Tag Archives: first-generation college students

Cross the Stage: Underrepresented Students’ Challenges and Mentoring Needs in Strategic Communication Programs

Editorial Record: Submitted June 1, 2022. Revised September 2, 2022. Accepted October 25, 2022. 


Jiun-Yi Tsai, Ph.D
Associate Professor
School of Communication
Northern Arizona University 
Flagstaff, Arizona
Email: jiun-yi.tsai@nau.edu

Janice Sweeter*
Associate Director and Associate Professor of Practice 
School of Communication
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona
Email: janice.sweeter@nau.edu

Amy Hitt*
Associate Professor of Practice
School of Communication
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona
Email: amy.hitt@nau.edu

*Two authors contributed equally.

Underrepresented populations are beginning to increase in the public relations (PR) industry and PR university degree programs. Yet, scant literature has investigated the challenges encountered and mentoring resources needed for underrepresented students to be successful. Guided by an intersectional lens of social identities, we conducted 14 semi-structured interviews with strategic communication students who identify as first-generation, Hispanic/Latinx, or African American. Thematic analysis reveals three interconnected themes, suggesting cognitive, socio-emotional, and identity development needs and solutions exist. This study highlights the importance of faculty mentors, identity-based clubs, and classroom peer relationships in building the resilience required to flourish in strategic communication college programs. It is essential to foreground culturally responsive mentorship and pedagogy from a communicative approach, because relational connections serve as support systems to bolster underrepresented students’ identity and increase a sense of belonging.

Keywords: DEI, first-generation college students, social identity, mentoring, PR education


Despite efforts committed to improving diversity, public relations (PR) professionals and leaders still grapple with the issues of equity and inclusion (Stansell, 2020). Disparities are identified on both gender and racial dimensions in the PR industry (Meng & Neill, 2021). According to the 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) concerning PR specialists, 83.7%  were white, 18% Hispanic or Latino, and 12.3% Black or African American, reflecting a positive increase in diversity from 2018 (Chitkara, 2018); however, statistics like these explain why the PR industry has been called “too white,” noting that many communities do not mirror these demographics and blaming inequities on the employee “pipeline” of higher education (Landis, 2019). Indeed, scholars have argued the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace is a result of the lack of diversity in college classrooms (Waymer & Taylor, 2022).

As PR has historically been a feminized field, race and gender identities deeply shape students’ experiences with PR education (Brown et al., 2019). Findings remain inconclusive. White and female respondents reported a more positive undergraduate experience in PR programs than their underrepresented and male counterparts. Underrepresented groups were less likely to develop support networks and feel comfortable interacting with peers (Brown et al., 2019). Contrarily, Waymer and Brown (2018) found underrepresented groups’ race and ethnicity did not hinder academic success among young professionals. Although fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) gains scholarly attention, less is understood about underrepresented students’ challenges and their needs for culturally responsive resources for mentorship in colleges. Scant literature has approached mentoring programs related to DEI beyond race and gender identities. 

With increased first-generation students and diversity among the student body of strategic communication programs in the United States and a scarcity of literature concerning these populations, especially in communication-related arenas, a systematic investigation is needed. Mentoring relationships are essential in helping minority students shape leadership ability (Christie & Baghurst, 2017; Payne et al., 2021), but institutional mentorship programs do not necessarily consider the needs of underrepresented students’ social identities and values. To bridge these gaps, we conducted 14 semi-structured interviews with underserved students (e.g., first-generation, Hispanic/Latinx, and African Americans) majoring or minoring in strategic communication in a four-year public university. The strategic communication program offers emphases in advertising and PR and is the second largest in the Southwest region, serving over 380 majors. 

The findings advance the DEI and leadership literature in two ways. First, this research sheds light on the less known challenges of building relational connections with professors and seeking identity validation. At the same time, underrepresented students negotiate the feelings of not fitting in or not being seen. As such, reliance on student organizations/clubs, close circles of peers, and a few trusted mentors substantially bolstered their identity development and supported socio-emotional well-being. Second, we identify resources to increase retention of underrepresented students and build leadership quality for career preparation. The timely investigation offers pedagogical and theoretical implications of culturally responsive mentorship to foster DEI in PR education. 

Literature Review 

Lack of Racial and Gender Diversity in Senior Leadership

Given the dominance of Caucasian men in management positions, research has emphasized the racialized leadership landscape (Logan, 2011). Few females and minority professionals advance to senior management in PR. While females accounted for 75% of PR practitioners, only 20% held top leadership positions in 2021 (Kalogeros, 2021). Over 100 U.S.-based PR and communication organizations reported that 93% of top leaders were White, 6% were Black, and only 1% were Hispanic (Glover & Hill, 2021). White men represent 63% of executives, with 24% white women; trailing far behind, black women, Hispanic women and other racial and ethnic groups comprise less than 5% of leaders (McKinsey & Company, 2021). This discrepancy is prevalent in several industries, including K-12 education and higher education (American Association of University Women, 2016).

