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  • gina garcia

HSIs Need a Culturally Responsive Approach to STEM Undergraduate Research Program Recruitment

In this month’s ¿Qué pasa, HSIs? blog post, Dr. Mara Lopez argues that Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) need a culturally responsive approach to STEM Undergraduate Research Program recruitment and retention. HSIs are the most compositionally diverse colleges and universities in the United States, not only enrolling Latinx students, but a considerable number of Black and Asian American students too. Yet HSIs are still trying to figure out how to serve this diverse population. I, Dr. Mara Lopez, argue that a culturally responsive approach is the answer. I created the Culturally Responsive Recruitment and Retention (CRRR) framework and explored how it can be used in recruitment and retention of historically marginalized students in STEM fields.

To be culturally responsive is to view students through an asset-based lens and to be intentional about creating equitable and inclusive spaces for them.The process for being culturally responsive is cyclical. As students learn from educators, so too do educators learn from students. Geneva Gay defines culturally responsive teaching as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for students.” As educators, we have the opportunity to embrace students’ cultural attributes, integrate them into the classroom, learn from them, and encourage students to embrace them within the academic process. Additionally, research has shown that cross-cultural mentor/mentee relationships can increase a student’s sense of belonging by fostering culturally inclusive environments. Cultural responsiveness asks educators to implement cultural values and practices into goals, curricula, and methods so as to contribute to the overall growth of both teachers and students as they learn from one another. Cultural responsiveness also requires that we reflect on our own cultural lens and our pedagogical and educational practices. One of the primary aims of responsive practice is to decrease educational disparities and increase success for oppressed populations.

Informed by the literature and in an effort to ensure participation of students from historically marginalized populations in STEM at HSIs, I created the Culturally Responsive Recruitment and Retention (CRRR) framework to be utilized as a tool to recruit and retain marginalized students into undergraduate research experiences (URE) in STEM. The CRRR framework has five main tenets:

  1. knowledge of the context where recruitment will occur;

  2. awareness of the demographic being recruited;

  3. recruitment that is fair, equitable, inclusive, asset-based and bias-reduced;

  4. connection and engagement with students early on and as often as possible, fostering a sense of belonging that will ultimately enhance retention;

  5. critical reflection on recruitment and retention processes to ensure they are inclusive, intentional, equitable and student-centered.

It is critical to reflect on previous action and implement changes as necessary to continue to attend to the needs of the increasingly diverse student population.

In the summer of 2022, funded by a small National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, an R1 and newly designated HSI utilized the CRRR framework for their 8-week STEM summer URE. Faculty mentors and graduate student mentors were provided with training on how to utilize the CRRR and how to create an inclusive URE for undergraduate students from historically marginalized backgrounds. The goal was to create a process for continuous knowledge development surrounding the recruitment and retention of students. The recruitment process required faculty mentors to think more critically about how they review resumes and relevant work experience and conduct interviews. In implementing an approach informed by the CRRR, they shifted how they review resumes, as they were in the practice of only recruiting students with some years of experience and 4.0 GPAs. This, historically, has been the practice for recruiting for most UREs but it is an exclusionary practice. So instead, faculty learned to look for relevant experience, interest in STEM, and moderate to no experience even. The goal was to give more students the opportunity to participate in the URE. This goal was achieved and more students with varying GPA levels and experience were successfully placed into the summer URE. In the interview process, instead of asking questions that were highly scientific (e.g., asking specifically about student’s experience with polyurethane materials), faculty asked questions about their science-related experiences, their interest in STEM fields, and the knowledge they had acquired in their science classes.

In an effort to assess retention aspects of the framework, students were interviewed at the end of the URE and asked questions inspired by several sense of belonging surveys. Students were asked whether or not they would like to persist in STEM, if they felt they were heard, if they felt included in the learning experience, and if they felt the faculty mentors trusted in their abilities to engage in science learning; the overwhelming response was, “yes.” Students were excited to continue learning and putting into practice what they had learned in the lab. Faculty and graduate student mentors participated in a semi-structured interview and shared that they felt “better equipped” to engage with students from diverse backgrounds. This provided some evidence to support the notion that if faculty engage with the students early on and throughout the URE, they will help increase a students sense of belonging and potentially, their retention in STEM. While the overwhelming response related to the implementation of the CRRR framework was positive, more research is needed to understand the broader impacts of the CRRR and to continue exploring the retention aspects of the framework.

I suggest that HSIs use the CRRR as follows:

  1. As you prepare your URE recruitment process, consider the first two steps as critical components in that process. Awareness of WHO you intend to recruit is important. If you intend to recruit Black and Brown students, be sure you are aware of what their needs are, what they bring to the table (e.g., their assets and community cultural wealth) and how you can serve them in a culturally responsive manner.

  2. As you review recruitment materials and applications, consider using steps 3-4 to ensure that your approach is inclusive and not just focused on the needs you might have for your grant or URE. Ask yourself what Black and Brown students need that is unique to their experiences and communities.

  3. Be mindful of how you are meeting the needs of historically marginalized students and how you can better serve them; assess and evaluate your recruitment and retention practices as you move through each stage of the process, and continue to refine your approach in response to students.

As practitioners, we are given the charge to serve students and continuously improve upon our pedagogical/mentorship practices. Being culturally responsive can create more inclusive learning environments and more opportunities for students to sustain in their respective programs. By implementing a CRRR Framework for UREs, practitioners can broaden participation for historically marginalized students, increase their sense of belonging, and strengthen student retention.

Dr. Mara Lopez is a full-time Senior Research Program Manager and part-time Faculty Associate at Arizona State University (ASU). In her work at ASU, a newly designated HSI, she works to develop culturally responsive practices and increase the intentionality with which institutions work with Latinx students in STEM. You can reach her at and via Twitter/Instagram @moximara

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