The transition from high school to college is a major milestone that evokes many emotions for teens. For adolescents with multicultural ethnic identities, this time represents a period in which they can explore their ethnicity more freely. However, a new study led by Kim M. Tsai of the Department of Psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles suggests that students who enroll in 4-year colleges are more in tune with their ethnic identity than those who enroll in 2-year colleges. Tsai’s study, one of the first to examine which factors influence the exploration of ethnicity in college students, focused specifically on three areas: ethnic search, ethnic belonging, and ethnic labels. The study also compared how choice of residency (home or away) influenced ethnic identity. Lastly, the study considered the level of extracurricular involvement in relation to ethnic search.
Students were recruited while they were in 12th grade and were asked to complete a questionnaire prior to their enrollment in either a 2- or 4-year college. The 458 participants were from various ethnic backgrounds, including European, Latin American, and Asian. The students were assessed for levels of ethnic identity, well-being, academic performance, and extracurricular involvement in the 12th grade and again 2 years later. Tsai found that all of the participants reported a weaker tendency to engage in ethnic search upon entering college. One possibility for this is that the students had already received quite a strong ethnic foundation prior to graduating high school. However, the students who enrolled in a 4-year college did engage in more ethnic searching, which resulted in a higher level of ethnic belonging, than those enrolled in 2-year schools. Additionally, Tsai discovered that the 4-year college students were more involved in extracurricular activities than their 2-year college peers. This also increased the level of ethnic belonging of those participants. Tsai added, “Overall, our findings highlight that ethnic identity change is not a result of just the developmental transition from adolescence to adulthood but is associated with the type of contexts that young adults enter into.”
Tsai, Kim M., and Andrew J. Fuligni. “Change in Ethnic Identity across the College Transition.” Developmental Psychology 48.1 (2012): 56-64. Print.
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