Gender and racial disparities in senior management are driven mostly by structural barriers. Women and people of color in PR faced biases in promotions and experienced workplace discrimination (Pelham, 2019; Pompper, 2014; Topic et al., 2020). Mentoring relationships will potentially empower underrepresented groups to overcome barriers and cultivate leadership skills (Place & Vardeman-Winter, 2018; The Plank Center, 2018). To guide our exploration, we discuss sensitizing concepts to inform the research questions and serve as interpretive lenses (Tracy, 2020). The following sections outline lived experiences, social identities, and challenges specific to underrepresented students. 

Underrepresented Students and Low Sense of Belonging

Underrepresented students include “racial/ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, students from lower socio-economic households, and students in underrepresented majors” (Cook-Anderson et al., 2015, p. 5). First-generation students (FGS) are those attending college while neither of their parents or guardians have completed a four-year degree (U.S. Department of Education, 2020), representing over half of undergraduate students in 2016 (RTI International, 2021). Four-year universities attempt to enroll diverse students and develop institutional resources to promote retention (Ezarik, 2022).  

However, the multiple unique challenges and inequalities FGS face must be addressed, including a lower rating of belonging, greater levels of stress, and lower use of campus services (Stebleton et al., 2014). Longitudinal survey results showed that students of color had lower levels of psychological well-being compared to White peers (Koo, 2021). A 2022 survey of 1,073 FGS revealed that 42% of participants feel like they partially belong or do not belong on campus (Ezarik, 2022). Consequently, these students demonstrate lower enrollment and retention/graduation rates than their counterparts with college-educated parents (Cataldi et al., 2018). Low-income status can also affect students’ ability to succeed in college, as the inability to afford tuition is one of the top reasons for students to drop out (Redford & Hoyer, 2017). 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted underrepresented students in Southwest states with a large Hispanic population. Dubbed the “Class of COVID-19,” students who attended college between spring 2020 and spring 2022 experienced historic challenges (iCIMS, 2022). “These educational disparities, while spurred by COVID-19, perpetuate the structural barriers that continue to limit opportunities for communities of color to use higher education as a pathway to social and economic security” (Ahn & Dominguez-Villegas, n.d., para 12).  During the pandemic, college students who were racial/ethnic minorities, of lower-income class and FGS had higher levels of psychological impacts and lower sense of belonging (Browning et al., 2021; Gopalan et al., 2022; Lee et al., 2021). These populations were affected disproportionately because of economic and food insecurities, a lack of quality access to broadband, and the need to help siblings while attempting to maintain their own schoolwork (Barber et al., 2021). FGS reported that academic institutions failed to support their needs during the pandemic disruptions (Scharp et al., 2022). 

Strategies for Underrepresented Identities 

Social identity theory posits that individuals categorize themselves based on intersections of race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Students carry multiple identities to college and may shift among them (Scisney-Matlock & Matlock, 2001). As argued by Waymer (2012), social class is a particularly relevant identity in PR, where students in lower social classes feel separate from those in higher echelons, with the effects magnified by racial distinctions. Identity is a core concern for underrepresented college students as they seek belonging, while navigating cultural considerations, influences of peers and faculty and their own insecurities; this can manifest in isolation or “imposter syndrome,” when high achievers are unable to accept their success, attributing their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability (Weir, 2013). Imposter phenomenon is particularly prevalent among African American college students (Peteet et al., 2015) and FGS (Gray et al., 2018). Payne et al. (2021)’s research of help-seeking strategies for first-generation students applied a strengths-based approach to mitigate imposter syndrome by spotlighting students’ accomplishments when seeking resources. 

While a strengths-based approach to academics has proven effective, many teachers and students tend to focus on improving weaknesses instead (Gordon & Crabtree, 2006). “Honing in on weaknesses creates a mindset that is preoccupied with fault, deficits, and failures in organizations and people” (p. 48). Although students may not be able to overcome completely low talent levels concerning the challenging subjects they are forced to take in college, incorporating a growth mindset about their learning abilities has been shown to help them perform better than the students who maintain a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2016).

Other studies focused on the complexity of familial and community ties related to first-generation students’ identities (Bettencourt, et al., 2022) and the explication of personal attributes, including work ethic and interest in making a positive impact on the world (Stewart, 2022). Tinto (1998) showed the correlation between students feeling connected academically and socially and their likelihood to persist in earning their degrees. Mentoring relationships that are sensitive to the students’ social, academic and personal needs are generally more successful in greater student graduation and retention (Christie & Baghurst, 2017; Sarcedo, 2022; Tinto 1998). 

