Emerging Scholar Highlight
I’m Sarah Herrmann, a SPSSI member and assistant professor of social and community psychology at Weber State University. I’m pleased to share some information about my work and the importance of pursuing impactful research. Broadly, my program of research explores the impact of underrepresented identities (e.g., social class, ethnicity, gender) on experiences and performance in academic contexts. My research has two primary goals: to better understand experiences for marginalized students and to use what we learn to improve outcomes.
One area of my research examines first-generation college (FGC) students’ cultural transition to college. While colleges have recently increased recruitment of FGC students, these students have lower grades and persistence. Past research has taken a deficit perspective to explain this achievement gap, focusing on poor preparation or ability. However, I argue that first-generation students face a unique structural barrier: managing different cultural identities from working-class home and middle-class university contexts. I adapt research on biculturalism to understand how first-generation students manage their social class identities, what I term social class bicultural identity integration—the extent to which one’s working-class and middle-class identities feel compatible.
My research with Michael Varnum demonstrates that integrated social class identities are linked to increased grades, persistence, and physical and mental health for FGC students. This relation was mediated by acculturative stress, such that students with integrated identities experienced lower stress, thereby increasing physical and mental health. These effects extend to first-generation college graduates, for whom integrated identities are positively associated with job satisfaction and professional engagement.
More recently, we have utilized archival Census data that demonstrates that FGC students who come from neighborhoods with more college graduates have increased identity integration. This is consistent with research on role models, that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Additionally, we’ve begun to probe the mechanisms underlying the effects of identity integration on performance; namely, students with integrated social class identities have increased academic self-efficacy, which mediates the impact of identity integration on performance.
Data from a recent intervention suggests that identity integration is malleable—that we can increase perceptions of compatibility between home and school identities—and can improve performance for FGC students. I am currently testing this scalable intervention framework, which uses a letter from a senior student to educate first-generation students about the cultural transition to college and to encourage them to think about how their identities are compatible. I will examine its effect on academic performance at the end of students’ first-semester and first-year of college.
Expanding definitions of what it means to be bicultural provides the opportunity to understand and improve students’ experiences and performance. Specifically, this framework suggests that one important component in reducing the social class achievement gap is to inform FGC students and universities about the cultural changes involved in the move to college. We can also increase identity integration by emphasizing the strengths that first-generation students bring with them to college and stressing ways that their social class identities are harmonious and compatible, rather than focusing on their deficits.