“I Can Actually Do This!”: Undergraduate Conference Activity in Arizona State’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) (Brendan H. O’Connor, Nicole Maestas, Seline Szkupinski Quiroga)

This post discusses how conference experiences empower migrant/seasonal farmworker students as producers of academic knowledge.

Undergraduate scholars from Arizona State’s College Assistance Migrant Program pose at the 2019 MALCS (Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social) Summer Institute

Prior research has linked undergraduates’ participation in conferences to their subsequent academic outcomes. Undergraduates who attend and present at conferences have opportunities to take on expert roles and see themselves as knowledge producers to a degree that is rare, for many students, in classroom settings. They also cultivate relationships with professional mentors and develop skills and competencies that serve them well in graduate school.

How do conference experiences differ for undergraduates from traditionally underrepresented groups? We set out to answer this question in our research with conference-going students in the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at Arizona State University (ASU), US. CAMP is a (US) federally funded initiative to recruit, enroll, and support migrant/seasonal farmworker students during their first year of postsecondary education. Migrant students are from families who move within the country during the course of the year to pursue agricultural work or other seasonal jobs (e.g., in salmon fisheries) and face distinctive educational challenges as a result. 

Arizona State’s CAMP promotes the notion that migrant undergraduates are knowledge producers–not just in the sense that they have insightful personal experiences to share, but that in theorizing their experiences, they can generate academic knowledge that is regarded as legitimate in professional settings. Dr. Seline Szkupinski Quiroga–the CAMP Program Director, an anthropologist, and our research collaborator and co-author–described this as an intentional element of the program’s design, which she and other CAMP staff implemented in a variety of ways.

During their first year, ASU CAMP Scholars take a qualitative research methods class that Seline developed specifically for the program. Students are introduced to the basic methods of participant observation, field notes, oral history, ethnographic interviewing, and autoethnography. More importantly, the class emphasizes Latinx/Chicanx epistemologies and reflexive approaches to research, such as testimonios (personal narratives that reflect wider social and cultural struggles for justice) and incorporates guest presentations by Mexican American and other Latinx researchers who share the students’ cultural background and exemplify Seline’s commitment to bridging the personal and the academic.

All ASU CAMP Scholars carried out an original qualitative research project based on primary data collection and with a research question focused on the self, family, or community. Students presented their findings at the end of the methods course to their peers and invited guests and also had the opportunity to present their research to the larger campus community as part of a CAMP research symposium.

However, CAMP staff also encouraged students to submit their work to academic conferences where it might find a receptive audience, including the annual meetings of the National Association for Chicana/o Studies (NACCS) and Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS), or Women Active in Letters and Social Change. These were not conferences devoted to undergraduate research, but rather were leading professional meetings for US ethnic studies scholars. Other conferences that were attended related to students’ majors (e.g., biosciences, mathematics) where they did not present but attended as an emerging researcher.

The program supported students’ conference participation logistically, academically, and financially. Seline and other CAMP staff assisted students in preparing abstracts and roundtable proposals; guided them through the submission process including choosing appropriate discussants; they held pre-conference sessions for the students to practice giving their presentations and answering questions; and they helped students make arrangements for travel and lodging. CAMP also covered conference registration and professional organization fees for the undergraduate presenters. Members of the research team attended the practice sessions and end-of-semester class presentations, where we were able to interact directly with CAMP Scholars around their work. Then, following students’ conference attendance, we asked them to reflect on their experiences of preparing and presenting research for an academic audience. These conversations revolved around students’ identity and how their ethnographic work had shaped their self-image in relation to research and higher education.

In some ways, what we found agreed with prior research on undergraduate conference attendance. For example, some CAMP alumni identified their conference experience as a catalyst for their interest in graduate school.  An alumna named Vanessa and one of her peers developed and presented a 75-minute workshop for other undergraduates at the HEP/CAMP Southwest Leadership Conference. This was Vanessa’s first experience presenting in a conference setting. She commented that she found confidence through the presentation and realized that she was capable of pursuing an advanced degree and career in student affairs: 

I hadn’t really had an opportunity presenting, like doing it in front of students … outside of schoolwork …  more than anything. So being up there just kind of, like, made me realize, “Oh, I can actually do this.”

