Both Jamie and Judy struggled to persist in a competitive atmosphere given the tensions they described between structures related to program, course, and schedule expectations and their gender and class. The major persistence-related tensions described by Judy and Jamie included: (1) differing experiences in lecture and lab, (2) managing time for work, studying, and family, and (3) weighing academic/career and personal priorities. For Judy and Jamie, the ways in which they respond to these tensions comes through in their interpretations of their persistence in which they show alliance, or affinity, with either the academic culture or home culture.
Experiences in Lecture and Lab
Judy and Jamie's evaluations of their science courses were different depending on whether they were discussing the lecture or laboratory component of the course. They struggled to keep up with the amount of lecture material to remain competitive, but they enjoyed and felt successful in their laboratory classes. Judy discussed how the school as a competition narrative was a comfort to her peers most of the time because she did not have grades as high as they did in the upper level science courses in her major. In the laboratory component of upper level science courses, however, a student's ability to be a competitive threat shifted from grades to the performance of skills.
I've always loved lab and probably my favorite one, I've had two at [SU], I've had the microbiology lab and I've had basic lab skills. I have to say that the microbiology lab was the best, it was awesome, just because like a lot of it was hands on work, like probably 80 percent of it was hands on work, and I was always the best one at it. (Judy, I-2)
Jamie also enjoyed her course lab components more than the lectures, and like Judy, felt more successful in them.
As the technical part I understood that a lot and I'm really good at that, you know, being really steady, accurately measuring, contamination, stuff like that. Streaking. I can do that stuff really well. (Jamie, I-2)
Judy noted that her relative success in performing these skills in labs compared to her peers resulted in them treating her as if her lecture grades were the true measure of her science ability. Judy described it as a positioning of her as the “stupid” one, as a non-competitor:
They don't understand why I'm so good in lab … I mean they usually do the experiments and they come out wrong, or they do them sloppy, or they're contaminated, or they can't remember how to do the steps, or they're so nervous that they mess something up, or they're just not good at it. But for me, it's fast, I just do it and I'm done. (Judy, I-2)
Judy felt positioned as a non-competitor because, despite her feelings of success and the laboratory instructor's acknowledgment and recognition of her lab abilities, her peers would not accept her help in lab. Judy explained their actions by saying that labeling her as stupid and positioning her as a non-competitor made them feel better about themselves and that was why they did not want to acknowledge her success in lab settings.
Jamie felt that practical skills in lab were important, though often overlooked as a priority. She thought that the practical skills developed in lab classes were just as important for success in a science career.
I mean you may be able to pass the genetics test, but then not really know how to draw something up in a syringe or in a pipette properly. It was halfway through the semester and there were people in our class that we found out were not using the pipettes properly. So I mean it's a good time to just learn those things that are really basic but necessary if you're going to do anything practical wise in science. (Jamie, I-2)
Jamie felt that the more abstract science knowledge in her lecture classes was not the only valuable learning focus in science and complained about working with partners with less practical know-how. In describing her experiences, Jamie positioned herself as superior to them in common sense and lab techniques.
I think I would have liked [lab] more if it hadn't been in partners cause … even my lab write-ups I had to deal with another person and I have extremely aseptic technique and I would have to be like, ‘You can't blow the bubble out of the test tube. You are blowing your DNA in there and this is a DNA sample. What is wrong with you?’ I mean I thought that I was going to seriously strangle that person … how is this experiment going to work if you can't even understand that there are germs in your mouth? (Jamie, I-2)
Jamie could not understand how a person doing better than her in the lecture component could have no common sense in the laboratory component.
Jamie's evaluation of the importance of practical lab skills, like Judy's evaluation, are not only related to her feelings of success in lab, but also to the connection of the skills to jobs that they are interested in seeking after graduation.
Lectures for me are hard, they're difficult, but whether it's in the garden or in a lab or you know outside doing whatever, all you have to do is explain it to me one time and I got it. As long as it's hands on. (Judy, I-3)
Both Jamie and Judy understood that the demands of being in the medical field were not just about your ability to memorize abstract information and perform well on written tests, but to be able to technically execute physical procedures. Their success in the laboratory components of science courses helped them to feel more competitive, and more persistent towards their science-related career goals, despite the fact that a larger proportion of their grades in these courses came from lecture components.
