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  • Mentorship During College Transition Predicts Academic Self-Efficacy and Sense of Belonging Among STEM Students
  • MaryBeth Apriceno (bio), Sheri R. Levy (bio), and Bonita London (bio)

The demand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates has increased significantly over the last decade. Because of the insufficient number of STEM graduates, this demand has not been met, resulting in a significant shortage of STEM workers in the US (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). By 2025, the US is projected to have over 2 million unfilled STEM jobs. This shortage is even more pronounced among groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM, for example, women, African Americans, and Latinxs (National Science Foundation, 2018). Meanwhile, diversity in STEM companies has been shown to relate to greater company earnings, productivity, and perceptions of inclusive work culture (President's Council, 2012). It has become increasingly clear that a key contributor to this shortage is the difficulty in retaining college students in STEM majors. Chen (2013) reported that 48% of college students majoring in a STEM field switch to a non-STEM major or dropped out before completing their degrees. STEM majors have a higher attrition rate than non-STEM majors, and the attrition rate is even higher for underrepresented students in STEM programs (Wilson et al., 2012).

The first year of college has been identified as a critical period when attrition in STEM typically occurs (Chen, 2013), highlighting the need to study this period to understand why. Indeed, the transition to college has generally been emphasized as a significant life phase in which goals and doubts are paramount and have great influence on how students [End Page 643] negotiate academic and personal stressors in the short term and long term (Ruble & Seidman, 1996). Analyzing data from the World Health Organization's World Mental Health International College Student Initiative, which included more than 14,000 students from 19 colleges, Auerbach and colleagues (2018) found that more than one third of firstyear college students reported symptoms of mental illness severe enough to meet diagnosis criteria as put forth by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with the most common disorders reported being major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Meanwhile, researchers have estimated that only 15% of students seek counseling during their first year of college (Auerbach et al., 2018). During this educational transition, students are more likely to compare their performance to that of their peers, making them sensitive to perceived underperformance; underrepresented minorities pursuing STEM majors may be even more vulnerable (London, Rosenthal, Levy, & Lobel, 2011). Thus, attention to and appraisal of one's performance may be more likely to impact students' academic self-efficacy at this critical juncture. The transition to college also exposes first-year students to new environments, relationships, and academic challenges that influence their sense of belonging (Ahlqvist, London, & Rosenthal, 2013). Feelings of not fitting in (i.e., low sense of belonging) have been shown to predict disengagement, poor academic performance, and dropping out of school among first-year STEM students (Ahlqvist et al., 2013; London et al., 2011).

It is timely and crucial to identify factors that can reduce attrition among STEM majors at the start of college. Findings from a small segment of the literature spotlight a possible key buffer against attrition: the availability and quality of mentors and mentoring relationships. Mentors are relevant adults who provide guidance and advice and serve as models for success in their field (Blake-Beard, Bayne, Crosby, & Muller, 2011). Previous research has shown that college students with mentors earn higher GPAs (Campbell & Campbell, 1997) and are less likely to drop out (Wilson et al., 2012) than students without mentors. Our prior work found that exposure to role models in STEM fields leads to greater interest in pursuing a STEM career (Rosenthal, Levy, London, Lobel, & Bazile, 2013). With higher rates of STEM attrition during the transition to college, when academic self-efficacy and sense of belonging are particularly vulnerable, early mentorship (i.e., at the start of the first year) may be the most effective strategy to retain students in STEM programs, particularly underrepresented minorities.

Many mentoring relationships occur as a result of informal relationships that...


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