Experiences of othering are added stressors among students of marginalized identities. “Otheringthe set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities” (Powell & Menendian, para. 9) can have devastating effects, leading to students feeling isolated, distressed and unsuccessful (Peteet et al., 2015; Udah, 2019). Another important element is self-identification. Some FGS don’t define themselves with this label, usually only applying it when seeking institutional resources offered to this subgroup (Bettencourt, et al., 2022). Still, FGS at predominantly White institutions felt like outsiders, excluded, or invalidated compared to wealthier non-FGS peers (Havlik et al., 2020). To cope with identity threat due to otherness, underrepresented students may identify solutions to nurture core identity, develop and use communication networks to build resilience and find a safe space (Scharp et al., 2022). Marginalized students tend to adapt self-presentation strategies like “passing” and “code switching” to modify their behavior, clothing, language, etc., in different environments to feel like they belong (Gray et al., 2018). Code switching is common when students address a professor or someone in authority (Gray et al., 2018) and for upwardly mobile minorities in professional settings (Morton, 2014). These strategies partially help students preserve their cultural identity in the appropriate settings. 

Mentorship Resources for Underrepresented Students

Fostering Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) is a top priority for universities. Revealing a lack of DEIB studies focused on students in communication programs, more attention has been paid to programs for science, technology, engineering and math fields. Stewart’s (2022) qualitative study illustrated how engineering college students expressed their STEM identities based on personal strengths and peer relations. Yet, this study did not focus on the outcomes of underrepresented social identities. Interviews with FGS about social class worldviews and the lack of social capital were drawn from a university-wide pool of students, not those affiliated with communication programs (Rice et al., 2017). Joshi et al. (2019) found that direct mentorship by faculty was positively associated with life science students’ scientific identity and research productivity. Hernandez et al. (2020) identified mentorship success as a factor to improve the academic-to-professional pipeline for women in the geosciences. 

Given the challenges associated with minority identities in colleges, scholars have identified various functions of mentoring relationships to better support underrepresented students, especially among FGS and students of color. Faculty members represent a tremendous resource, intellectually and experientially (Scisney-Matlock & Matlock, 2001). These include offering socio-emotional support, building personal connections, providing career advice, increasing students’ self-efficacy in classrooms, and engaging in service-learning opportunities (Fruiht & Chan, 2018; Sarcedo, 2022). These functions boost students’ academic confidence and foster a sense of belonging. Additionally, African American male leaders’ participation in a race-based college mentorship program significantly contributed to their career advancement and leadership ability (Christie & Baghurst, 2017). Similarly, Waymer and Taylor (2022) revealed that networking opportunities gained through highly-resourced academic departments and identity support from professors prepared Black students for foreseen challenges in communication-related professions. 

PR Scholarship in Building Inclusivity

Galvanized by analysis of workplace diversity in the PR industry (Meng & Neill, 2021), PR educators are urged to create inclusive environments and advocate DEI leadership forums for students of diverse identities (Bardhan & Gower, 2020). Brown et al. (2019) recommend the following to support underrepresented students and prepare them for the industries: 1) inform them about professional development and networking opportunities, 2) expose students to experiential learning activities to build confidence and awareness of real-world issues, 3) make diverse professional mentors visible to students, 4) encourage students to socialize with peers from diverse backgrounds, and 5) discuss racial and ethnic disparities related to the PR industry. Still, not enough empirical research has documented students’ experiences with navigating minority identities in the communication fields nor informed how to improve culturally targeted mentoring resources. 

To bolster retention rates for underrepresented students in strategic communication studies, a nuanced understanding of challenges and mentoring needs that move beyond gender and race dimensions is needed to consider students’ intersectional experiences related to social class. Therefore, we ask:

RQ1: How do students who identify with underrepresented identities navigate challenges when pursuing strategic communication degrees?

RQ2: What mentoring resources are needed for students who identify with underrepresented identities when pursuing strategic communication degrees?


Study Site 

The study site is a four-year public university with high research activity (R2) located in a rural county (The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, n.d.). The main residential campus reflects an increasingly diverse student body. As of Fall 2021, the enrollment of full-time students was approximately 22,000; 89% of whom were undergraduate students (mean age=22). The majority of the students (56%) identify as White; 25% identify as Hispanic/Latinx and 3% indicate as African American, thereby meeting the Hispanic Serving Institution criteria in 2021. Almost 46% of students identify as FGS. Commitment to DEIB and elevating students’ social mobility represent the university’s values. Two academic advisors served 2,000 students majoring in six degree programs in the School of Communication. Advisors met with students by appointment to ensure individuals’ degree progression plans. Beyond academic advisors, seven strategic communication faculty members encouraged students to seek informal mentoring, but no formalized mentorship programs were implemented. 

Participant Recruitment

The university’s Institutional Review Board approved the study design. Using a purposive sampling approach, we solicited participation for virtual interviews from full-time Strategic Communication major or minor students who self-identify as FGS, Hispanic/Latinx, and/or African Americans attending the main residential campus. Between March and April 2022, we distributed multiple emails to the department’s listserv with an external link for sign-ups and set up a table in the Communication building, along with sending flyers to instructors to encourage students in their classes to participate. A screening survey was used to verify students’ eligibility and solicit answers to personal demographic questions (e.g., family financial situations and race and gender identities). The informed consent process involved two steps, including signing physical copies with the investigators and providing verbal consent before the audio recording. Students received a $15 gift card upon completion of the virtual interview. 

