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Author ORCID Identifier
Open Access Dissertation
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Year Degree Awarded
Month Degree Awarded
Ryan S. Wells
Chrystal A. George Mwangi
Working-class students experience numerous barriers in accessing and persisting within higher education. These barriers are often amplified at public research institutions that facilitate greater social class diversity, career opportunities, and degree completion, but cater to middle- and upper-class students. The result is a contrast for working-class students in which higher education can serve as a tool for social mobility while also reinforcing barriers that reproduce class inequality.
In this dissertation, I used narrative inquiry to conduct 44 interviews with 24 working-class students regarding their social class meaning-making, perceptions of class-based allyship, and sense of belonging. All three concepts have been empirically explored as ways to promote the development and retention of other marginalized groups, but rarely applied to social class. Understanding of these concepts illuminates strategies to better support students on campus while challenging systems of classism broadly.
Findings from this study fall into three categories. First, obstacles that working-class students encounter prior to and during the transition to college facilitate an internal meaning-making process. Through this process, students are able to challenge stigmatized views of social class to frame their working-class backgrounds as asset-filled. Second, working-class students define the goals of class-based allyship as sustaining students already within college rather than challenging classism on campus. Allyship thus was perceived as affinity spaces, financial resources, and navigational support. Third, working-class students viewed sense of belonging as something that they created rather than provided by institutions. While participants experienced varying degrees of connectedness, support, and belonging, they rarely felt valued on campus.
Implications of this research suggest a need to re-evaluate traditional concepts used within higher education to better understand the variance within working-class identity, allyship, and sense of belonging. Participants’ experiences emphasize the importance of shared values, particularly related to work ethic, responsibility, and social justice, in creating communities and relationships. Results also suggest that institutions should do more to celebrate working-class students and the assets they bring to campus while infusing cultural competency into existing resources to make them more accessible.
Bettencourt, Genia M., "(Social) class is in session: Examining the experiences of working-class students through social class identity, class-based allyship, and sense of belonging" (2019). Doctoral Dissertations. 1653.
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