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Barely Scrapes the Surface: How Scholarship Receipt Complicates Holistic Supports for Community College STEM Students from Low-Income Backgrounds


by Xueli Wang, Yunwei Wang & Brit Wagner - April 13, 2022

Financial burden represents a long-standing challenge facing community college students from low-income families, especially those pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pathways. Accordingly, financial assistance has emerged as a major policy initiative, often offered in conjunction with wraparound support services, such as advising, tutoring, and structured course offerings. Although extant quantitative evidence has demonstrated the promise of financial aid as part of a holistic support structure, there is limited research on the ways in which financial aid interfaces with other types of supports, as well as the experiences of involved students and those in supporting roles. This qualitative case study delved into the lived experiences of individual students and faculty and staff in supporting roles within a new scholarship program at a small community college. Based on in-depth interviews as our primary data source, our findings show that providing financial support is not an omnipotent approach to fully supporting students. Instead, the students as scholarship recipients negotiated a complex set of expectations and assumptions from program faculty and staff who wrestled with an “ideal” student support model. Our study offers new insights toward robust and thoughtful holistic supportive systems that fully honor students’ holistic life contexts, challenges, and strengths.

Community colleges enroll a disproportionately large share of historically underserved students in postsecondary education (Cohen et al., 2014). These institutions’ wide range of educational offerings, diverse students’ aspirations and backgrounds, along with resource and structural constraints, pose both opportunities and challenges for community colleges to advance college success among the vital student population they serve (Goldrick-Rab, 2010; Hatch & Bohlig, 2016; Wang, 2020). One of the most prominent challenges is the financial barrier facing students, who largely hail from low-income families (e.g., Barber & McNair, 2017; Long, 2010). To address this concern, many community colleges offer financial support in hopes of reducing students’ financial burden and achieving greater rates of persistence and completion (McKinney & Roberts, 2012). Providing monetary assistance is arguably important in reducing financial burden, which negatively impacts students’ academic performance and persistence at community colleges (Boatman & Long, 2016; Cohen et al., 2014; Kelchen, 2017; Walizer, 2015). However, financial support alone may not be sufficient for students to achieve their educational goals. Research has shown that scholarships have a limited impact on community college students’ persistence and academic performance (Broton, 2019), and financial assistance needs to work in tandem with other support mechanisms (Kolenovic et al., 2013).


Clearly, research on the impact of financial support needs to be fully situated within students’ holistic contexts. This is especially relevant for community college students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pathways. These students experience higher attrition rates due to financial concerns, an issue further compounded by a lack of advising on rigorous STEM course-taking sequences (Bahr et al., 2017) and other structural barriers (Wang, 2020). Further, STEM students at community colleges experience a lack of classroom and advising spaces that affirm their identities and sense of belonging as STEM learners (Rodriguez et al., 2019, 2021; Wang et al., 2019). As the demands for STEM talent cultivated by and through community college pathways continue to rise (Hagedorn & Purnamasari, 2012; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016), a closer investigation of how financial assistance intersects with other types of support is warranted to illuminate promising approaches to assisting community college STEM students’ educational pursuits. 


Aimed at unpacking the complex ways in which financial support interfaces with other types of supports, our qualitative case study focuses on a scholarship program at a community college intended to holistically serve STEM students from low-income families. Our research addresses the following questions: How do community college STEM students describe their experiences as a participant in a scholarship program intended to offer holistic support? How do program staff describe their experiences working with the students?


LITERATURE REVIEW


The research base on community college student success spans different and intersecting domains, such as academic progression or achievement largely drawing upon academic momentum literature (e.g., Adelman, 2005; Cho & Karp, 2013; Hall et al., 2021; Hatch, 2018; Nitecki, 2011; O’Gara et al., 2009; Pechac & Slantchea-Durst, 2021); student engagement both within the classroom (Cox, 2009; Deil-Amen, 2011) and with on-campus support services such as advising or mentoring opportunities (e.g., Bahr, 2008; Crisp, 2010); students seeking upward transfer (Castro & Cortez, 2017; Jackson & Laanan, 2015); and experiences of minoritized populations such as women (e.g., Fong et al., 2017; Walpole et al., 2014; Wickersham & Wang, 2016) and students of color (e.g., Assalone & Fann, 2017; Gándara et al., 2012).


Across these interconnected lines of inquiry, almost invariably, financial support emerged as a key ingredient undergirding community college student success. Nationally, nearly 80% of first-time, full-time degree-seeking community college students receive financial aid in the forms of federal grants, state/local grants, and/or institutional grants (McFarland et al., 2018). Financial assistance provides students with incentives to persist (Goldrick-Rab, 2010) and may improve their persistence and degree completion (Ngo & Astudillo, 2018).   