 In-depth interviews are well-suited for “making sense of the scene from the participants’ point of view–examining not only behaviors but intentions, stories, and emotions, (Tracy, 2020, p. 62). We developed 10 broad questions to probe students’ college experiences, proud achievements, interactions with peers and faculty members, and their suggestions for mentoring resources. Questions are designed to “cover a wide range of experiences and narrow enough to elicit and explore the participant’s specific experience” (Charmaz & Belgrave, 2012, p. 351). Grounded in a constructionist context, we allowed respondents to lead the conversation through sharing their successful stories and pain points in college. Considering the influence of researchers in qualitative interviews and the unbalanced power dynamics between faculty and underrepresented students, two undergraduate research assistants who identify as FGS and Hispanic/Latinx conducted all virtual interviews. We selected research assistants based on their professional qualifications: knowledge of qualitative research methods, strong work ethics, interpersonal skills, connections to underrepresented communities, and frequent participation in student organizations. Following the best practices by Tracy (2020) and Turner (2010), assistants received training on conducting semi-structured interviews provided by the investigators. Pilot tests enabled assistants to refine the discussion guide and gain experience. Once the first set of interviews were completed, the investigators met with assistants to provide feedback for improving their probing skills in eliciting truthful stories. Approaching interviewees with an insider approach brought three advantages: 1) building rapport with students who share similar racial identities and backgrounds, 2) conveying a sense of inclusivity, and 3) gathering authentic answers about students’ lived experiences (Buford May, 2014). Student researchers revealed their self-identity in the introduction and developed trust with the interviewees (Charmaz & Belgrave, 2012). Interviews ranged between 30 minutes and one hour. 

When conducting in-depth interviews, scholars recommend stopping the process once thematic saturation is reached – usually around 12–14 interviews (Guest et al., 2020; Saunders et al., 2018). Grounded theory research may reach data saturation at nine interviews (Aldiabat & Le Navenec, 2018). Guided by these suggestions, we initially gauged that 10-12 interviews would lead to saturation. Two investigators verified transcripts, took notes of emerging codes, and reviewed instances signifying sensitizing concepts after each interview. Two criteria were employed to determine saturation: code saturation and meaning saturation (Aldiabat & Le Navenec, 2018; Charmaz, 2006; Tracy, 2020). Codes capturing challenges and mentoring resources became stabilized at 12 interviews. To validate the trustworthiness of our findings, we considered the significance of including two research assistants’ perspectives. Therefore, assistants conducted formal interviews with one another. After grounded analysis yielded meaning saturation and redundancy in respondents’ narratives, we stopped at 14 participants. Table 1 summarizes the demographic characteristics: 64% females, 57% Hispanics and 57% FGS. Ninety-three percent of participants indicated their family’s social class as lower middle to middle class. 

Data Analysis

Anonymized transcripts were obtained and processed for data analysis. We followed the grounded theory method to compile the data and organize the responses into meaningful insights (Glaser & Strauss, 2012). Grounded theory is “the discovery of theory from data” toward the aim of determining how “accurate facts can be obtained and how theory can thereby be more rigorously tested” (Glaser & Strauss, 2012, p. 1), acknowledging the inherent conflict between basing conclusions on emergent data while evaluating previous research to base conclusions (El Hussein et al., 2017). This inductive approach is a “template for all kinds of qualitative research” because of its applicability to many topics in social science, including communication (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011, p. 250). Charmaz (2008) and others placed grounded theory in a social constructionist framework. Social construction of reality as defined by Berger and Luckmann (1966) describes the process of how individuals internalize events that surround them, and the idea that individual consciousness is determined by what that society deems relevant. This has clear implications for the study of culture and human communication (Tracy, 2020). Grounded theory offers flexibility in the systematic analysis of data forms, such as observations, written documents and interviews (Riley, 2010).

We analyzed the transcripts through an iterative process to identify sensitizing concepts (Strauss & Corbin, 1994), beginning with the familiarization stage to become acquainted with the informant’s environment and worldview (Riley, 2010). The initial cycle of analysis involved analytic memos and open coding to identify codes using constant comparative methods (Charmaz, 2006). To verify the analysis, three authors held regular meetings to debrief preliminary findings and synthesize the linkages between data and categories. This was followed by interpreting themes toward finding patterns to “paint conceptual pictures that add to the understanding of the experience” (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 262). Integration and setting a platform for building theory was the final phase of coding analysis (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).


The first author identifies as a first-generation female immigrant academic. Similar to the participants, I grew up in a middle-class home and was the first to pursue graduate degrees overseas with limited cultural and social capital. I attended two public flagship universities in the U.S., where I navigated through the hidden rules in graduate school. Mentoring research assistants of marginalized identities grew my interest to understand behind-the-scenes challenges and unmet needs among underrepresented students. While there is privilege associated with my tenured status, my life experiences of being a model minority shaped my data interpretation. 

