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Educational identity formation and transformations: Life-history analysis of first-generation, adult college students

Tucker, Natalee Danea

The purpose of this qualitative research was to explore how educational identities were formed and transformed within educational institutions over the lifespan and how the identities were related to decisions about education. Cultural (re)production theories provided the framework for analyzing the ways which inequality was reproduced through social institutions, specifically educational institutions. This research utilized a life-history approach to explore the educational identities of first-generation, adult students enrolled in the first year of an associate degree program at an urban, multi-campus community college in the Midwest. The life-history narratives revealed that schools are important sites where students interpret messages about who they are within educational institutions. These messages form educational identities that impacted educational decision-making. Educational identities were not fixed, but transformed over time. For the participants in this study, distressing early educational experiences contributed to the formation of educational identities that were disengaged, self-critical, and dejected. These educational identities contributed to the students' decisions not to attend college directly after high school. Later in life, life circumstances pushed first-generation, adult students to consider enrolling in college. Educational identities formed during early schooling shaped initial emotions about returning to school. Students discussed cognitive and behavioral strategies they used to overcome self-doubts related to educational identities and features of the community college environment that enabled transformation of educational identities. The findings have implications for cultural (re)production theories and school reforms related to educational inequality, including student engagement and college enrollment stratification.