Prior literature has also suggested that, despite the importance of financial support, when offered alone, it remains insufficient. In the context of STEM education, for instance, scholarship awards do not necessarily translate into commitment to STEM fields (Liou et al., 2010). Researchers have called for a more comprehensive support system integrating financial, curricular, and service components (Hatch & Bohlig, 2016). As a notable example, City University of New York’s (CUNY’s) Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP) offers free tuition along with various support elements, such as advising, contextualized learning, and tutoring, which has increased participating students’ retention, cumulative GPA, and degree completion (Kolenovic & Strumbos, 2020; Strumbos & Kolenovic, 2017). 


Beyond financial incentives, such a holistic student support approach often entails advising and mentoring as pivotal features (Campbell & Campbell, 1997; Crisp, 2010; King, 1993; Packard, 2012). Research has shown that supportive relationships with advisors, mentors, and/or faculty boost students’ academic aspirations (Acevedo-Gil & Zerquera, 2016), inform students’ transfer and career explorations (Carlsen & Gangeness, 2020), and improve students’ academic performance (Khazanov, 2011; Tovar, 2015). Purposeful implementation of effective advising and mentoring structures to complement financial support, however, is fraught with challenges, especially given community colleges’ limited resources, compounded by the “cafeteria” style advising and curriculum complexity (Bailey et al., 2015). This has historically resulted in few well-designed and well-facilitated mentoring programs (Stromei, 2000), as well as limited advisor and faculty capacity for mentoring (Galbraith & James, 2004). Therefore, as calls for financial support with wraparound services increase, also rising is the urgent demand for greater institutional support and professional development for mentors and advisors (Crisp et al., 2018; Goldrick-Rab, 2010), especially in the areas of collaboration across roles and units in support of students (Jaafar et al., 2016; Pourshafie & Brady, 2013).


Overall, the evolving empirical evidence, often quantitative in nature, has demonstrated the promise of financial aid as part of a holistic support structure, yet we have limited insights into the ways in which financial aid interfaces with other types of supports, as well as the experiences of involved students and those in supporting roles. As comprehensive support systems for community college students continue to gain traction, it is important to fill this empirical void to generate evidence-based knowledge that informs their design and implementation.


CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK


Our study is conceptually informed by Wang’s (2017) momentum model of community college student success. Extending Adelman’s notion of academic momentum (1999) and building upon other extant literature on community college students’ development and success, Wang’s (2017) model explains that momentum toward a point of success (e.g., credential completion, transfer, and other educational goals as defined by students themselves) is developed in several key dimensions, namely, domains of curriculum, teaching, and learning, as well as motivational attributes and beliefs.


The model also explicates that student momentum is negatively impacted by barriers that create counter-momentum friction, especially pinpointing the lack of financial support as a key counter-momentum friction point that thwarts community college students’ progress and success. Inadequate advising is another major source of counter-momentum friction; thus, advising practices—or lack thereof—also have the potential to contribute toward or detract from progress. The momentum model offers a holistic approach that allows us to zero in on how financial support factors into and interacts with the key domains where students build momentum or experience friction in their educational pursuits.


RESEARCH DESIGN


CASE STUDY


We employed a qualitative case study design (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015) to answer our research questions. Qualitative case study research involves defining a unit to study (the case), which is a purposefully selected bounded system that can be “a program, an institution, a person, a process, or a social unit” (Merriam, 1998, p. xiii). In our study, the case was a scholarship program initiated in 2018 by a small community college (with a 2,000-student enrollment) in the Midwest. In this program, student participants not only received a scholarship to cover their full tuition and book expenses, but also were part of a cohort that received a comprehensive set of supports including common courses, extracurricular activities, and one-on-one mentoring provided by faculty who taught in STEM fields aligned with students’ interests.


This particular program was especially well positioned for case study research because program participation was limited to a finite group of individuals. The events of the case were all within the program setting—primarily the experiences and perspectives of the students and program staff who served as the program leaders, the students’ mentors, and the STEM course instructors. Our study also aligns with other defining features of qualitative case studies as defined by Merriam (1998), including the search for meaning and understanding, following an open approach, and producing an end product that is meant to be richly descriptive and potentially transferable to similar situations.


STUDY SAMPLE


The student sample included all seven students in the 2018 program cohort. The students were all enrolled in STEM majors, such as computer science, meteorology, neuroscience, and civil engineering. All seven students were traditional age and Pell-eligible with unmet financial need. They were all selected through a competitive selection process involving the assessment of application essays, reference letters, and high school grade point averages (GPAs). At the time the students participated in this research, they had just completed their first year at the community college.


Our study also included all 10 program staff participants, including the program’s leadership team members, faculty mentors, and instructors teaching courses for the cohort students. Among the three groups, faculty mentors had the most extensive interactions with the students and constituted a significant component of the program support structure. Each student was paired with a faculty mentor from the STEM field they were pursuing. The mentors not only interacted with students in the classroom, but also worked with them through tutoring activities and mentoring meetings. See Table 1 for a more detailed description of the study participants’ backgrounds.