The second author sees herself as a scholar and a practitioner. My research centers on understanding the dynamics of community interaction and strengthening relationships among participants. I am an Associate Professor of Practice, with 15-plus years as a leader in public relations, nonprofits, advertising and content management prior to joining my university. I relate directly to the challenge of working full-time while pursuing my graduate degrees. I also invite many alumni guest speakers representing multiple viewpoints to my classes to share their success stories and challenges. My heritage is mixed, primarily of European descent. While I don’t identify as first-generation, African American, or Hispanic (or any intersection of these identities), I value highly the opportunity to gain perspective on these identities through my students and in my role as the Associate Director of Student and Academic Affairs for the School of Communication. 

The third author identifies as Caucasian and was a first-generation student with socio-economic concerns. I received a full ride to a state university because of being valedictorian at a small high school. However, a personal situation during my freshman year of college aided in losing the scholarship. After which, I transferred to a different state university, closer to family, and worked two part-time jobs while completing my bachelor’s degree. I have since earned two master’s degrees and have become a Gallup-trained strengths coach. Gallup, Inc., uses the CliftonStrengths assessment to calculate a person’s top five talents and recommends students and professionals focus on using their talents instead of attempting to improve their weaknesses. I have taught strategic communication to diverse audiences for over 10 years and have gained an understanding through conversation and observation of the needs and challenges of underrepresented students.


Three major themes emerged through the integration of data analysis. We divided responses concerning challenges and mentorship resources into three salient dimensions, which correspond with the needs of underrepresented student experiences: 1) cognitive skills, 2) socio-emotional support, and 3) identity development (Fruiht & Chan, 2018; Scharp et al., 2022). To contextualize our findings, the state in which our university resides reports populations of 32.3% Hispanic/Latino and 5.4% Black/African American as compared to 18.9% Hispanic/Latino and 13.6% Black/African American in the United States as a whole. However, it is worth noting that our college town shows 19.7% Hispanic/Latino and 2.0% Black/African American populations (United States Census Bureau, 2022). We interpreted these demographic differences to mean Black/African American students attending our school could feel more marginalized than when in their home locations. Similarly, Hispanic/Latino students might also feel this way if they come from more diverse locations within the state. Most participants mentioned COVID-19 as a significant disruption to their academic and social integration.  

Resilience Mindsets for Developing Cognitive Skills

Challenges. Concerning the need of developing cognitive skills, nine out of the 14 participants expressed having math course struggles, resulting in acquiring a tutor or abandoning specific degree programs with a strong math component. Some had begun degrees in business but had realized their strengths were with words, not numbers. For example, several interviewees said they felt comfortable with public speaking, writing, and creative skills, which aligns with Waymer and Taylor’s (2022) findings. The investigators, through experience, think this is a realization many strategic communication students come to, not only those of the underrepresented populations in this study. As expressed by Participant 8 (female, Hispanic, FGS): 

I wasn’t necessarily good at 100-level math and science classes. My weaknesses are like math, but then with English, writing and my public relations classes…that’s where I do better. I could have gotten like a tutor, but I actually didn’t know where to get extra help from.

Multiple interviewees said, as a freshman, they were not aware of certain degree programs and university resources, suggesting more promotion, like tabling by other students, be directed toward that audience. As noted by Participant 4 (female, African American), “If I had known what public relations was back when I was senior in high school, I probably would have majored in StratComm and minored in business management.” Several stated that the advising received as an incoming student or in the honors college was better than what was received in typical advising sessions later in the program. This perceived lack of proper advising coupled with scheduling difficulties and confusion caused some students to reach out to upperclassmen and teachers for assistance.

One interview question asked whether the interviewees thought they had a growth or fixed mindset (Dweck, 2016). While most claimed to have a growth mindset, the students who chose to overcome course challenges by hiring a tutor instead of dropping the course demonstrated its effectiveness. This type of strength-based approach to learning helps students manage their weaknesses while discovering and validating their talents demonstrated by the decision to switch majors (Gordon & Crabtree, 2006). Students’ narratives about how they overcame obstacles related to academic learning showed that they cultivated resilience by enhancing cognitive skills. For example, several interviewees revealed some ups and downs during their first year or two years at the university. Participant 2 described (female, Hispanic): 

I definitely think math is like my biggest struggle when it comes to my academics. It’s so hard. I took a financial planning class for my merchandising program. My teacher was super patient; she would sit with us. She’d let us work on homework again if we got a bunch wrong. She sat us down and really helped teach us the concepts that we didn’t understand. That’s definitely been like the biggest help.

They had done so well in high school that they got accepted into college honors courses as a freshman. However, one participant let his “work ethic” slip during sophomore year and lost his scholarships, which he petitioned to keep after rebalancing academically. “So basically I could describe my challenges like the roller coaster of college for me. I had to find who I was again,” (Participant 12, male, FGS). 

Resources. When inquiring about university resources used or available to develop cognitive skills, six mentioned tutoring by “really putting in the work to schedule appointments” (Participant 6, female, FGS). Six mentioned writing centers, three mentioned study groups, two mentioned the Successful Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) Program for first-generation students and Edge Program leadership camp for incoming students, as well as peer mentoring. Several had found career development offices helpful in polishing their resumés and obtaining internships, allowing them to develop social-economic mobility. Gaining internships was frequently mentioned as valuable for developing professional skills.

