be done to fully understand the difference.
Finally, the interaction detected between ethnic identity and group status for ethnic-academic identity integration indicated that, for both Students of Color and White students, greater ethnic identity is associated with greater identity integration. This finding helped show how the linkages among constructs are similar across groups, despite the variations in levels and magnitudes. This interaction, however, was detected only when ethnic identity was measured using the exploration subscale. Furthermore, Students of Color (versus White) high on ethnic identity exploration reported the highest levels of integration between their ethnic and academic identities. That is, although the association between ethnic identity exploration and identity integration was positive for both groups, the association was stronger for Students of Color than for Whites. Thus, the level of integration of ethnic and academic identities appears to be most strongly endorsed by ethnic minority college students who are highly engaged in the process of learning more about their ethnic background and searching to understand what it means for their identity (i.e., those high on exploration). In this way, students may see their academic major as another venue for ethnic identity exploration (see Syed, 2010). It is somewhat surprising that we did not also find evidence of moderation for ethnic identity commitment. The interaction term, however, was marginally significant (p = .09), suggesting that commitment may have a relatively weaker connection to identity integration that we were not fully able to detect in the present study. Indeed, future research should continue to investigate the impact of ethnic identity exploration and commitment for ethnic-academic identity integration.
IMPLICATIONS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION
The ability for students to integrate their ethnic and academic identities may provide students with a sense of belonging during their college years. While our study did not examine students sense of belonging as a function of their levels of academic and ethnic identity integration, earlier work suggests that the presence of students from the same ethnic group in academic settings can provide students with positive feelings, such as belonging and preparedness to do well (e.g., Santos et al., 2007). Both ethnicity and the academic environment play a role in the ways in which students feel belonging and pursue their academic careers. Thus it is important to examine experiences of belonging in an academic context.
While our study did not assess academic attitudes or beliefs, such as a sense of preparedness or motivation for good academic performance, nor outcomes such as GPA, we were able to detect how a sense of ethnic belonging and pride is associated with the integration of an ethnic and academic identity. Thus our study provides one way of examining belonging in an academic context. Specifically we were able to provide an illustration of how ethnic belonging is related to the ways in which students academically identify with their college major and relate their major to their ethnicity.
People of color are still underrepresented in U.S. colleges, making it even more difficult for them to be well represented in science-related careers that demand a college degree (Johnson, Brown, Carlone, & Cuevas, 2011). Furthermore, Students of Color still experience instances of subtle discrimination in predominately White institutions or in classes where they are the ethnic minority (Russell & Atwater, 2005). Elliott et al. (1996) note that for incoming college students interested in the sciences, it is likely that many classmates (depending on the diversity of the campus) will be majority White and Asian. A sense of belonging may be especially difficult for students of other ethnic groups to achieve in science courses, affecting their academic performance and sustained interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses.
Therefore research that examines how underrepresented ethnic minority students achieve belonging in academic environments can highlight ways for higher educational officials to promote positive academic outcomes for marginalized groups and overcome the still existing disparities. Scholars concerned with career development for marginalized groups emphasize the person-environment fit as they seek to identify ways to promote academic interest and success among underrepresented groups of people (e.g., Turner et al., 2006). Thus, scholars may want to conceive of this idea of fit in the context of how students are able to integrate important aspects of their identity, such as their ethnic and academic sense of self, in environments that they are spending significant amounts of time in, such as a college setting. This may be of particular interest for scholars interested in understanding how students perceive good fit in science courses.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
Despite the contribution of the present study, there are a few limitations to the study that provide directions for future research. At the present time, there are limited measures of identity integration pertaining to ethnic and academic identities. This lack of instruments is indicative of the inattention to the concept of identity integration. In our study we adapted measures of academic identity and the ethnic-academic identity integration from previous work (Chemers et al., 2011). Future work should continue to address the lack of work that has conceptualized this kind of identity and seek ways of measuring the levels to which students identify with their academic major. This particular identity is especially important to further examine given the predictive power we detected it to have on the level of integration of ethnic and academic identity. Similarly, it would be useful to address the ways in which students of various academic backgrounds (e.g., STEM vs. non-STEM) integrate different identity domains, given that being in the minority is especially likely in STEM classroom settings.