Table 1. List of Participants

Pseudonym

Gender

Race/Ethnicity

Role

Jason

Man

White

Student majoring in meteorology

Matthew

Man

White

Student majoring in geology

Ricardo

Man

Latinx

Student majoring in computer science

Rosie

Woman

Latinx

Student majoring in neuroscience

Fredrick

Man

White

Student interested in engineering

Josh

Man

White

Student majoring in civil engineering

Johnsnow

Man

Egyptian immigrant

Student interested in economic and environmental science

Michael

Man

White

Mentor/instructor of meteorology

Kim

Woman

White

Mentor/instructor of geology

Thor

Man

White

Mentor/instructor of computer science

Xuina

Woman

White

Mentor/instructor of neuroscience

Lynn

Woman

White

Mentor/math tutor

John

Man

White

Mentor/instructor of engineering

Al

Man

White

Mentor

Martha

Woman

White

Project admin/leader/instructor

Dave

Man

White

Instructor of the composition course

Sheila

Woman

White

Tutor/student success coach

Note: All gender and racial/ethnic identities were self-identified. Participants picked their own pseudonyms.


DATA COLLECTION


Case studies often integrate multiple data sources (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). In our case, we primarily relied on qualitative interviews with both students and program staff, which allowed us to purposefully hone in on the experiences of highly informative participants who together offered a holistic view of the case (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). We collected student and staff interview data through semistructured protocols. The interview questions were broadly informed by the momentum framework including curricular, teaching and learning, and motivational domains. Further, the questions addressed how students experienced and engaged with various elements of the program as well as their faculty mentors and other program staff. The semistructured nature of the interviews enabled students to describe their experiences within the larger confines of the scholarship program, while leaving space for them to openly share insights arising from their experiences with courses, the program, and their general progress toward their educational and career goals. The interviews with program staff underscored their experiences working with the students and their perspectives of the program in their respective roles.


The lead author conducted all one-on-one interviews with students and staff participants in a private classroom at the community college during summer 2019. The interviews lasted about 60 to 90 minutes and were audio recorded with participants’ permission. In addition to this primary data source, we also incorporated other data sources to lend further context to the case, including students’ academic records, researcher memos, and field notes taken during data collection trips.


DATA ANALYSIS


We analyzed interview transcripts through two rounds of coding using MaxQDA, a qualitative data analysis software, complemented by manual coding when necessary. For the first round, we relied on the momentum model for deductive codes, taking note of patterns in the data that fell under the main domains of momentum. Concurrent to this deductive coding approach, we also performed inductive coding to honor emerging patterns from the data that did not fall under or fully align with the momentum model. After we closely examined the initial codes, we further organized them into larger common categories that speak to features, activities, and actions in light of our research questions about the program.


For the second round of coding, we looked within and beyond the categories derived from the first round to generate larger themes. These themes did not simply emerge from students’ and staff’s data as separate sources, but rather were a result of harnessing and reconciling findings from both sources. To illustrate, during both deductive and inductive coding, we paid particular attention to how findings from students and staff converged or diverged pertaining to the same emerging pattern or topic. For example, because financial support was a main component of the program, a wealth of interview data fell under reducing financial burden as counter-momentum friction. Within this domain, we sought to identify what financial support meant to students, as well as how program staff made sense of such support, and as a result of that, what approaches they employed to work with students.


We further looked into how the sets of student findings interface with staff findings to interpret any discrepancies or contradictions. During this process, we wrote reflective memos documenting our emerging interpretations of the case. Together, these approaches allowed us to grasp the complexities, challenges, and opportunities in support of STEM students at community colleges, which we depict in four themes within the findings section: (1) scholarship as a draw, not a solution; (2) structured support for aligned learning experiences and interest in STEM; (3) mandatory mentoring: a complicated and underfulfilled promise; and (4) institutional responsibility.


POSITIONALITY


Although we came into this research through a shared interest in the larger topic, our assumptions, presuppositions, and biases at each research stage were not always the same, given our overlapping yet distinct experiences, training, and backgrounds. The lead author identifies as an international, Asian woman scholar of color. As a faculty member in the field of higher education research, her work centers on community colleges and STEM education, often conducted through practitioner–researcher partnerships. Her prior research on community college students highlights the crucial role of financial support, an insight that might introduce preconceived directions in approaching this specific study. She was aware of this possibility as well as her privileged identities and backgrounds as a university professor. She strove to keep them in check throughout the research process, especially when interacting with research participants.


The second author is a graduate student pursing a PhD in Higher Education Leadership and identifies as an Asian international student. She gained prior relevant experiences on the topic through a semester-long internship at a large community college and pilot research projects on community college students for graduate-level courses. She recognized that her personal experiences as an international graduate student may come with assumptions and biases, especially regarding the demands placed on community college students—something she constantly reflected upon during data analysis and interpretation and tried to harness by focusing on students’ own narratives based on the transcribed information.


