2021 CoNECD

Conceptualization and Situating of Sense of Belonging Among International Engineering Doctoral Students: In Light of the Previous Literature

Presented at CoNECD Session : Day 1 Slot 6 Technical Session 1

According to the recent report ‘Science & Engineering Indicators’ (National Science Board [NSB], 2018), the US positions as the destination for the largest number of international students worldwide in the fields of science and engineering. International students who possess citizenships from 225 countries earned more than half of doctoral degrees in engineering in 2017, which reflects the diversity in citizenship among the student population (NSB, 2018). Recently published national reports also support the existence of diversity in citizenship in STEM graduate education. For example, citizenship was included in diversity indices along with the traditional measures in the recent report ‘Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century’ (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2018). The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NSF National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics [NCSES], 2019) also categorized students with ‘temporary visa holders’ under ‘Underrepresented Minorities’ in their biennial report, ‘Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering’ (NSF NCSES, 2019). International students remain a very understudied population, despite the acknowledged diversity in citizenship among STEM graduate students (Gardner, 2010). This has led to a call for further investigations of the international student population for the purpose of moving toward inclusion from diversity, since diversity does not guarantee inclusion.

Belongingness is a construct that has garnered some interest in studies of inclusion. It is one of a number of ways psychologists refer to the fundamental human need for social connection (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Maslow, 1954). Sense of belonging was introduced to education as a precursor of students’ integration (Spady, 1970) and serves as a measure of the perceived degree of inclusion in an academic unit. The concept is still evolving because of its transitory characteristic that can change according to the contexts. The student population at all levels of education in the context of the current US education system continues to diversify. This has resulted in a call to view the concept of belonging as complex, multi-faceted, and impacted by extra-institutional factors (Ingram, 2012). An emphasis has also been made to take account of disciplinary-specific characteristics, such as student demographic characteristics and departmental culture (Curtin et al., 2013; Gardner et al., 2014; Twale et al., 2016). Most research in engineering education examining belonginess has focused on undergraduate students despite the significant number of international students in engineering doctoral education. These studies rarely consider citizenships. Recent research in higher education investigating the international population in engineering doctoral education has shown engineering doctoral students displaying a relatively lower sense of belonging in their academic unit compared to students in other disciplines (Gardner, 2010). Differences in sense of belonging were also reported between domestic and international students (Curtin et al., 2013; O’Meara et al., 2017).

Our earlier work (Lee et al., 2018) advancing understanding of international doctoral students’ sense of belonging investigated the students’ experiences that are perceived to have positive or supportive influence on their sense of belonging. The findings include a conceptual model that demonstrates the different constructs of belongingness, (e.g., academic sense of belonging, sociocultural sense of belonging, and perceived institutional support) and the influence of these constructs on students’ interpersonal interactions with different groups of people (e.g., faculty, peers, and staff) (Lee et al., 2018). The majority of sense of belonging research in education suggests the presence of academic and social belongingness in relation to peer and faculty interactions (Goodnow, 1993; Hoffman et al., 2002; Tinto, 1993). Staff interactions emerged as an added component of student perceived institutional commitment when research was broadened to investigate marginalized groups of students (Fisher et al., 2019; Ingram, 2012; Yao, 2015). Our findings demonstrate alignment with underrepresented students’ sense of belonging research in terms of conceptual structure according to the previous literature.

New questions have arisen during analysis due in part to constructs with the same or similar names having varied definitions across the literature depending on the characteristics of the study population (e.g., level of education, citizenship, and group representation). For example, Ingram (2012) and O’Meara et al. (2017) revealed different criteria to categorize ‘academic’ and ‘social’ sense of belonging based on the varying experience at different levels of student education (e.g., undergraduate vs. graduate). Baek (2013) and Lee et al. (2018) also note the greater role of culture in the developmental process of social sense of belonging only for the international students. The majority of existing studies exploring domestic undergraduate students suggests a need to further clarify how the conceptual meaning of sense of belonging varies among diversified groups of students, i.e., graduate students or international students, and why.

The larger project in which this paper is situated aims to support the inclusion of international engineering doctoral students. The project consists of four phases: 1) understanding student experiences of sense of belonging in relation to their interpersonal interactions with people in their academic unit (e.g., faculty, peers, and staff); 2) conceptualizing and situating international engineering doctoral students’ sense of belonging with that of other student populations (e.g., undergraduate students, domestic graduate students, and other underrepresented students); 3) developing and testing a measurement to assess students’ perceived sense of belonging; and 4) measuring students’ sense of belonging and investigating the interrelationship between individual attributes and academic and career outcomes, i.e., career mobility intentions. The current study presents aspects of the second phase as a precursor in developing a sense of belonging measurement that effectively diagnoses international engineering doctoral students’ perceived magnitude of inclusion. The systemic approach taken in these two phases to conceptualize belongingness across different groups of students proceeds instrument development in order to provide additional validity evidence for the impending instrument.

This paper has two primary goals. First, we intend to conceptualize the constructs of sense of belonging from our earlier work (Lee et al., 2018) to provide a working definition for the given context. Second, we will situate international engineering doctoral students’ sense of belonging using a literature review of belongingness among different students populations (e.g., undergraduate students, domestic graduate students, and other underrepresented students). Previous literature, including our previous work (Lee et al., 2018), will be used as data to achieve these goals. The resulting working definitions of belongingness constructs among international doctoral students will be adopted to develop items for the third phase of the overall project.

The future implications resulting from the developed conceptualization and measurement will be useful for faculty and administrators. Faculty members will have the information needed to inform social support that can enhance the international engineering doctoral students’ perceived belongingness. Administrators will have data evaluating the current status of social support from different groups of students, which can be used to identify satisfied and unsatisfied students’ belonging needs.

  1. Dr. Jennifer M. Bekki Arizona State University [biography]
  2. Dr. Nadia N. Kellam Arizona State University [biography]
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