While upperclassmen and faculty had helped with limited advising, most participants felt ambivalent about high staff turnover in centralized advising services. Participant 9 expressed her frustration (female, Hispanic, FGS), “my advisor recently left, so I had been trying to find a new one, or just trying to find someone who could help me.” One student offered the idea for some type of online tutorial about course scheduling; others suggested the need for more promotion of university resources that will support academic and professional skill development, especially to incoming students. For continuing students, retaining advisors at advising offices would reduce obstacles. 

Seeking Relational Connections for Socio-Emotional Support

Challenges. Participants expressed other common challenges, such as picking the right degree program, changing majors and minors midstream, advising issues, the stresses of course scheduling, navigating across campus, financial concerns, poor Wi-Fi access, and pandemic fallout. Notably, underrepresented groups experienced added stressors related to lacking a sense of belonging, like feeling they don’t fit in, having to perform to be different from their authentic selves, beginning at a starting line behind the norm, anxiety, and imposter syndrome. In addition, participants felt supported but at the same time burdened by familial expectations. Hence, most students treasured the opportunity for creating relational connections with professors or mentors for social and emotional support. Reaching out to establish communication networks appeared to be essential in the process of building resilience (Scharp et al., 2021).

Nevertheless, one repeated course-related challenge concerned unavailable and unresponsive professors. If teachers did not reply to emails, or there were no opportunities created to aid students in meeting one-to-one with faculty during the pandemic, participants said they experienced a disconnect, especially during online-only courses. As participant 10 (female, FGS, Hispanic) stated: “I think you kind of feel disconnected, and you feel a lot more like you’re on your own than you really are.” This student also noted the power of a welcome email to students establishing a connection and starting the class with a supportive tone. The levels of communicative engagement in emails could facilitate relationship building (Tsai et al., 2022). 

A few participants expressed a desire for more connections with faculty through after- class availability, office hours, check-in emails, or synchronous meeting opportunities. More than one student mentioned not being able to remember their teachers’ names because of a high level of disconnection. Other course-related struggles included: 1) how having to feverishly take notes made it difficult to follow along in class, 2) the pressure to “throw the teacher a bone” by answering a question during a dead silence, and 3) not being able to see/hear professors or course materials clearly over Zoom and, sometimes, in the physical classroom. While these issues might sound cognitive in nature, we could argue they are, for one reason or another, results of a relational breakdown. Most noted difficulties with larger classes, feeling intimidated to speak up or ask for help, reinforcing that smaller classes were much better for making connections and setting a foundation for academic success. “When it’s a smaller group of people I don’t mind sharing my opinions, but if it’s like a large class it’s a bit harder for me” (Participant 4). 

Resources. Regardless of the above challenges about connecting with faculty and peers, nine respondents said they liked and felt comfortable with most of their instructors, specifically their strategic communication professors. Some said faculty members had become mentors, a valuable resource for discovering internships and professional growth opportunities. Participant 1 explained (male, Hispanic, FGS), 

Because you build that connection, maybe not with every professor, but you build that connection with one, I can tell you from personal experience. When you have that one supporter, no matter your background, your sexual orientation, who you are – when you have that one mentor that believes in you, it makes all the difference in every class.

However, there was the acknowledgment about how students get “what they put into” the relationship. If students attempted to connect with faculty, like adding a joke to each assignment submission or simply saying, hi, when entering each classroom, it was usually met with a positive response and put the students on a professor’s “radar.” Students made intentional efforts to create interpersonal connections in informal settings. Participant 13 recounted (female, FGS, Hispanic): 

I feel like I connect with all my instructors pretty well. I send jokes in the submission box of each of my assignments. Some of them connect back by sending a joke or some of them just tell me in class that it is a funny joke or I like that you do that. So I feel like that’s a good icebreaker for new professors. Just staying in touch with email because a lot of students don’t email. So if you’re that one out of 10 students that does, it just puts you on their radar and gives them a better chance of knowing you.

Campus size may be a factor, as one subject noted, “Since it is a smaller campus, there are more opportunities to connect with your professors. And they’ve all been very helpful and welcoming,” (Participant 4). Despite the general consensus of feeling welcomed and supported by faculty, multiple respondents said it was difficult for them to ask for help, not wanting to waste others’ time, add to the list of problems, or “rock the boat.” 

Another supportive socio-emotional resource reported was developing friendships. One student mentioned how important it is to become friends with peers in the same degree program, because students from other programs cannot always understand or sympathize with particular course-related struggles. “I like when teachers offer opportunities for collaboration. I think it can help, especially for someone like me who I guess is part of the underrepresented community. It helps you feel a bit more connected with those around you and not as alienated,” (Participant 4). Other students recounted similar experiences with connecting with peers through group projects and stayed in touch even after classes finished. The socio-emotional support offered by peers increased underrepresented students’ motivation and bolstered their sense of belonging in an alienated environment. 