The third author identifies as a white woman and is a postdoctoral scholar whose research agenda is anchored in the transition experiences of community college students and faculty. Although she drew from her prior research that illuminated personal and external factors presenting barriers for community college transfer students, she worked to differentiate between the experiences of past and current research participants, to mitigate assumptions about student engagement with on-campus supports, and to identify potential blind spots introduced by her privileged identities.


Individually and collectively, we reflected upon our positionality during each stage of the research, and these reflections informed and guided our analysis and interpretation. Finally, we grounded our work within a strong belief that the lives and journeys of low-income community college students pursuing STEM studies are complex and inseparable facets and must be honored as such.


TRUSTWORTHINESS AND CREDIBILITY


Establishing trustworthiness and credibility was a priority throughout all stages of our data collection and analysis processes. To ensure validity and accuracy of the data, during and after the interviews, the interviewer asked follow-up, clarifying questions and restated or paraphrased participants’ responses in order to clarify “muddy” points and deepen researchers’ understanding and meaning making of what participants shared (Rubin & Rubin, 2012).


In the coding process, we also applied strategies to maximize reliability among multiple researchers. All three researchers were engaged with data analysis and interpretation in complementary roles as codes, categories, and themes were being developed and collectively reviewed. When divergent opinions occurred during this process, we unpacked our thoughts, assumptions, and approaches that might have contributed to the discrepancies, and referred to prior literature, our conceptual framework, the transcripts, field notes, and the original recordings. As a result of this calibration, we revised, added, or removed codes, as well as improved the wording of the codes for overall clarity and reliability of the categories. As we completed this iterative process, we closely scrutinized the resulting patterns and their interactions toward building the larger themes. During this step, we revisited our evolving reflective memos to reexamine or question our assumptions and suppositions that may have arisen before or during the research process, in an effort to keep in check our biases and assumptions.


FINDINGS


The scholarship program under our study forefronted students’ financial need by covering tuition and textbook expenses. It was also intended to act as a holistic support structure through paired mentoring, cohort-based activities, and other supplementary student services such as tutoring and transfer counseling. Through our interviews with the 7 cohort members and 10 program staff, we delved deeper into how the program actually worked on the ground, especially how students experienced the program’s various elements and supports, the barriers they encountered, along with how they navigated a complex set of expectations and assumptions from program staff. These dimensions were further brought to light through the interviews with program staff, who wrestled with an “ideal” support model for the scholarship program and what they identified as being needed to better serve these students. Because our case is rooted within students’ financial need, we turn to the findings around the complex role of the scholarship first, which also set the stage for the remaining themes—all anchored within the intricacies of financial support as a necessary yet insufficient mechanism for boosting student momentum toward success.


SCHOLARSHIP AS A DRAW, NOT A SOLUTION


All seven students in the program shared that the scholarship offered by the program was the primary reason they decided to attend this community college. Several students had actually considered applying to four-year institutions, but those options were financially out of reach because their families were struggling with limited financial means. Ricardo, who identified as a Mexican male student majoring in computer science, shared:


…when I was a high school senior, [representatives of a four-year institution] offered me $10,000 a year to go over. But then, I’m like…even with those 10,000, like that barely scrapes the surface of what I have to pay off after.


The amount of monetary support alleviated students’ pressing financial burden, incentivizing them to concentrate on their academic journey, especially during their first year. Some students, including Ricardo, described the scholarship as “one of the big motivators” for making academic progress, such as meeting the GPA requirement to maintain program eligibility. Based on students’ academic records, these incentives appeared to support almost all program students to make forward progress toward their educational goals. But the scholarship also represented a safety net when unexpected challenges arose. Fredrick, a white male student interested in majoring in mechanical engineering, had decided to temporarily leave the program for medical and mental health reasons. He believed that the financial support made it possible for him to come back when ready:


With the scholarship, it just helps ensure that I could go here. And now that I frankly have health issues, it’s definitely going to be the STEM scholarship that lets me come back, considering I don’t know if the PELL grant will still help me.


Although the scholarship drew students in and motivated them to stay on track even when facing adversities, such support could not offset all barriers these students were facing, including financial need in and of itself. Although on the surface, the students attended their community college for “free” with the scholarship award, a prevalent thought weighing on all students’ minds was financial concerns in the larger schemes of their lives and education. All from low-income backgrounds, the students often felt obligated to support their family through part-time jobs or caretaking, which took away from the time expected by program staff for their academic study.


Rosie is a great case in point. She came from a family of Mexican immigrants with limited means. Other than financial concerns, another big reason for Rosie to attend her community college was family. After sharing that the scholarship was a deciding factor that drew her to the college, Rosie added:


The distance from my family, because we’re very family-oriented. It would have been a bit hard to go to a school all the way in Texas or Minnesota, because like if there’s a family emergency, it is my role to be there, even if I’m hundreds of miles away. So that also contributed to staying locally.


