Toward a thorough Cultural Analysis of their College Preparation Process
Studies of racial and ethnic disparities in K-12 education indicate that Asian American students frequently outperform their counterpart racial groups (Kao and Thompson 2003). Their academic excellence has earned them the label of “model minority.” This label suggests that cultural factors contribute to Asian Americans’ academic success (Hirschman and Wong 1986). Most studies assume a cultural transmission model which actually leads to oversimplified explanations for achievement patterns among Asian Americans (Zhou and Kim 2006).
Utilizing the theoretical lens of “diaspora,” this proposed research shifts from framing immigrant education as a process of assimilation to the host country to a more dynamic, context-specific process of cultural production through which migrant people negotiate a repertoire of identities that ties to their imagined homeland and the US (Lukose 2007). Employing ethnographic methods (interviews, participant observation and informal conversation), this study explores how Chinese- and Taiwanese-American families navigate the US college application system and how first-generation parents and their 1.5- or second-generation adolescents interact and negotiate the college-preparation process. Specifically, this study treats navigating the US college admission as an arena for complex encounters among migrants’ longing and belonging, national assimilation and incorporation, and families’ perceptions of educational opportunities. Reaching such deep cultural understandings of immigrant families’ educational experiences and the dynamics of identity formation will demonstrate the complexities of their academic achievement patterns and trajectories.
To determine the feasibility and utility of such an investigation, a pilot study was conducted in spring 2010 that included interviews with three Taiwanese American families comprised of high school seniors and their parents (their names used here are pseudonyms). For participating parents, their preparing children for college can be compared with mountain climbing. The goal of mountain climbing is to reach the pinnacle, just as the goal of child rearing is to prepare the child for going to college. Every parent has his or her own values about going to college. Climbing a mountain takes enormous teamwork and decision-making in order to reach the summit, as does the educational path of a child in a Taiwanese American family.
One method of teamwork observed among these families involves the parent “pushing” the child up the mountain, or “pushing” the child during childhood to help him come to a decision about college. A vivid example was found in Richard’s family when Richard’s mom explained how she used reverse psychology to make her son believe “going to college was a better choice.” She said:
My son once was considering choosing a vocational track because he worried that college will be hard to get in….This young generation thinks making money is very easy. They ignore some necessary spending. I went over this process with my son. We outlined different levels of education and put annual salary each level may get. Then, I listed all the possible expenses week by week. My son came to realize that it is not only about the amount of money you make, it is also about the expenses you have to pay for…
I told him that I will be fine if you don’t want to go to college. You will help me save a lot of money from that. My son thought about it and discussed it with his friends. One night after he came back from school, he told me, “Mom, even people working at McDonald’s got bachelor degrees. I have to go to college!”
Another method of teamwork involved the parent acting as the trail guide, leading the child up the mountain. Jack’s father’s leading role was demonstrated when he described his expectations for Jack by using his immigration experience.
I hope my son’s future can be better than mine…It’s hard to make him understand the hardship for an immigrant of living in the U.S… I always use myself as an example to tell him that if you don’t make enough money that you will need for your future, you will suffer just like your parents do…
When Jack was asked about his expectations for college and his future, his answer echoed his father’s expectations.
[My college life will focus on] study. I want to go to a good graduate school so I will work hard…I think making a lot of money is important in my future but I am not sure how exactly I will do. I want to explore what my interests could be when I am in the college; then decide what I want to do as my future career. Like maybe I will be an engineer. I am not sure what sub-area I will go in to but I am sure that I want to make a lot of money from it.
The final method supports the metaphor of two people climbing up the mountain side by side. Each one has his or her own roles in the “walking.” Neither person leads or pushes the other, but both figure out how to climb up the mountain together. Amy saw her parents as collaborators in her college-preparation process. She defined their collaborations as “teamwork,” where everyone has his or her own responsibilities: “Dad is responsible for making money, Mom is responsible for taking care of the family, and I am responsible for my school.”
Amy’s mom gained knowledge about college applications by asking for the advice of other Chinese American parents maneuvering through the same obstacles. She also asked Amy to go through everything in Amy’s application process with her—for example, what programs Amy was looking for, what concerns she had about college choices. Generally, Amy’s mother provided broader views to help Amy to see further and to make her own decision. Amy’s mom explained:
Many children like to say to their parents that “you don’t understand [the college application process]”… Then the conversation ends and parents still don’t understand what their children think. We, immigrant parents, do not go to college in the US… We also have English barriers… Of course, we don’t understand. But we will never understand [if you don’t explain to us]. So, we need to learn from our children. I told my daughter that yes, I don’t understand but I want to learn. I make my daughter understand that Mom does not know everything. I need you to teach me.
When Amy was asked about how she led her parents through her application process, she said:
I share with them everything… Like when I did my common (a topic) application, I went through everything with them. We double-checked together and everything. My parents are always with me all the time. But like… through this process, Mom listened to a lot of other parents… Honestly, I don’t believe any of that…If you ask everyone’s opinion, you will forget to do yourself…I tell my parents I don’t listen [to what other parents said].
My relationship with my parents is very supportive. It’s very open. If they say something I don’t agree with, I just say no. I don’t agree with it.
The data demonstrated family teamwork, parent-child negotiation, and joint decision-making. Children’s concepts of going to college reflect their parents’ attitudes: it is not only a stepping stone to graduate school, but an opportunity for identity formation, and a source of autonomy and independence. Parents’ methods of college preparation are driven by their values of going to college, which reflect their educational backgrounds, family socioeconomic status, and immigration experiences. Children’s responses to parents’ involvements reflect the underlying three themes across the families: mutual respect, understanding, and open communication. The results echoed what Pollock (2008) claims—investigating “the real-life experiences of specific parents and children in specific educational contexts” (p 369) may create diverse educational prospects, new occasions for identify negotiation, and disparate trajectories for children—which counter the unilinear assimilation assumption defining the “model minority” ideology.
Yi-Jung Wu is an EdD candidate in Graduate School of Education at Rutgers State University of New Jersey. Her research interests include immigration, globalization and education; parent-child interactions; culture and identity; racial and ethnic inequalities; Asian studies and Asian-American studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.