Needs for Identity Affirmation From Faculty and Peers

Challenges. Although most interviewees performed well academically, they experienced personal-enacted identity gaps because of minoritized identities. Personal-enacted identity gaps arise when individuals encounter discontinuity between self-concepts and perceptions of how they present themselves in communication (Jung & Hecht, 2004). Students queried reported not “fitting in” and having to present themselves differently or “code switch,” depending on the situation. Navigating between hypervisibility and invisibility, one made the distinction of feeling uncomfortable as the center of attention because they felt different—also noting that they are proud of their heritage but did not want to be asked to “represent” their race. “I don’t feel like I fit in, but I feel like I am the center of attention,” (Participant 12, male, African American). Participant 2 agreed: “I wouldn’t say that I necessarily fit in, but I don’t mind being here. I just feel like I’m not as connected to the community as I could be.” Several internalized the need to be more “professional” or more “presentable” when dealing with professors; unless they knew the instructor well and became more comfortable being themselves and letting their guard down. Some felt that same pressure in the workplace. “Being a woman and then also just a woman of color, I do feel the need, especially in my classroom settings where there’s not many people who look like me, to try and prove myself” (Participant 4).

Experiencing “Othering.” While the study site’s institutional leaders emphasize a culture of DEIB, a few mentioned feeling out of place, alienated, or outcasts as minority students in class, experiencing the need to “prove I’m worthy of being here,” (Participant 4). Another shared the example of microaggression that they felt a teacher assumed the student didn’t know how to snowboard because of their race. One participant had felt a sense of danger and rejection in the local community because of race, language, and sexual orientation. Participant 1 described: “I felt like an outsider because of getting stared at or being followed by the police. When I speak Spanish, I get so many frowns. When I used to work at Goodwill, I would get so many frowns when I would translate the announcement to help a customer who obviously speaks Spanish.” These narratives depict the lived reality of how deeply several underrepresented students experienced othering and not feeling accepted by faculty and surrounding communities. 

Resources. While a few mentioned team building icebreakers as helpful in making classroom connections, the one place most agreed feeling safe to be authentic was in their clubs and organizations of choice. Although clubs are a resource for socio-emotional support, they are also a great resource for developing one’s identity by finding “like-minded” individuals and “kindred spirits” while in college. Eleven out of 14 respondents reported clubs and organizations having a positive effect on well-being, because students could show their authentic selves and feel they truly fit in these groups. As shared by Participant 13: 

I found my place and my people just by putting myself out there a lot. I feel like I fit in in relative situations, if that makes sense. I fit in well with my club, and I fit in well with some programs that I do, but I don’t fit in well with everything. 

Some clubs and organizations mentioned were the LGBTQA club, Hispanic/Latinx Student Union, Black Student Union, Hawaii club, first-gen, fraternities, sororities, the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), honors, fashion, a religious organization, karaoke, and the Disney club. While extracurricular activities are valuable, students’ involvement with multiple clubs, jobs, and internships made it hard to juggle them all and keep up with classwork. Participant 3 said (male, FGS): “With my work, I get home at midnight 12:30 a.m. and then have to work on homework.” Others noted the membership costs might create potential barriers for underrepresented groups. 


This research delineates underrepresented students’ experiences with strategic communication college education and their needs for mentoring resources. The challenges of negotiating marginalized identities in strategic communication degree programs is understudied, partly contributing to the lack of DEIB in college classrooms and PR professions. Grounded in the intersectionality of social identities (Fiske & Taylor, 1991, Waymer, 2012), we conducted 14 interviews with FGS, Hispanic/Latinx, and African American students to unpack challenges and mentoring needs related to three dimensions: cognitive skills, social-emotional support, and identity development. Findings reveal the processes of overcoming academic challenges, initiating faculty-student connections, and adjusting peer interactions in different sizes and cultures of classrooms. Selected self-presentation through code-switching was mentioned frequently (Gray et al., 2018). Facing exacerbated challenges brought by a prolonged pandemic, underrepresented students adapted coping strategies to move toward finishing the college degree deemed meaningful to themselves and their family. Participant 1, graduated in Spring 2022, proudly shared: “Thank you mom and dad. Because they cross the borders, we can cross the stage.” Echoing the call for pushing against the deficit narratives surrounding underrepresented backgrounds (Payne et al., 2021; Sarcedo, 2022), our results show students focused on strength-based approaches to seek skill-based resources for improving cognitive and professional capabilities. Underrepresented students noted institutional programs are helpful; yet, promoting communication degrees to incoming students and implementing formal structures for degree-specific mentoring would be ideal. 

While the satisfaction with skill-oriented resources and an appreciation of feeling welcomed by strategic communication faculty were apparent, underrepresented students expressed a low-to-moderate sense of belonging, reaffirming existing literature (Ezarik, 2022; Havlik et al., 2020; Koo, 2021; Stebleton et al., 2014). This was partly driven by mindsets of intersectional identities (feeling intimidated to speak up and being the few minorities in large classrooms) and experiences of relational breakdown with instructors. As such, the connections with faculty members and specific mentors are described as “valuable resources” for professional opportunities (Scisney-Matlock & Matlock, 2001). Importantly, communicative aspects of faculty-student interactions form a support system to increase motivation, improve socio-emotional well-being during pandemic times, and increase students’ sense of belonging in an alienated environment (Tinto, 1998; Scharp et al., 2022). 

