DegreeEconomics and Statistical Science ’22
Much warranted attention over the past few decades has been devoted to the problem of retaining minorities, particularly women, in areas where they are poorly represented such as in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Race and ethnicity are salient factors, and minorities comprise fewer than one in ten scientists or engineers. However, very few, if any, studies investigate the motivations for the pursuit of STEM and STEM-retention among international students enrolled in North American colleges.
In an effort to advance knowledge about international students, I used my Bass Connections Student Research Award to conduct a study about U.S.-bound Kenyan students enrolled in the Kenya Scholar Access Program (KenSAP) in order to identify factors that motivate the pursuit of STEM within four broad themes:
- Financial correlations
- Cultural and familial influences
- U.S. foreign policy
- STEM identity
My study examined the impact of environmental, psychological and cultural aspects as well as attitudinal, character and educational achievement in the career selection process and persistence in the STEM disciplines for these high-achieving but economically disadvantaged Kenyan students as they prepare to enter American colleges.
My project not only provides rich insights into the lived experiences of these Kenyan scholars but may also have broader implications for higher education practices and support American educational institutions in their quest to better understand and develop strategies for the successful retention of international students in STEM.
I was supposed to use my Student Research Award to travel to Kenya for field research, but my plans took an online turn with the onset of COVID-19. Instead of in-person interviews, I used videoconferencing, phone calls and online questionnaires for data collection. After collecting data during the summer and fall of 2020, I worked on analyzing the data under the guidance of my faculty mentors during the school year and then worked on compiling the results into a manuscript this summer, which I submitted for consideration to an undergraduate journal.
As for results, class and gender tend to be the axis of power in most societies, and Kenya is not any different. These KenSAP scholars see an American college education as their key to breaking out of the poverty cycle. Motivations to perform well in their chosen STEM major, and, more generally, in college, were particularly high among students from single-parent families, where mothers had labored alone to support their children monetarily and emotionally over the years. The future monetary benefits of an American STEM education were perceived by these students as a way of repaying their families for their support over the years and securing a better future for their younger siblings.
Interest in biomedical and medical fields was mostly spurred by family events such as a family member’s premature death because of the lack of proper medical care and equipment in their village, town or, more generally, in the country. The study also showed that female students in the cohort intending to pursue STEM were a double minority, since stereotypes about normative gender roles appeared prevalent among the group. Interestingly, these Kenyan women will be a triple minority once they enter American colleges, based on their race, gender and class.
The study also showed that the U.S. OPT STEM extension, which allows foreign-born STEM majors to work in the U.S. for a total of 36 months (about three years), was not a motivating factor for the pursuit of STEM, since students were unaware of any employment restrictions and procedures associated with their student visa. However, most of the students expressed a desire to work in the U.S. post-graduation.
I am deeply grateful to Bass Connections for the wide array of opportunities it has presented me with, ranging from archival research about Duke’s architectural and budgetary developments during the Cold War to using big data methods to analyze attitudes toward oral contraceptives on Twitter. Bass Connections helped me seek an intersection between my multidisciplinary interests, spurred my curiosity and engrained a deep appreciation for research. For example, this summer project was a great platform to build on my work with Duke SPIRE, through which I help women and people of color persist in STEM and create platforms for discussion of structural inequities persisting in the scientific community.
I intend to continue to further the cause of international students and minorities in STEM fields through research and applied projects and look forward to the upcoming discoveries and milestones.