Indeed, after starting college, Rosie continued to routinely take care of her younger brother and take charge of other family matters to support her mother, which limited her availability to attend the mandatory mentoring sessions or complete certain assignments on time.


Clearly, the reduced financial burden owing to the scholarship was welcomed by the students, yet as their experiences demonstrate, this support was not a cure-all for other permeating academic and personal challenges. The strong connections with families, as Rosie shared, serve as both a motivation and a pull that constrained students from fully participating in all program activities, which, as we illustrate later, collided with the expectations and assumptions of program staff. It is also worth noting that the students’ academic progress, such as their overall high GPA and promising transfer prospects, were also attributed to the various supports provided. However, program staff’s and students’ experiences and expectations did not always align, presenting a conundrum between well-intended practices or expectations, on the part of program staff, and feeling somewhat but not fully supported on the part of students. We turn to the following set of themes to unpack this further.


STRUCTURED SUPPORT FOR ALIGNED LEARNING EXPERIENCES AND INTEREST IN STEM


The highly structured nature of the scholarship program offered a clear on-ramp that smoothed some of the challenges during these students’ transition to college, often being the first in their family to participate in postsecondary education. A useful element was the program’s introduction to the college experience course, which students described as being helpful in preparing them for their field of study and navigating through and even beyond college. Fredrick was initially concerned about adjusting to college, but found the class to be a “really nice introduction to college from high school” that gave him a “heads up and streamlined the process,” an insight echoed by other students. The cohort structure also helped. For instance, Rosie described her transition to be a bit challenging, but having the structured support was reassuring. Also, as an aspiring neuroscientist, sharing interest in STEM areas with other cohort students through common courses and activities was a highlight during her first year, despite the fact that she was the cohort’s only female student.


Another emphasis of the program was ensuring a clear course-taking sequence that was well scaffolded in terms of difficulty levels and timing. The program staff, especially faculty members, viewed on-point course-taking guidance as essential for supporting STEM students with financial needs, because these students could not afford the burden of retaking classes. As Kim, a faculty member in geology, shared:


We are talking about science students…STEM in general, and they tend to load their schedules really heavy with a lot of difficult classes that require a lot of time and a lot of energy. Thus, I think the biggest thing coming from a low-income background would be to not have to retake classes.


This intentionality also extended into the courses taken by program students, in that faculty strove to purposefully infuse elements of STEM in both major and nonmajor courses as a way to immerse these STEM-oriented students within their areas of interest. Dave, an English instructor, shared his overarching thoughts around course design:


I used to tell [the students] we are building the future right here in the classroom.…I tried to get them to think that what we are doing now is not just a class exercise but is a conversation that is not going to end when the class is over. Hopefully, the course experience solidified [their STEM career goals] a little bit.


Dave’s approach was well received by his students. Jason, a white male student majoring in meteorology, shared how students were drawn to this STEM contextualized approach: “The English class first semester was like folding a science kind of aspect into the course.…We talked a lot about the future of robotics, and what’s going to happen in the future.”


Students further described their courses, both STEM and non-STEM, to be especially helpful when they could visualize a clear connection between students’ fields of interest and what was happening in the learning process. Johnsnow, a male student who identified as an immigrant from Egypt and who was pursuing environmental science, shared the following about his composition class where debates were facilitated on the economic and societal implications of robotics as well as ethical concerns pertaining to artificial intelligence:


Debating with my other peers and offering new perspectives on the topic really generated a lot of ideas when it came time to write the papers, because we’ve heard so many different perspectives that we could incorporate as many as we want into the essay. And I think it also greatly enhanced my writing in that class.


Further, students appreciated that faculty adjusted course designs to match their cognitive learning needs and career goals. As the only student athlete, Josh stated that “it was cool to have courses that were specifically made for this STEM cohort and generally based around STEM-like situations.…As a future engineer, that could have changed my perspective.”


Another feature of the structured support is supplementary tutoring that was exclusive to program students. The students shared that these tutoring activities were timely and helped further hone their preparation in areas such as math, chemistry, and physics. Fredrick utilized tutoring “to help catch up,” because he missed several days of study for family issues. Johnsnow highlighted the strength of the tutoring support for his chemistry course, because it “wasn’t particularly the easiest class to take.” He further shared that “every Thursday we would go to [the tutoring group], and that really helped me.” These proactive and intentional services allowed the students to “make tremendous improvement” in foundational skills. As Rosie explained, “studying on your own can sometimes be really difficult when it’s only like yourself.” Aside from supporting students’ learning, hands-on tutoring also reduced students’ anxiety around math learning and increased their confidence in transferring into STEM at a four-year college. Serving as a math tutor, Lynn shared her observation regarding Jason’s progress: “When he started getting confident in what he was doing, then he felt better about himself and…that driving force of ‘I’ve got to get this done so I can move on’ is also helping him.”


