6573 Circles of Support for Native American STEM Majors

Friday, February 17, 2012: 3:00 PM
Room 119-120 (VCC West Building)
Jessi Smith , Montana State University, Bozeman, MT
Native Americans are extremely under-represented in STEM. This study investigates the influence of social support structures on Native Americans’ persistence in STEM and how these support structures are, in turn, dependent on acculturation to Western ideals and gender. Social support is conceptualized as the size or diversity of one’s social network, assessed using the Social Network Questionnaire, a series of concentric circles (inner, middle, outer) on which students map the number and relative importance of individuals in their social support network. We surveyed Native American STEM majors from two universities as they started college (Time 1) and again in their second semester (Time 2) and conducted in-depth interviews at Time 2. Analyses of variance results show that both gender and reported level of acculturation at Time 1 significantly interacted to predict the number of respondents’ inner circle and middle circle supporters of their STEM pursuits at Time 2. Outer circle supporters did not significantly differ.  Further, among Native American men, inner and middle circle support was greater for those who were more *assimilated* into Western culture, whereas for Native American women, both levels of supporters were greater for those who identified most strongly with Native traditions.  Follow-up analyses showed that for both men and women, middle circle support (important acquaintances, but not close family and friends) predicted a student’s success in connecting with a university advisor, feelings of belonging, and persistence intentions in STEM. In-depth interviews suggest a more nuanced understanding: social support from specific acquaintances may drive these effects, for example, mentorship from a student further along in their university career (who has *made it*) with ties to their reservation community appear to provide important inspiration to Native American students, particularly to women students. The importance of middle supports for Native American students’ success in STEM is counter to popular ideologies of scientists and engineers as independent minds.  Our results suggest it is particularly important for Native American students to foster meaningful social connections with their STEM peers, classmates and mentors.  Understanding the influence of gender and acculturation on these support structures will allow us to develop support programs that better serve this population.