In a competitive learning environment, Judy and Jamie struggled with upper-level science course loads. Managing time was a constant balancing act as they struggled with finding time to work, studying course material, and managing personal relationships.
As a full-time student while working two part-time jobs, Judy struggled with going to classes and labs during the day and working in the evening.
Usually I can't work unless it's like second shift and as you know second shift usually goes to like 10 or 11 o'clock at night which is really hard, especially if you're going to school and you have to work and you have no time to study. (Judy, I-2)
Though both Jamie and Judy knew their working hours changed their study habits, they did not have the option to be unemployed, as both were supporting themselves through school.
While taking a full-time load as a biological sciences major, Jamie also worked full-time. She would work the night shift so that she could attend her classes and labs during the hours these courses were typically offered (8 am–4 pm). Though this flexibility in her working hours helped her to maintain full-time student status, she knew she was missing out on opportunities to participate in study groups with fellow classmates.
I definitely know that they get together and study and I'm at work. And then I can come meet them after work, but by that time they've already studied for three or four hours and they don't want to study. So I end up studying by myself. (Jamie, I-2)
As a result of having a job, Jamie knew she could not participate in the social learning that her classmates were involved in outside of lecture.
While Judy and Jamie knew they needed to find time to study outside of work and classes, both specifically mentioned their difficulty with the amount of material they were expected to cover. The struggles they noted pertained to gender and class related constraints. Judy lamented that she had different constraints on her time to study than her peers because she had to maintain a home for herself.
Like a lot of them still live with their parents or their parents help them out a lot, so they don't have to worry about the extra stresses of life and I do. So it's like I don't have enough time, I don't have the time that they have, the flexibility that they have. Like I don't go in my room and study while my mom cleans my room and washes my clothes and pays my cell phone bill and makes dinner. Like I don't have that, so I think it makes it a lot harder on me than some of the others. (Judy, I-2)
Judy felt that her need to support herself through school was an academic disadvantage in that it not only constrained her time to study, but the additional burden of not having someone to take care of her domestic needs took away time that her peers had and were using to study.
While Judy focused on the burden of her home situation as a major time constraint, Jamie focused on the sacrifices she made in managing her time to remain successful and competitive.
I didn't get to go home for Easter where I'd planned on [being] … I was just like, there's no way, and I ended up studying all weekend long and not getting to go see my family and doing anything. But I did really well on the test but without doing that I wouldn't. It's just a lot more information that they pack into it and they'll expect you to know all of it. So it may not be that [science] is any harder, it's just the expectations of what you ought to know is really high. (Jamie, I-2)
Though she valued time with her family, especially at the holidays, Jamie felt that her sacrificing time with them was what she had to do in order to be successful.
Interestingly, while both Jamie and Judy talked about the significant expectations for science majors for out-of-class studying time, neither one of them mentioned specific courses or instructors. They talked about the significant out-of-class time commitments for learning lecture material in science courses in general as if was a matter-of-fact consequence of majoring in science. Additionally, neither one mentioned difficulty in keeping up with out-of-class work from the laboratory component of their courses. The tension of managing time to work, study course material, and maintain personal relationships is a result of the conflict that Judy and Jamie felt between the structures of undergraduate science learning environments and their gender- and class-related constraints.
Longer Period for Finishing Education
Both Jamie and Judy felt that their families were emotionally supportive of their decisions to attend college, even if they could not be financially supportive. However, they still felt tensions between their own academic goals and the expectations their families had for their personal lives. For Jamie, this tension came up when responding to a question about how her family felt about her attending college. Jamie admitted that while her mother did support her, she did not really understand why Jamie was going to the trouble to get a college degree:
She just wishes I would just hurry up and get married so that I would be someone else's problem because until I'm married she feels that I'm still like a child. But once I'm married then she's very much, like once my sister and my brother got married she doesn't call. Like you have your own life, you have your own family, then she stops kind of making sure you paid your tag, you know those kind of things, you know she'll leave you alone. But I think they do think that it's like a burden that I've put on myself for no reason. (Jamie, I-1)
Jamie recognized that her mother felt that she had misplaced her priorities on school instead of on family-related goals, like being a wife. She admitted that her academic goals were not valued in the same way by her parents, and that particularly her mother did not understand why she was delaying her progression towards family goals by remaining single.