These features of the scholarship program illustrated collective responsiveness to some, if not all, areas of support beyond finances that students from low-income backgrounds may need. The ways in which program staff approached this structure, as well as how students experienced it, attests to its potential in developing students’ momentum in the curricular, teaching and learning, and motivational domains. However, beyond the structural aspects, the relational and interpersonal dynamics, especially related to mentoring, added a lot more nuance and complexity to how the program worked or did not work, complicating students’ forward progress.


MANDATORY MENTORING: A COMPLICATED AND UNDERFULFILLED PROMISE


Intended to provide holistic guidance on student development, the program assigned mentors based on the compatibility of faculty and students’ STEM areas of study. Pairs were expected to meet four times per semester, though the meeting’s content or structure was left open. Students described that mentors checked on their course schedules and academic performance, as well as discussed some program activities, transfer plans, and career prospects. By and large, students’ narratives of the mentoring experiences stopped at this “factual” level and they were appreciably hesitant to go beyond that. Yet, further unpacking our interviews with mentors and mentees allowed us to unravel more complexities underlying this mandatory mentoring practice, which was clearly embodied in the intriguing dynamic between Rosie and Xuina, a faculty mentor in neuroscience. On one level, Rosie and Xuina connected through their shared identity as women in STEM fields. Xuina often shared with Rosie the challenges associated with being a woman in STEM. Rosie recognized that Xuina was trying to set her up as a role model for other women and girls interested in STEM. This gave her lots of pressure but also motivated her to pursue neuroscience. On the other hand, there were times when Rosie felt that Xuina “pushed too hard” without considering her desire to “give up” to try something different.


Especially worth noting, though, was that Xuina did not fully understand why Rosie prioritized family over devoting more time to academic study. This illustrated a larger theme cutting across all mentoring pairs. There was an overall lack of understanding regarding mutual expectations and the mentor’s and mentee’s respective roles. Many mentors appeared to have internalized the belief that, as part of the “deal,” students as scholarship recipients should be responsible for initiating correspondence and operating in a manner aligned with mentors’ preferences. As a result, they tended to expect both proactive and compliant behaviors on the part of students in their mentoring relationship. Xuina’s perspective when describing Rosie’s inconsistent attendance of mentoring sessions elucidated this mentality:


I think for them to understand that you are getting this much money so that means there is a responsibility attached, and the responsibility is you’ve got to come and talk with your mentor so that loop is very valid. Right? Because you shouldn’t be expecting money has been given and you’ve got no responsibility around that. So I’d expect them to take out that time from their life and come and meet.


Although some mentors were proactive in initiating contact, including Xuina herself, they all shared the assumption exemplified in Xuina’s comment. For instance, Lynn expressed her disappointment in how Fredrick, her mentee, responded to her messages:


I had tried to call and left a few messages. At one point, [Fredrick] had texted me and said I just would prefer you to text everything. I told him that wasn’t the way I worked and I wasn’t going to do that, you know. And I just think maybe he was just, you know, your typical fresh out of high school type student.


Underneath mentors’ internalized idea of how program students should behave was a lack of deep understanding that financial support in the form of scholarship alone was not enough to mitigate the barriers they were facing, as we described in the first theme. Although mentors appeared to appreciate students’ financial concerns as a general issue, they failed to contextualize this conceptual understanding within their students’ individual contexts, which trickled down to their own practices and interactions with students. A particularly telling example was that some mentors were not able to fathom why students still took part-time jobs or opted out of tutoring activities when they felt that the students’ academic performance was below mentors’ expectations. Even though Josh had stellar grades, his mentor John, an engineering instructor, still believed that Josh needed tutoring. John went on, “There was, I think, a couple of cases in which students worked part time outside school and that was probably taking too much time away from school for them to prepare [for academic learning] properly.” Further, the comment by Martha, who served as the program leader and key administrator, was a larger reflection of a lack of perspective that would factor students’ family obligations and further financial needs into the whole picture. Describing how the scholarship was a full ride, Martha said, “I don’t understand why [students’ financial need across two semesters] changes, and I don’t understand why we are not just covering everything for everybody.”


Such a lack of understanding resulted in mentors often holding expectations that were overwhelming for students, which dominated their interactions with student mentees, leading to dissatisfaction and distrust. In fact, some students shared that these overwhelming expectations, as well as lack of receptivity and understanding, acted as barriers for building meaningful and trusting relationships. Fredrick admitted that he was not responsive to his mentor, Lynn, but only after failed attempts: “Although I haven’t been too in touch with her…I did try but I feel communications just broke down.” Expanding on this, Johnsnow explained why he was not particularly interested in seeking out mentoring:


I just never kind of took initiative to reach out. I guess much more, more helpful advisors, in a way, because one of the primary reasons why I never went to any of them was because I’ve heard like pretty bad stories regarding them, like how they’re not helpful at all, how they’ll tell you one thing when you’re supposed to do another. 