Other participants—like Sabrina, who, after the conference, said “There’s no stopping me. I know I can do the work”—echoed Vanessa’s belief that she had gained confidence by presenting. The experience of presenting their own research strengthened their academic identity and thus bolstered their sense of belonging at the university. Having a connection to the workshop audience through shared identity also enhanced Vanessa’s experience as a presenter:

It kind of felt different because I knew them and I knew how to, like, act around them and how to present.

Vanessa’s experience also supports others’ research findings in that she developed increased self-efficacy—her belief in her ability to accomplish her goals—as a result of presenting at the conference. What was different and noteworthy about the experiences of conference-going CAMP Scholars was that they connected their increased self-efficacy and career aspirations to a desire to give back to their communities (we call this “relational self-efficacy”) and a stronger sense of cultural integrity. Vanessa went on to complete her Master’s degree in Higher Education and began working in a university program devoted to expanding access to higher education, making her an outstanding example; but she was not the only one.

Eliana described herself as “lost” and lacking purpose upon arriving at the university but excelled in conference settings: she presented at both NACCS and MALCS and had her digital story shown at the Arizona Teachers Institute. After her conference experiences, she realized, “I did not do this for myself but for my family [and other] migrant kids, more than just myself. And it gave me more purpose to be … at the university.” She is now applying to graduate school.

Josefina said that crafting and sharing her testimonio “helped [her] connect with [her] community” in southwestern Arizona and inspired her to consider how her academic training could benefit her community after graduation. On a personal level, Jack said that the process allowed him to understand that he didn’t have to “play into [the] norm]” of an undergraduate “college kid,” and that he could pursue academic success without hiding his Mexican identity. He looked forward to becoming a role model for other students from migrant/seasonal farmworker families and demonstrating that academic success did not require cultural assimilation.

We do not want to paint an overly rosy picture. Predictably, CAMP Scholars encountered a range of challenges attending conferences, from logistical issues with travel—on one occasion, a cancelled flight resulted in a group of student presenters missing their panel—to feeling unprepared and overwhelmed when confronted with graduate student and faculty research in their field. Conferences were less transformative, generally speaking, for students who did not go through the long-term process of preparing and presenting testimonio, which underscores that the impact of conferences themselves should be seen in the context of students’ academic development over semesters or years.

With respect and gratitude for existing research on undergraduate research participation, we offer the following take-away insights from our project:

  • Like other undergraduates, students from historically marginalized communities—in this case, migrant/seasonal farmworkers in the US—benefit individually from academic conference participation in several ways: access to mentorship and networking, stronger graduate school and career aspirations, and increased self-efficacy as researchers.
  • Conference experiences strengthened migrant students’ sense of belonging at the university and in their academic or professional fields.
  • Conference participation also built students’ relational self-efficacy, or their confidence that their academic endeavors would benefit their home communities and “students like them.”
  • Conference participation is especially impactful when undergraduates have opportunities to become knowledge producers without facing an either-or choice between their academic and cultural identities—in other words, when they can engage personal and family history in the process of knowledge production.
  • Finally, conference participation is most meaningful in the context of a long-term process of academic identity development—as students developed expertise in reflexive research methodologies, took inspiration from other Latinx scholars, discussed and practiced their research presentations with faculty and peers, and reflected on their experiences afterwards—and not as a one-off event.

 About Brendan H. O’Connor, Nicole Maestas, Seline Szkupinski Quiroga

Brendan H. O’Connor is a linguist and anthropologist of education. He is an associate professor in the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University and editor-in-chief of Anthropology & Education Quarterly. Other work from the ASU CAMP project appears in Journal of Latinos and Education and International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. His book Multilingual Baseball is forthcoming in May 2023 from Bloomsbury Academic. Find out more about Brendan’s work on Research Gate.

Nicole Maestas will graduate from Arizona State University in May 2023 with a major in political science and minors in Spanish, Russian, and statistics. She worked as an undergraduate research assistant on the ASU CAMP project.

Seline Szkupinski Quiroga is program director and co-principal investigator of the College Assistance Migrant Program at Arizona State University. She received her PhD in medical anthropology from the joint program of the University of California at San Francisco’s Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine and UC Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology. She is an anthropologist with 25 years of applied research experience with immigrant, refugee, farmworker and other marginalized communities.

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