Written by Megan Herdt,recent Elon University graduate and current graduate student in the counseling psychology doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
As an undergraduate psychology student at Elon University, I performed a qualitative study with ten low-income students using sedentary and walking semi-structured interviews. My study was a strengths-based exploration of the ways in which my participants navigated through their mostly white, mostly affluent institution. My participants were first-generation and continuing generation students that identified as black, biracial, Latinx, Hispanic, and white. They also varied by affiliation with scholarship cohorts, gender, religiosity, sexuality, and year in school. I conducted one round of sedentary semi-structured interviews that focused on participants’ applications and acceptances to college, transitions to college, experiences while at college, and the influences of their identity dimensions on their experiences. In the next academic semester, I performed walking interviews with participants. Each participant brought me to between three and five places that played significant roles in their college experiences. The walking interviews focused on sense of belonging, development, and the salience and influence of participants’ identity dimensions.
My findings included various strategies that participants developed to help them navigate through their institution. These strategies and approaches include striving for authenticity, expanding one’s analysis of social categories, and becoming a social justice advocate. I also developed a list of suggestions that the university can implement to bridge the sociocultural incongruities between itself and its low-income and other minoritized students (Devlin, 2013).
As both a researcher and as a fellow student who shared the campus and many student experiences with my participants, I became a participant-observer during the walking interviews. My experiences as a student influenced my perceptions of and way of being in the places that participants brought me to, as well as the ways in which I asked interview questions and the ways in which I moved through participants’ interview guides. The flexibility of semi-structured interviewing gave me freedom to adapt my interviews, so I was able to respond to spontaneous conversations that naturally emerged as I strolled through my campus with my peers. Throughout the research process, I critically reflected on my positionality as both a researcher and a student and the influences of my positionality on my data collection and analysis — I took detailed field notes containing summary, analysis, and reflection within twenty-four hours of each interview.
Many strategic uses of place emerged through the walking interviews as participants brought me to the following types of places:
- academic buildings that housed participants’ majors
- racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious identity organizations
- scholarship offices
- outdoor on-campus locations such as lakes, fountains, benches, and even specific trees
- on-campus residence halls.
These strategic uses of place often revolved around the mentoring relationships that participants had developed from people in specific locations. Academic buildings and support from the professors within enhanced participants’ academic, scholarly, and student identities. For example, one participant called her academic major building “a fortress that has no little gate, nothing out there that can change who I am as a person…while I’m here I make it so I don’t think about any of that stuff and I only focus on what I need to be focusing on and going to professors.” The racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious organizations that participants belong to, along with the friends, peers, and staff affiliated with those organizations, fostered participants’ development related to that specific dimension of identity. From the time another participant spent in a campus-designated space for Hispanic students with his friend group, he learned to integrate his “real self with being Hispanic and being a [university] student…We aren’t just [university] students and we aren’t just Hispanic. We’re Hispanic, [university] students.” Scholarship offices, cohorts, and affiliated staff were tremendous forms of support for participants receiving those scholarships. Many participants who were affiliated with scholarship programs described those program spaces, along with their staff and peers, as places and people that provided complete acceptance and freedom for self-expression.
Outdoor locations on campus functioned as neutral spaces that participants were able to adapt and appropriate for their own personal needs. These places were often locations that were free from the marginalization and isolation that participants encountered in campus-sanctioned spaces. One participant regularly visited an on-campus water fountain because of her personal connection to water, and she related the essentiality of water to the essentiality of herself: “Just the meaning of water and how it’s essential to life and how humans are essential to life and people are essential to life and then I am essential to my life. And I have a place on this campus and I’m going to make a big impact one day…”. Lastly, on-campus residence halls functioned as cues for participants’ reflections on past experiences, inspired participants to share meaningful stories, aided participants in constructing narratives, and stored both memories and past selves.
Devlin, M. (2013). Bridging socio-cultural incongruity: Conceptualising the success of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds in Australian higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(6), 939–949. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2011.613991