The disconnect between the well-intendedness behind the mentoring structure and less-than-satisfactory experiences on the part of the students had given rise to an unproductive cycle, where there was little space to reconcile differences and cultivate greater empathy, trust, and reflectivity, especially on the part of mentors. However, mentors themselves were also working hard with the best intentions to serve their students, and they were subject to the larger institutional structure and systems of support or challenges, a theme we touch upon next.


INSTITUTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY


The mentors’ inability to fully understand the effects of students’ financial barriers despite their scholarship receipt demonstrates a larger lack of institutional recognition of students’ holistic needs within and beyond the program. In fact, when sharing their experiences, several mentors had noted the need to establish a larger, consistent structure to guide mentoring practices and to develop their mentoring skills. As Kim, a faculty mentor in geology, put it: 


I wish that we had been given a more clear directive about exactly what we were getting ourselves into and what the expectations are, because, at first, we were kind of told, ‘Oh, you’ll meet with them a couple of times and you’ll just talk to them about science stuff’ and so, in the fall, that’s kind of what I did and I hated it because I didn’t feel much of a connection and I wanted to do things with Matthew that created a really deep connection.


Lynn also expressed the need for professional development, given the gaps between students’ needs and her own lack of training: “I felt like I was not able to help them with so many of the other things because I did not have the knowledge.…I need a resource to go to to be able to do that.”


Because of insufficient prior preparation, the mentors almost completely relied on their personal experiences from working in the community college setting and in their STEM areas, which was not fully conducive to building a high-quality mentoring relationship, as we explained in the previous theme. As a consequence, students, including Rosie, often had to find information “on their own” to progress further along their educational journey. Matthew, a first-generation student interested in geology, expressed his feeling that “nobody can really help” like a “sounding board” as he was making a general education plan. As another example, all on his own, Johnsnow found out information on credit transferability and financial aid, and gained admission as a transfer student to another four-year college. As he commented, “I kind of had to fill out [forms and applications] by myself.…It was kind of brutal but I’m happy it’s over and done with.” In some other cases, students had no alternatives but to seek support elsewhere on campus or from friends and family. Rosie, for example, turned to her college-going sister and cousins for suggestions and encouragement.


As a result, the complicated interpersonal dynamics, the inadequate professional development for mentors and other program staff, and the insufficiency of the scholarship award to address students’ larger life obligations ultimately piece together a larger institutional issue. It shows that not too differently from the larger community college student population, students in the program still largely rely on their own efforts to stay on track. It is incumbent upon program staff, but ultimately the institution, to provide the students’ strongest backing.


DISCUSSION


Overall, our findings show that the program and its staff were well intended to help build momentum for the students to advance seamlessly in their pursuit of STEM education and careers, but their intentions fell short in terms of delivering their full promise. Our study also lends further support and meaning to the momentum model (Wang, 2017) that serves as our conceptual lens. Although some aspects of the student experience were appreciably positive, such as those in the curricular, teaching, and motivational domains of building momentum, there is an overall lack of institutional understanding—as reflected in mentors’ mentalities and practices—of how financial assistance factors into students’ authentic contexts and core needs that reflect their holistic set of identities. This finding is especially problematic as students developed distrust toward their mentors, and the complex relationship dynamics detracted from forward momentum and caused additional friction for students who were already financially burdened while pursuing a demanding academic discipline. In the following, we focus the discussion on our findings’ implications in light of extant research, as well as policy and practice aimed at enhancing community colleges’ holistic support system for students.


The positive experiences that students described primarily pertain to the structural elements spanning various aspects of student learning and development. This result attests to the promise of offering holistic support that integrates financial aid with curricular and service components (Hatch & Bohlig, 2016). Further, this result resonates with the findings of Ngo and Astudillo (2019) that financial assistance acts as an incentive for students’ persistence and academic progress. However, although financial support was the students’ primary pull into the program and college, and alleviated their monetary pressure, it was not a panacea for the challenges with which students were faced. Financial concerns continued to permeate students’ college-going experiences. In many cases, they had to work off campus and were responsible for taking care of or contributing to their family’s expenses. The looming cost of affording tuition at their future four-year institutions was also a significant concern despite the immediate relief of the scholarship. All of this posed tension with the many requirements and conditions for being a program scholarship recipient. In this sense, our findings both align with and complicate the extant literature that supports the efficacy of financial assistance with wraparound support—often involving “intrusive” or “proactive” advising and mentoring (Donaldson et al., 2016; Thomas, 2020).