Jamie's explanation of her choice to remain single was because she felt as if she could not remain an academic competitor while having a boyfriend.
It just really took me breaking up with my boyfriend … my grades were suffering, and as much as it sucks, I mean, that's something that you have to give up, it's a sacrifice … which really sucks especially for [him] because he's like, ‘It's awful to know that the person I care about the most cannot succeed with me around.’ And I'm like, ‘It's not you, it's the time.’ I work full-time and I'm in school full-time and it takes every second of my day to do this, so it's a sacrifice. You have to be ready to sacrifice a lot of things. Time is the most valuable thing. (Jamie, I-3)
Jamie's desire to persist as a science major at SU was strong enough that she was willing to sacrifice not only time spent with her family, but also goals that were important to her family for her personal life. She assented to the expectations of undergraduate science degree programs over the expectations of her home culture. Jamie felt confident in her persistence in her major, was looking forward to her graduation after one more semester of classes, and was already starting to apply for medical programs.
Judy, however, was struggling to feel persistent in such a competitive learning environment. When Judy discussed how she dealt with the competitive atmosphere, she tried to remember advice that her step-grandmother gave her:
She knows all about my family and when I get down, she tells me, ‘Look at your family, just look at your family’ … I mean they're all construction workers and factory workers and drive trucks and I mean they didn't get any type of education. So I guess if you compare me to that, it's great. But I don't compare myself to that because we have different goals in life. I compare myself to the people that have the same goals as I do, and when I do that, I'm on the lower end of the scale, ‘cause I mean, those are the people I got to go up against in life and that sucks. (Judy, I-2)
Judy's step-grandmother encouraged her to use her family as a reference for comparison in order to feel good about the progress she has made towards her academic goals. Judy, however, did not want to use her family members as a reference. Judy recognized that she was not competing with her family members in school or in the job market because of their lack of education. Judy felt like she was competing to find her place in the world, competing to persist in reaching her goal of becoming a doctor, but also in moving class positions. She acknowledged that she was starting out in the competition “on the lower end of the scale” because her family background was in a lower class position than that of her peers. Judy emphasized that her feelings about her persistence towards her goals were in relation to those she was comparing herself against. She knew that because she held similar ambitions to her classmates, her evaluation of herself as an academic competitor was in reference to them.
A major part of Judy's feelings of lack of persistence was related to her attempts to balance the personal goals she shared with her home community and her academic goals. Judy wanted to be a doctor and a mother, yet she felt as if these two goals were valued differently amongst her peers from college and her high school friends. Judy's vacillation between these two goals—in terms of career ambitions (college peers) and motherhood (high school friends)—mirrored the tension she felt between two different lifestyles. Judy discussed her personal and academic goals in relation to those she perceived her high school friends to hold:
Would I rather live almost paycheck to paycheck and have a house, a home, and a husband and family? Or would I rather wait on that and live a little bit better than paycheck to paycheck and do it ten years after everybody else that I know? ‘Cause I mean I'm 25, and every single one of my friends have kids, every single one of my friends have a house and a husband … and it kind of makes me feel like I'm behind. (Judy, I-2)
Judy referred to cultural priorities related to her gender and her class that she shared with her high school friends—the importance of young motherhood. Judy alluded to the idea that being 25 years old and not yet having children was beginning to push the boundary of how long she was willing to delay starting a family. She questioned her comfort in putting off this personal goal in order to continue to prioritize her academic goals. Judy felt that not only her social class position but also her gender made weighing the importance of her academic and personal goals more complex. Her recognition that in order to raise her social class position, she may have to delay her personal goals put Judy into a situation where she questioned both her personal and academic goals. Judy recognized the class- and gender-related constraints and their influence on her persistence towards her academic goals.
One of the reasons Judy felt conflicted between academic and personal goals was in the length of time necessary to reach her STEM career goals.