Notably, identity affirmation was a crucial factor in shaping underrepresented students’ self-worth and belonging. The process of validating and affirming their identity is multifaceted and requires balancing tensions between conflicting beliefs. While asking for help from institutional resources (e.g., tutoring services, writing centers) was a strategy commonly used, students expressed not wanting to waste others’ time, add to the list of problems, or rock the boat. While desiring connections with faculty, they consciously engaged in code-switching to fit in and earn perceptions of professionalism (Gray et al., 2018; Morton, 2014). While maintaining high levels of academic achievement, they experienced impostorism and felt the pressure to prove themselves constantly, which in turn could lead to poor wellbeing. Although they recounted winning leadership positions in student organizations as proud achievements, students shared that they elevated peers instead of making themselves the center of attention. Involvement in clubs, organizations, and internships brought immense identity support and established networks with like-minded peers; yet, balancing demanding classwork, social activities, and part-time jobs remained challenging.  

Limitations and Future Directions

Several limitations are acknowledged. First, multiple layers of marginalized identities influence students’ experience with college education. Our research did not address concerns unique to other identities, including LGBTQIA+ groups or students with disabilities. Qualitative studies extending our framework to delineate challenges these marginalized groups face in strategic communication programs will be useful. Second, the limited number of African American participants in the interview sample might not fully capture the process of negotiating racialized classroom experiences and/or diminishing the role of race to maintain the individual meritocracy (Waymer & Brown, 2018). This was because very few African American students enrolled in the program under investigation. Academic and social experiences might be significantly different in programs with a more prominent presence of African American students. Future studies could examine the influence of socioeconomic status that intersects race and gender dimensions on academic success and professional development. 

Longitudinal designs will be well-suited to track how alumni of underrepresented identities receiving culturally responsive mentoring at college succeed in the workplace after they graduate. Several promising questions are worthy of investigation: How do the functions of faculty mentoring build students’ leadership qualities in the PR field? How is the quality of faculty mentoring associated with graduation rates among underserved students? How do the challenges that alumni of underrepresented backgrounds encounter in the workplace differ from the three identified themes? In what way do they consider resources provided by the employers as useful or counterproductive? Lastly, future research could explore the impact of pressure to succeed from family and how this aligns or conflicts with FGS’s internal motivation. It would also be worthwhile to investigate underrepresented faculty’s needs for mentoring programs and leadership development. 

Implications and Conclusions

Notwithstanding the limitations, this research offers pedagogical implications for PR educators to catalyze change for improving DEIB in classrooms. First, faculty need to intentionally create a safe space for underrepresented students to connect with peers and with faculty themselves through sending check-in emails, crafting discussion questions inclusive of diverse backgrounds, explaining the meaning of academic jargons, and offering informal meetings. Creating interactive assignments enables underrepresented students to build relationships with classmates in small group settings. Second, foregrounding culturally responsive mentorship from a co-orientation approach is vital, because relational connections serve as support systems to bolster underrepresented students’ identities and build a sense of belonging (Tsai et al., 2020). To improve faculty’s cultural competency, hosting workshops or training will be instrumental for adjusting mentoring styles and deepening connections with students. Mentoring students of diverse backgrounds should not fall on the shoulders of minoritized faculty. Changing the institutional culture of DEIB will ensure that the student mentoring efforts are distributed equitably. Lastly, moving toward actual engagement is desirable. The success of underrepresented students’ needs to happen in everyday faculty-student interactions instead of solely relying on institutional services that tend to operate for advantaged backgrounds. Meaningful student engagement can be achieved through advocating for small class sizes, sharing success stories to empower underrepresented students (e.g., inviting alumni for guest speaking, featuring student achievements on digital channels), and creating degree-specific mentoring opportunities. 

Theoretically, this inquiry provides empirical justification for approaching faculty-student interactions from an intersectional lens and cultivating the awareness of intensified challenges due to marginalized identities in predominantly White degree programs. As this college-aged generation “doom” scrolls through the visual consequences of a polarized culture, cognitive, socio-emotional, and identity development needs emerge. By providing meaningful mentoring, encouraging student participation in identity-based clubs, and fostering positive peer relationships, strategic communication educators will make significant inroads toward instilling confidence and creating inclusive environments for underrepresented students, from their first day of college all the way to the graduation stage. 


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To cite this article: Tsai, J-Y, Sweeter, J., and Hitt, A. (2023). Cross the stage: Underrepresented students’ challenges and mentoring needs in strategic communication programs. Journal of Public Relations Education, 8(4), 91-197. https://journalofpreducation.com/2023/02/24/cross-the-stage-underrepresented-students-challenges-and-mentoring-needs-in-strategic-communication-programs/