Equally intricate is our result regarding the mentoring relationships. Despite some positive mentoring experiences that were mutually meaningful and productive, the majority were overshadowed by complicated interpersonal dynamics, an issue accentuated by the lack of agreement between what students should be getting and what they were actually experiencing. There were pervasive misunderstandings about students’ situations, as evidenced by mentors overestimating how significantly the scholarship funds remedied students’ financial concerns. A direct reflection of such assumptions is not understanding why students opted out of tutoring opportunities in favor of working and tending to their family obligations. Thus, our finding both reinforces the pivotal role mentoring and advising play in community college student success (Crisp et al., 2018, 2020; Lunsford et al., 2017) and reveals new complexities regarding how that pivotal role can be a double-edged sword, especially if it does not fully embrace and honor students’ identities, needs, and styles of learning and communication. This result demonstrates the potential pitfall of intrusive advising, especially if it does not follow principles and practices of a culturally relevant and responsive approach that squarely centers community college students’ rich ways of knowing and learning, fully situated within and responsive to their diverse sociocultural backgrounds (Garte & Kronen, 2020; Ray, 2019).


Our findings also beg the question of why faculty were able to take supportive actions as instructors and tutors, but fell short as mentors? This paradox may be indicative of the challenging nature of translating prior knowledge and good intentions into mentorship. Although faculty mentors hold all existing knowledge and tools from their roles as instructors, the lack of clear expectations, guidelines, and structure makes it difficult to generate relevant advice in the mentoring capacity. Further and more problematic, although it is evident that students were resilient and determined to pursue their fields of interest despite the challenges they faced and the demanding nature of STEM, there were several instances of faculty mentors and program staff complaining about students’ lack of maturity or sense of responsibility, pointing to a severe gap between students’ strengths and their mentor’s (mis)perceptions. It appears that the structured nature of the program allowed faculty to infuse more intentionality into their teaching capacities, which aligned with their experiences and comfort level, whereas the mentoring capacity invoked a much more complex set of skills, mindsets, and practices that were new to and not quite attained by the faculty. Accordingly, they defaulted to a strong deficit-oriented thinking (Carales & López, 2020; Urias et al., 2016) in their mentoring roles. Although such a deficit orientation may also be present in their teaching practices, because this orientation in fact permeates education spaces, the dynamic and complex nature of mentoring made it that much more present and potentially detrimental.


IMPLICATIONS FOR POLICY AND PRACTICE


Our study has several implications regarding policy and practice for holistic support programs featuring financial incentives at community colleges. Above all, it is critically important to raise the awareness of and address the fact that the students need not only financial incentives, but also personalized, humanizing support through a holistic support system. In light of that, there is an urgent need for a much deeper understanding of the various structural barriers facing students from low-income and other minoritized backgrounds. Providing financial support is not an omnipotent resolution for these students’ persistence and academic progress. Only when those in supporting roles have full, authentic recognition of students’ challenges as well as strengths can they start to build a truly inclusive and holistic support system.  


More specifically, given the direct impacts that mentorship relationships have on students, it is pivotal to build instructors’ mentoring capacity, both in their skills related to content and delivery and, more importantly, in developing asset- and strength-based mindsets (AcevedoGil & Zerquera, 2016; Carales & López, 2020) in working with students. Given that faculty members often simultaneously serve as instructors, mentors, and tutors in such programs or community college settings in general (Finnegan, 2019; Fugate & Amey, 2000), their contributions are critical to facilitating students’ aspirations and progress. It is vital to build community among faculty, mentors, and advisors across the institution, especially those who are experienced in working with students from low-income backgrounds or other minoritized identities (Kezar et al., 2015).


For implementing holistic support programs, our research suggests that programs similar to the one we studied need to fully commit to a student-centered design and infuse more input from students and external partnerships within the community college setting. It may mean that institutions reconstruct and reconceptualize the mentoring model so that mentors and mentees establish a shared understanding of roles and program expectations. In particular, asking for student input about their desires, needs, and preferences regarding a mentor/mentee relationship should be used as the most important basis from which to build a foundational structure for a new mentoring model. It should also be an essential practice to integrate an assessment plan whereby data are collected regularly to be utilized by leaders and staff to plan for improvements. Above all, institutions should take responsibility for ensuring that those in supporting roles maintain a student-oriented vision that fully recognizes, respects, honors, and addresses students’ financial and other concerns, in order to support and build their forward momentum toward a point of success that matters the most to students.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 13, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 24034, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:28:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Xueli Wang
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    XUELI WANG, Ph.D., is the Barbara and Glenn Thompson Endowed Professor in Educational Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studies community colleges and STEM education, aiming to identify practices, structures, and policies toward transformative change for equitable student outcomes. A notable example of Dr. Wang’s work is her 2020 book “On My Own: The Challenge and Promise of Building Equitable STEM Transfer Pathways” published by Harvard Education Press.
  • Yunwei Wang
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    YUNWEI WANG is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include community colleges, STEM education, and international branch campuses.
  • Brit Wagner
    Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement
    E-mail Author
    BRIT WAGNER, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scholar at the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement. Her research addresses community college student and faculty experiences, as well as international student transition experiences. She recently published a first-author piece in Community College Review titled, “Tools in Their Toolbox: How Community College Faculty Transfer Industry Experience Into Their Teaching.”
 
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