Always molding: A case study of low income, blue collar students in business school



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The purpose of this study was to explore the ways in which low income, blue collar business students in a Midwestern university navigated the culture of a white collar learning environment and training for future employment. This qualitative case study, informed by symbolic interactionism, was conducted with purposeful and criterion-based sampling. To qualify, participants needed to be business majors, self-identify as low income, blue collar, and have been in the business school for at least 2 years. The methods of data collection included a guided creative arts bag portrait activity, elicited interviews, observations, and document analysis. Findings indicate participants occupied a space between two worlds—the affluent, white collar world of business school and the low income, blue collar world at home. Each world had different social class contexts that reflected and fostered divergent norms, expectations, and understandings of what it meant to belong in those worlds. Participants’ interdependent cultural ways of being and low income, blue collar identity were not perceived to be welcomed in the independent, affluent, white collar culture of business school. Without a sense of belongingness, participants engaged in “class work” to fit in and protect themselves from classism. Strategies of class work included performativity to camouflage their stigmatized identity or resistance of engaging altogether. The labor of class work and experience of not fitting in created barriers to participants’ full engagement in business school and career development training. Findings elaborate the process of how business school culture and training create distinct disadvantages for low income, blue collar students. The study raises implications about the importance of business schools to foster belongingness among low income, blue collar students. Additionally, programs geared for career development must also integrate options that are responsive to interdependent cultural ways of navigating family, community, and career. Such possibilities can be enacted via professional development of business school educators to become responsive and inclusive in their curriculum and instruction to mitigate the isolation felt by low income, blue collar students. Higher education, broadly, can have campus-wide support systems specifically geared for low income, blue collar students.



Business education, Social class, Higher education, Culture, Career development

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Doctor of Philosophy


Department of Special Education, Counseling and Student Affairs

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Kakali Bhattacharya; Doris W. Carroll