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Adult Learner Identities: Intersectionality and Integration

Adult learners are different from the traditional-aged demographic institutions are used to serving. It's important to adapt learning processes and engagement to reflect the needs of this demographic.

This article is the second in a three-part series on Adult Learners. The first article in the series presented the characteristics of adult learners and the critical ways in which they learn best. With this understanding, this article builds on that discussion to explore the identities that adult learners bring to higher education and consider the theoretical and practical applications of engaging these learners.

Identity Development That’s Different

Perhaps you studied Student Identity Development in your graduate program, where Chickering (1993) taught us the 7 stages of establishing college student identity, from confidence to autonomy to integrity and maturity. Since the time of this work, we’ve come to better understand that college students are not homogenous, and that the other identities they hold may be more dominant to them than that of student.

In the first article in this series, we examined the characteristics of adult learners with overrepresentation of BIPOC, immigrant, veteran, low socioeconomic, first generation, caregiver and worker identities among adult learners (Aspen, 2021; Bold, 2021; Census, 2021; Lumina, 2020). My research in 2012 presented a model of The Universe of Nontraditional Students to reflect this complexity, now outdated given adult learner demographic changes.

Bunton and Buckley (2021) portray a robust framework for examining adult learner identities with the concepts of Identity Portfolio, a menu of identities held by the individual, and Identity Struggle, reflecting the varying challenges related to managing identity conflicts, coherence and integration. For adult learners, Identity Struggle is challenged by the new identity of college student in their identity Portfolio. Again, referenced in the first article, Knowles (1998) notes the extensive cultural and contextual experience of adult learners, which is drawn from multiple sources, past and present (Kasworm, 2005), comprising their Identity Portfolios. The adult learner's college experience triggers the redefinition of identities (Hogg, 2004; Mezirow, 1997; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) through Identity Struggle (Bunton & Buckley, 2021).

Adult Learner Outgroup Identity

One model for understanding identity more fully is the Social Identity Theory (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Hogg, 2004; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Three components form this model: categorization, identification, and comparison. Categorization reflects our tendency to classify ourselves and others into various social categories or constructs, leading to identification or ‘perception of oneness’ with a group of people who have similar characteristics or roles, such as race, class, gender, and age as well as role categories such as students, parents, workers.

Comparison reflects our process of defining distinctiveness related to power and prestige, as Ingroup of Outgroup. All of this often takes place in a moment, such as when we enter a room and look around to assess who holds identities in common with ours. These comparisons affect self-esteem and impact our sense of belonging. Students in my research noted, ‘we are better students, but less educated...inferior’, and ‘other students don’t know what to make of me...what’s the old guy doing here?’, reflecting their Outgroup experiences as adult learners.

To layer onto our understanding of the identity development of adult learners, we must consider Intersectionality (McCall, 2005) which examines the combination of multiple Outgroup identities. Adult learners often hold multiple Outgroup identities in their Identity Portfolios, and intersectionality is reflected in their characteristics. Identity Struggle is further fueled by the addition of student identity and exacerbated by risks and losses that adult learners encounter past and present.

In my research adult learners reflected the loss, redefinition or reprioritization off identities such as faith participator lost as they made time for college work, and worker or caregiver given concerns about getting it all done given the emergence of student as a new identity. Graduate students often take on an added student identity as scholar-practitioners, and adult learners must define which of these coupled identities comes first in their Identity Profile, or how they will integrate a new scholarly role. The need for identity convergence (Bunton & Buckley, 2021) underscores the adult learner’s need for integration of their lived experience (Saddington, 1998).

Integrating Adult Learner Identity

In the first article, we noted adult learners’ needs to be heard, seen, and to lead. This theme of ‘Know Me’ is a critical step to honoring and connecting the Identity Portfolios of adult learners. Rosenberg et al. (2012) notes we are more likely to reach adult learners if we learn as much as we can about the prior experience of each student at the beginning of the term. How are you doing this in your course spaces and in your institutions?

Yosso (2005) asked, whose culture has capital? Given the Outgroup status of adult learner identities, Funds of Knowledge (Gonzalez et al., 2005) and Cultural Wealth (Yosso, 2005; Acevedo & Solorzano, 2021) help us to respond. Funds of Knowledge (Gonzalez et al., 2005) challenges us to engage the accumulated, culturally developed knowledge and skills that adult learners bring.

These assets reflect their lived experiences and identities such as caregiver, worker, veteran, immigrant, and through BIPOC or low socioeconomic identities. Engaging Funds of Knowledge aids in the integration of identities for adult learners, recognizes the capital and assets they bring, and shifts the narrative of what skills and knowledge are dominant in our institutions.

Cultural Wealth (Acevedo & Solorzano, 2021; Yosso, 2005), an anti-deficit and anti-racist approach, unpacks opportunities for us in 6 ways: Familial, Social, Navigational, Resistant, Linguistic, and Aspirational. Like Funds of Knowledge, identities bring assets in these areas. Adult learners bring Familial capital when we engage their home or community knowledge, cultural practice or immigrant journeys, and with those who form their family units. Adult learners bring Social capital when they mentor and support one another and learn in highly social environments.

Adult learners bring Navigational capital from maneuvering inequitable paths and seeking out ways of learning. Adult learners bring Resistant capital having persisted through failure and histories of challenge. Adult learners bring Linguistic capital in forms of communication such as language, multilingualism, translation, art, poetry and music. Adult learners bring Aspirational capital with future hopes and dreams they hold for themselves, their families and communities, despite the barriers faced. In what ways are you engaging the capital that adult learners bring to learning?

At the institutional level, identity integration for adult learners is supported by the messaging, power, and validity we extend. Eitzen and Zinn (2003) note that Outgroup status is reflected in policies, systems, and practices defining who has privilege, resources, and worth. Where does your institution hold visible and invisible barriers for those with Outgroup identities? Do we even perceive them and how can our adult learners lead us forward? As we consider the critical element of belonging, reflected in persistence and retention, what will we do to address this paradigm?

Adult learners bring complexity and intersectionality in their identities. Development of their adult learner roles is reliant on our efforts to foster integration and decrease struggle. Action is long overdue, given that our institutions are not designed for these students. We have the power and the privilege to redesign our work to provide a learning environment that counters the Outgroup experience and increases identity integration by engaging Funds of Knowledge and Cultural Wealth adult learners bring.

To read part 1, click here.


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