Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



College of Education and Human Services


Curriculum & Instruction/Literacy Studies

Committee Chair

Melissa Sherfinski

Committee Co-Chair

Audra Slocum

Committee Member

Sharon Hayes

Committee Member

Carol Markstrom

Committee Member

Samuel F Stack


This study details a one year critical, ethnographic examination of the postsecondary transitions of six West Virginia high school seniors. The work explores how social class and local culture mattered in the postsecondary transition for students from a range of social and economic backgrounds. Figured Worlds Theory (Holland, et al., 1998) was used to explore how students' identities were constructed from the world around them and enacted as students agentively moved through the postsecondary transition. Attention was paid to the hollowing out of rural spaces and how this happens in West Virginia as a product of deindustrialization and educational policy and practices that are all forwarded by globalization and neoliberalism.;Two West Virginia high schools were selected to show a range of experiences: one high income, suburban school and the other a low income, rural school. Convenience sampling was used to purposefully select three seniors at each site who came from a low, middle, and high income background, respectively. Students participated for one year, during the spring of their senior year in high school through the fall of their freshman year in college. Participant observation was used as the main data gathering tool in schools and communities. Each student participated in two semi-structured interviews: the first, during their senior year and the second during the fall of their freshman year of college. The interviews explored participants' identities, views on their communities, and their postsecondary plans and outcomes. Students participated in focus groups that explored Appalachian identity, culture, and dialect, as well as race. The final focus group utilized photovoice as students shared images of their communities and lives to show how they constructed their own and community identities. Semi-structured interviews were completed with parents to learn about their support and involvement in their children's education. Questionnaires were completed by guidance counselors and teachers to capture their educational approaches and demographic backgrounds.;All data were compiled into a primary record that was analyzed using NVIVO qualitative software. Drawing from grounded theory, open codes were developed from the primary record and theoretical background to develop analytic themes. These themes were used to sort the primary record and all other data sources. All data were used in triangulation to explore the connections and contradictions between sources. Data analysis was approached through a critical ethnographic framework that focused on constructing and drawing meaning from participants' experiences (Carspecken, 1996).;Major findings of the study revealed differences between how social class was constructed at the two sites. These differences mediated the ways that class influenced students' lives and thus positioned them differently within the postsecondary transition. Values within the rural community supported a broad range of students and countered discourses of competition during the postsecondary transition. In the suburban community, discourses of competition and achievement served to other students who did not excel and did not as strongly support students in the postsecondary transition.;Students and families depended on the schools as their main source of information during the postsecondary transition and though schools provided some support, there were lacunae between what was provided and what participants needed. Further, schools' support for the postsecondary transition was narrowly focused on baccalaureate choices, despite rhetoric that purported to support college and career readiness. While all participants found gaps in the postsecondary transition advising process, students from first generation backgrounds were the most disadvantaged by the lack of structural support from schools. School counselors were aware of this gap; however, because of heavy workloads and standardization and accountability pushdown, they were not positioned to broaden their reach to include more students.;Despite these barriers, students and families showed great agency through the postsecondary transition as they worked to achieve their goals. Students' and parents' work disrupted discourses that position first generation, low-income, and Appalachian students and families as deficient in the postsecondary transition process. Further, participants' attachment to family and place disrupted the hollowing out narrative that success is found elsewhere and students who stay in rural places are settling for less than the best. However, these commitments were challenged by a lack of infrastructure that would allow young adults to remain locally.;The participants' stories pushed against neoliberal narratives that hide structures within the social, economic, and educational systems that contribute to inequitable educational and life outcomes. This work contributes a critical, strengths based perspective of low income and Appalachian adolescents to the educational literature. Further, the work offers perspectives that may be helpful in constructing educational policy geared towards the postsecondary transition and guidance, as well as information that can contribute to stable and sustainable Appalachian communities.