Jennifer Lilgendahl and Benjamin Le Earn NSF Award For Joint Research
The associate professors of psychology plan to use their more than $250,000 grant to run a five-year, two-campus longitudinal study on the process of identity development during college.
Associate Professors of Psychology Jennifer Lilgendahl and Benjamin Le have been awarded a five-year, $254,280 grant from the National Science Foundation for their joint project "SBP: RUI: Collaborative Research: The Identity Pathways Project - A Longitudinal Study of Narrative Identity Processes, Contexts, and Outcomes." This project seeks to understand how differences in the processes of identity development during college may differentiate between those who embark upon a successful, productive life and those who struggle with a transition to adulthood.
By examining how students construct self-defining narratives about formative events during college (such as choosing a major or starting a romantic relationship), this study will identify the identity pathways that contribute to optimal developmental outcomes, including clarity of career goals. Another goal is to better understand why some students—especially women, underrepresented minorities, and those with disadvantaged backgrounds—persist in their pursuit of STEM-related careers while others opt out.
To address these issues, Lilgendahl, Le, and their collaborator, Kate McLean at Western Washington University (WWU), have launched a five-year, two-campus longitudinal study that will involve three annual surveys of students during their undergraduate experience and another survey a year after graduation.
"This project represents a novel step forward in our field, because it is one of the first studies to collect narratives repeatedly over so many assessments in order to understand how identity is being formed in response to critical academic and relational experiences occurring each year," says Lilgendahl. "It is also the first study to apply an in-depth, narrative approach to the development of career identity, [which] tends to be highly quantitative. So we are hoping that our narrative approach will offer a richer understanding of how students clarify or struggle with career identity development in relation to their college experiences."
This work is an extension of the research Lilgendahl has been doing with McLean, her longtime collaborator, on the role of narrative identity processes in personality development. For Le, an expert in relationship maintenance and one of the authors of the book The Science of Relationships and the website of the same name, the study is a chance to gather data on relationship experiences and transitions for college students.
"This study will allow us to examine the ties between the college experience, romantic relationships, and student well-being using research methods that have not been previously employed in past studies," says Le.
Because the study is designed to span both a small liberal arts school (Haverford) and a large public university (WWU), the researchers will have access to a diverse array of students across demographics. And students will not only be studied, but, thanks to this NSF award, will also be doing the studying as well. The award will fund participant compensation, student research assistants, and travel to conferences for student-researchers. Five students have already worked on the Identity Pathways Project, and three of them presented data from this study at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
Additionally, Le and Lilgendahl are looking forward to contributing to Haverford students' education, not just as mentors, teachers, and fellow researchers, but also as people who can use their findings to help better shape the college experience.
"While we are certainly excited to use this study to make theoretical advances in our respective fields, we are also very excited about the prospect of being able to learn about the experiences and challenges of Haverford students," says Lilgendahl. "Our findings may be shared with our faculty, deans, and program administrators in order to improve what we do, particularly as it relates to helping students translate academic experiences in longterm career goals and to facilitating optimal emotional, social, and academic adjustment during college."