I'm looking at my major and I'm seeing, you know, am I ever going to get done? Am I ever going to pass these classes? Am I ever going to actually graduate? And when I actually graduate, how old am I going to be? … So it's really difficult cause I feel like I'm missing out on a lot … being a mother and having a family is something that's really important to me, and at my age, I'm 25, and if I just keep waiting and keep waiting, the harder it is going to be for me. (Judy, I-3)
Like Judy, Jamie's friends from high school did not share her academic ambitions. Unlike Judy, however, Jamie talked about how she felt different from her high school friends now that she was a college student and close to graduation. She felt as if her friends from home were no longer able to relate to her.
… [my friends] weren't even going to high school. They had babies and were doing other things, so it it's not like, I mean I could talk to them, but I don't think they could relate. And then it also, if you are talking about how your big experience is at school, that causes a conflict too because they're not doing those things. Are you looking down on them? Are you judging them? Are you rubbing it in their face that you think you're better? It's a big, you open up a can of worms with that. (Jamie, I-3)
Jamie explained the consequences of trying to remain friends with people from home and using those friends as a social support. She felt she could not talk about her experiences at college with her high school friends because they would feel positioned as inferior when she would talk about her college experiences. Jamie listed a number of ways her high school friends reacted to her talking about her experiences, all of which involved possibly negative evaluations of people who do not attend college.
Jamie felt distanced from her high school friends due to their reactions to her gaining different life experiences by nature of moving away from home and attending college. Jamie felt as if these reactions contributed to her losing their friendships over time. She no longer considered herself as having close relationships with her high school friends:
Yeah, I don't know any of them … unless I was going to stay there and live the same life that they do, yeah I mean it had to be that way. (Jamie, I-3).
Jamie felt as if her life experiences in college changed the nature of her friendships because she no longer felt as if she held things in common with her high school friends. Her choice to attend college caused her to start a new life and gain new life experiences—experiences to which her high school friends could not relate. This divergence in their life paths, Jamie believed, caused both herself and her friends to feel positioned as different, and, therefore, that this distancing from her high school friends may be a consequence of her choice to pursue social mobility as well as her choice to attend college.
Jamie said she initially mourned the loss of her high school friends, even though she came to see this loss as inevitable:
Sacrificed or let go? Which is it? Because am I really sacrificing that much by not having a child and not being able to send it to college? … Like when I think of sacrificing, I think of like connotations of you're giving up something that is worthwhile. Was I giving up something that was worthwhile really? (Jamie, I-3)
Figuring out how to explain your experiences and the experiences of others has consequences for how you interpret the position of others in society, which includes people such as friends and family. Though Jamie lost her state-sponsored scholarship and had to withdraw from school, she re-enrolled and worked full-time to pay her way through school. Her determination to graduate and get a science degree was evident in the gender- and class-related decisions she described making to keep her education a priority in her life: working full-time to pay for school, ending romantic relationships in order to maintain a higher grade point average, and skipping family holiday celebrations in order to study. Jamie felt that her academic journey as an undergraduate science major was a success as she looked forward to graduation. She was not worried about how her life was moving her away from her cultural background.
R: What do you think has helped you persist as a first generation student?
J: I guess my desire to succeed. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I want to fit in with the other side and I had to choose, am I going to be here forever, or if I want to fit in with this other side that has things and does normal things. I mean, that's how I feel about college people and people who aren't. Like people who have like college degrees and professions and who aren't blue-collared construction workers and homemakers and things like that. I do. It's like a whole other side. (Jamie, I-3)
Jamie developed a negative evaluation of her friends’ social class position. Jamie's friends did not seek social mobility, so when she thought of whether or not she had sacrificed their friendship in order to persist, she admitted that she simply “let go” of their friendship, because their friendships might be worth less, just like the life they were living—that she was trying to move away from—might be worth less. Her negative evaluation of other people from home who had not accomplished what she had aided her in seeing the loss of her high school friendships as a reasonable cost to her social mobility.
Despite Jamie and Judy both recognizing the conflict between the gender- and class-related values of their cultural backgrounds and expectations of their undergraduate science programs, their interpretations of their persistence within these programs is related to their affinity with either their school or home culture. Their choice of affinity to their school or home culture, therefore, reflects their constrained agency within the structure of their undergraduate science environment.