The models we tested in the present study included a potentially important variable as a covariate: year in school. This variable may be related to the ways in which students are able to integrate their ethnic and academic identities. In particular, research has shown that ethnic identity increases for students throughout their college years, and that this development of identity can influence development in other identity domains (Syed & Azmitia, 2009). Despite the fact that year in school was not a significant predictor of identity integration in the current study, future work should consider how the process of ethnic-academic identity integration may differ across the college years. Another possibility is that year in school is related to the form of identity integration rather than the level of identity integration. Qualitative studies are particularly well suited for gaining an understanding of difference in what a construct like identity integration might look like, which cannot be captured by rating-scale measures.
Our sample consisted of students recruited from a relatively culturally diverse public university in California. Future work that examines the intersection of ethnic and academic identities will want to include samples that come from different settings, including campuses that are predominantly White. This is especially important given that previous research has detected associations between predominantly White college settings and feelings of belonging (e.g., Russell & Atwater, 2005). Future student samples should also include more ethnically diverse groups. In our study we defined our two groups based on ethnic and racial labels students chose for determining whether to categorize themselves as White or a Student of Color. Essentially, students identifying with ethnic and/or racial categories underrepresented in the United States were considered Students of Color. Future work should explore the relation between ethnicity, ethnic identity, and ethnic-academic identity integration for various ethnic and racial groups in order to produce more thorough and considerate research on this understudied topic. How the constructs we tested relate to racial identity would be important as well, especially since race and ethnicity are still contested terms and can have different meaning across individuals (Quintana, 2007).
Another important direction for future research would be to determine whether feelings of ethnic-academic identity integration are predictive of actual academic performance (e.g., GPA, retention). Unfortunately, we did not have such data in the present study, but linking identity integration to performance indicators would heighten the practical importance of the identity construct. Finally, in the present study we defined academic identity as the subjective connection students have with their academic major. This was a novel and theoretically relevant definition of academic identity, but differs from how the term has been used in the past. However, even a cursory glance at the literature suggests that there is no consensus on the meaning of academic identity. Future research should consider defining academic identity as a multilevel construct, including academic major identity, belongingness on campus, and future academic orientation. Each of these conceptualizations are distinct, yet together they may provide a fuller account of the role of academic identity for educational outcomes and trajectories.
Our study on ethnic-academic identity integration provides an important snapshot of college students experiences that can build upon current research and policy development aiming at overcoming educational disparities. We demonstrated that both ethnic and academic identities are important for college students. Among Students of Color especially, ethnic identity is an important component of how students understand themselves. Furthermore, Students of Color are especially likely to integrate their ethnic identity with their academic identity. Thus, as we continue to seek ways to attract and retain underrepresented students in college programs and academic majors, it is important to understand students unique interests and identity-related needs, and how these needs may impact educational decision-making and academic performance.
The authors thank members of the Narrative, Identity, Culture, and Education (NICE) Lab for comments on earlier versions of this article and the University of Minnesotas College of Liberal Arts (CLA) and Diversity of Views and Experience (DOVE) program for their support with the early stages of this projects development. Portions of this research were presented at the 2011 American Psychological Association Annual Convention in Washington, DC. Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Lovey H. M. Walker, email@example.com.
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Table 1. Mean Scores of Participants on Outcome Variables, Separated by Group
Note. For all outcome variables, higher scores indicate a higher response in the direction of the construct assessed. SOC = Students of Color. Group = ethnic minority status.
*p < .05 **p< .01 ***p< .001.
Table 2. Correlations of Main Study Variables Separated by Group
Note. For all outcome variables, higher scores indicate a higher response in the direction of the construct assessed. Correlations pertaining to Students of Color are bolded. SOC = Participants identifying as Students of Color; White = Participants identifying as White students; Ethnic-Major Identity = Ethnic-major identity integration.
*p < .05 **p< .01 ***p< .001.
Table 3. Steps 3 and 4 of Hierarchical Multiple Regressions Testing Ethnic Identity as a Mediator and Moderator of Ethnic Minority Status and Ethnic-Academic Identity Integration
Note. Year = Year in school; Major Identity= Academic Major Identity; Ethnic Minority Status = Student of Color (1) or White (0); Ethnic Identity = Standardized MEIM score.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p <.000.
Figure 1. Ethnic identity exploration and ethnic minority status interaction on ethnic-academic identity integration.
Note. SOC =Students of Color.