Look at me now! : Exploring identity narratives of first generation, Mexican-American college students



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Although the Mexican population continues to be the largest Hispanic group in the United States, educational attainment is not increasing at a proportionate rate. First generation, Mexican-American students continue to have low enrollment in higher education institutions and high levels of attrition. Socioeconomic variables and ethnicity have correlated highly with these outcomes for thirty years, and programs have proliferated to address them, without much impact. Perhaps we need new approaches. This study investigates the lived experience of students attempting a university education. The goal of this research was to take the topic of educational achievement one step further by exploring identity development factors for first generation, Mexican-American college students via personal narratives. Researchers have long observed that people come to make sense of life via stories (Bruner, 1990; McAdams, 1985; Sarbin, 1986). Personal stories help to make sense of the past as well as foresee the future while helping to define current identity via recalling and/or retelling stories, particularly for emerging adults.
Identity creation and negation was explored via McAdams’ life story model of identity: identity is an ever changing life story that strives for psychosocial unity and seeks purpose in relation to the world.

The data collected from sixteen first generation, Mexican-American students at one university revealed that factors such as familial connections, cultural capital, generational immigration status, and self-discovery opportunities contribute to the ongoing creation and negotiation of identity. The outcome was the development of an identity soundboard which provides a visual representation of identity factors, each with its own control button, which is constantly adjusted according to individual experiences and narratives. The significance of these results is two-fold. One, it provides students and educators with a new perspective on identity development which can translate into new ways to address academic retention, attrition, and success. And two, it provides identity researchers with a new, customizable model with which to explore a variety of identity development processes, adaptable to specific research interests.

The Hispanic community is a key player to the nation’s economic future, making efforts to foster a well-educated workforce a priority. Colleges and universities stand to benefit from a tailored approach to outreach and retention of students. It is by obtaining a glimpse of students’ reality that we can, as faculty, staff, and administrators, make changes that can positively affect their educational experience and outcome.